For my own growth, I want to explore some of what it has been like for me to grow up as a female in a Church of Christ. This is a relevant topic today and uniquely personal because I was married to a Church of Christ minister for many years. We are still married, praise God, but just the other part does not currently apply. Remember, this is my unique experience and not necessarily yours.
I grew up in a traditional Church of Christ family. My father was the spiritual leader of the family, held regular Bible studies, and had active leadership roles in church worship. My mother was everything beautiful, kind, feminine, and funny. Our family and church life made sense. Good was good, bad was bad, and we were on the right road to heaven. Granted, I do remember being concerned that I would not be able to go to heaven if I wasn’t baptized and children were too young to make such a decision. But, I figured I would get in because my daddy was a good Christian man.
Things changed dramatically when my father died after a devastating battle with cancer. My mother was left with four children, no college degree, and “housewife” her most recent career experience. My mother remarried within two years to a non-Church of Christ man, but he was “converted” before they married. My new step-dad was very different than my dad and eventually stopped going to church because he was bothered by the hypocrisy he witnessed.
We all sort of scattered in different directions over the years trying to find meaning and comfort. I tried desperately to hold on to the things my dad taught me because I hated losing him and everything that had been familiar to me.
Needless to say, church has always been important to me and I have fought to belong in church despite feeling that for some reason it just wasn’t right anymore. I can tell you exactly how it felt when I was a teenager by describing an experience. I had my step-dad drop me off at the church we had attended when my father was alive. I was fifteen years old and shy but I longed for peace and fulfillment. I sat by myself in a church of about 200 and left by myself. A palpable sense of loss and grief poured over me. What had changed? Why wasn’t church the friendly, welcoming, safe place I remembered? I did not blame the congregation for the misfit but felt like something was wrong with me. I felt I needed to try harder and make more of an effort. I felt like it was my mom and step-dad’s fault for not taking me and participating. It was my sibling’s fault for making bad choices. It was God’s fault for taking my dad.
College was a comfort for me. I attended a Church of Christ college and it felt like I was at church camp everyday but better because people were a little less judgy and more open to questioning. I tried to be a “good girl” and be a regular church attender but struggled with the same feelings of isolation and grief. As I became more educated I learned that not only did I feel uncomfortable, but that I had the potential to make others feel uncomfortable when I allowed myself to be seen and heard. I laugh because I cannot pretend. I am not naturally blessed with certain social graces and was having trouble understanding where I fit in God’s family. I experienced belonging in academia and on the mission field. In Africa and Honduras, Christian relationships prospered and people seemed to appreciate me in all my glory.
I fell in love with Drew after we met on a mission trip in Honduras. I loved his passion for God, his commitment to church, our discussions on spiritual topics, and his accepting spirit. He was on track to be a youth minister and I was following in my dad’s footsteps trying to pursue medicine. We married our senior year and shortly moved to South Korea. We chose Korea after Drew was rejected for a youth ministry position and was working in construction. Stepping outside the comfort of our only known world narrative was terrifying and amazing.
So, yes, Drew wanted to be a minister. I had no idea what that would look like. I was terrified. Again, I thought there was something wrong with me and I needed to try harder.
After Korea, Drew accepted his first youth minister position back in the states. Did I mention I was terrified? I had to tell myself, “They are Christians; they are nice; you are okay.” We were there five years and greatly loved by the congregation. That was one of my first real church families as an adult. They loved us well and I experienced growth and healing. I must mention that during this time I still struggled with my identity in the church and bought a book entitled, Becoming a Woman Who Pleases God: A Guide to Developing Your Biblical Potential. I hate that book now. I entertained its nonsense a little too long then found my calling in nursing school and my career. Drew was interested in pursuing a career as a professor and I was all for that.
I remember the first time I attended a church where women were allowed to lead communion and stand before the congregation. I hated it. I couldn’t stop focusing on their appearance and how their voices sounded. I meanly felt like they were attention-seeking. I didn’t understand why any woman would want a leadership role in the church. But that image of women standing before a Church of Christ congregation stuck with me. I analyzed my initial reaction and found myself shallow and judgmental. I was beginning to see the outline of a narrative I had not realized existed. Pretty women were good. Nice women were good. Smart women were good when they stayed in the areas of education and the arts.
Becoming aware of this narrative prompted me to put the Church of Christ in a box. Now, I have already revealed my initial tendency towards judgmental views. I had reverted to my childhood organization of bad, good, and no in-between. My experiences as a minister’s wife further challenged my spirituality and prompted unwanted reflection. I did not want to think deeply about spiritual matters. For some reason it felt bad and it hurt. I know part of this bad feeling was guilt over not agreeing with the common beliefs in my setting. I was trapped because I was beginning to understand my beliefs but was not free or ready to show any sign of them because I didn’t want to screw things up for my husband. I was also not ready to share because the thoughts felt tainted by bitterness and sarcasm.
Drew and I had many discussions. We felt that he was doing beautiful things and there was hope for change. Avoidance and school were my safety bubbles. Again I found freedom in academia and freedom among the outcasts. People who were homeless, awkward, drug addicts, and mentally ill were my comfort. I did not know where to begin in freeing myself in the church setting.
As a girl growing up in a Church of Christ I was very confused. I remember studying scripture and genuinely wondering “Are we sure women can go to heaven?” I was asking my husband for reassurance in this…ha. In my personal experience, continuing with the tradition of limiting women in church birthed role confusion, identity confusion, and even doubt of salvation. I think this tension is highlighted in modern day culture where women have the freedom to pursue education and leadership roles outside the church. I know my daughter at three told us she wanted to be a minister and we were like, “Oh dear! What will we do?”
Upon reflection, my personal experience has been shaped by mixed messages and stunted growth. I personally felt a strong spoken and unspoken herding towards children’s ministry (younger than middle school of course). When I spoke in these traditional settings I found that I made people uncomfortable if I did not play along in the role they assigned me.
Right now, I am in a place where I feel free. I feel open to the beauty of participating in church. Strangely enough, I feel excitement. Does this mean I think everyone should feel like me? Does this take away from all of the good experiences I had growing up in the Church of Christ? No. It is a valid and important part of my story, just not the whole story.