For more than a year, news cycle after news cycle has been filled with the stories of women who have experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault at the hands of powerful men.
Harvey Weinstein. Bill Cosby. Brett Kavanaugh. If you have even so much as glanced at a national newspaper over the past several months, simply restating the names is enough to tell a story without any additional context. The #MeToo movement has given women a voice and inspired many to fight back.
This week, similar motivations have sparked a response from a group of Lutheran pastors in North Carolina. Led by religious women, with the support of religious men, the group may not be speaking out about experiences of sexual assault, but are certainly challenging the notion that a woman is any less equipped to lead.
During a retreat in December 2017, the female pastors of the North Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America were discussing the state of women leaders in the church. The synod, or group of affiliate churches under the guidance of the same bishop, is based in Salisbury, North Carolina, but includes congregations across the state.
The 50th anniversary of the ordination of women is approaching and that paired with national headlines focused on the struggles women face in society sparked the conversation within the group.
The female pastors present decided that there needed to be more conversations among and between women in leadership roles in the church. So, with the help of Pastor Danielle DeNise, director of Evangelical Mission in the North Carolina Synod, they organized three gatherings over the course of 2018, designed to explore the challenges that female pastors in the ELCA face on a day-to-day basis. During those meetings, the women shared the kinds of inappropriate comments parishioners had made to them.
“We had about 60 women at each of these gatherings,” DeNise said in an interview. “At the first one, in May, someone said something along the lines of ‘We need to find a way to tell our story that’s not defensive or argumentative.’”
And that was where it all started.
A video, titled “Seriously?”, was the result of the conversations at these meetings. In the video, male pastors read aloud from cue cards real comments parishioners have made to female pastors.
“‘That outfit looks really nice. We must be paying you too much’,” one pastor reads and then comments, “Why would anyone say that?”
“We called you because women pastors are cheaper,” another reads.
“What are you going to do Sunday morning if your child gets sick?” a male pastor reads into the camera. He’s followed by another who, close to tears, reponds, “Take care of the child.”
Deacon Mindy Makant, who is also an assistant professor of religious studies at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina, is working on a book to mark the 50th anniversary of the Lutheran Church’s decision to allow women to be ordained, and as part of that work has interviewed around 100 female church leaders, both pastors and bishops. She collected many of the comments shared in the video.
“It was intended to be a discussion-starter among our male colleagues,” Makant said. “We really didn’t do it thinking that our male colleagues would respond.”
But, they did.
Bishop Tim Smith was supportive of the idea of creating the video in the first place, and it was filmed in the Bishop’s offices in Salisbury. An employee there, a female pastor, stood in the room with the men as they read the statements, which they were asked to address to her. That is, perhaps, one of the reasons for the strong reactions you can see on camera.
“These weren’t just stupid things people say; they were stupid things that people say to other people,” Makant said. It helped to humanize the situation, which made the video more powerful.
The video was premiered at the ELCA North Carolina Synod’s Fall Convocation last week, to an audience that included about 200 male pastors.
“We played it at the meeting and there were lots of tears and [was] lots of silence,” said DeNise.
“I was in a room full of really good men who watched it for the first time, and they were overcome,” Makant said. “There were men in tears, there was profanity. There was a genuine consternation.”
Pastor Russell Makant, Mindy Makant’s husband, watched the video for the first time at the Fall Convocation, along with his colleagues. Afterward, he spoke with Pastor Jonathan Schnibben, who also watched the video, for a few moments. The two decided to write an open letter to the Bishop.
In the letter, they declare that they “do not desire to interview for the position of pastor with any congregation who refuses to consider extending a call to a rostered leader who is female.” The day after the video premiered, Pastors Russell Makant and Schnibben read their letter at the ELCA’s fall gathering and other male pastors asked to sign it.
“Their decision to write the letter was meaningful to many of the women involved because it was calling people to action,” DeNise said, which came as a surprise to her and her female colleagues.
The video and the letter have garnered far more attention than anyone expected. DeNise said they had hoped it would be shared within the circles of the North Carolina synod, but as of publication, the YouTube video had been viewed more than 66,000 times, and the Facebook post had been shared more than 800 times.
Men who want to be allies, women who would like to work in a synod where this issue of equity is addressed openly and supportively, and people with their own stories to tell have been contacting the Bishop’s office after seeing the video and reading the letter. The fact that female leaders in the Lutheran Church face the same problems as women in other industries shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, and yet the reaction shows it’s had a serious impact.
“It strikes me as very interesting that…it takes the male voices to get heard instead of people hearing the women,” Pastor Russell Makant said. “I don’t know, but I wonder how it would all be received if they had done that video [and] the ladies were saying the things instead of the men.”
When the synod leaders saw how many times the video was being shared, they took action once again and immediately began developing discussion materials to go along with the video. The discussion guide includes the story of how the video came to be, along with questions that church groups or working groups may find helpful, like “How do contemporary attitudes continue to silence women or render the invisible?” or “How can you expand the imagination of your congregation with regard to pastoral leadership?”
In addition to the discussion guide, the women’s ministry of the North Carolina synod created a narrative based on the three gatherings, which includes not only the statements that were shared in the video, but also ways these female pastors believe the church could help them.
It calls for intentional mentoring for new female pastors to strengthen their leadership skills, addressing the underpayment of female leaders and training for congregants on how to be advocates for women.