What we don’t talk about

Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson

October 16, 2019

Menopause stinks. Who knew it was possible to suffer so many ailments at once? This hormonal change of life includes drenching hot flashes, night sweats that leave you swaddled in damp sheets, mood swings that make you feel like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and a metabolic slowdown that leaves your midsection looking a bowl of gelatin. And as miserable as the experience has been, my real complaint is that no one talks about this. Why is it that women suffer in silence? I know it’s embarrassing and uncomfortable, but we could help a lot of people by sharing the details.

This reality caused me to consider other things in life that we do not discuss, particularly in the church. Sex is at the top of the list. Years ago, I remember visiting a church where on the back of the bulletin was printed, “Women who become pregnant out of wedlock will be removed from membership.” I read the notice and immediately walked out. The injustice notwithstanding, I questioned how young people were to realize a healthy understanding of sexual relationships if the church was so primeval.

We do not talk about the pastors who are physically harming themselves because of the pressures of ministry. Clergy are some of the most obese people in the United States because they overeat as a stress-relieving mechanism. Some attempt to escape the challenges by abusing alcohol, drugs, and pornography. Others die by suicide, as Pastor Jarrid Wilson did on September 9. Ministry is so stressful, and we need to talk about it. Suffering in silence is problematic, but we must intercede when clergy take matters and their lives into their own hands.

Then, why is it that we as the church refuse to talk about how our worship is stuck in the mid-twentieth century? We sing hymns that we have been singing for decades. We do things the way that we have always done them. If we are lucky and our church is “progressive,” our updated worship experience is reflective of the 1970s, but even that is nearly 50 years old. Yet, we do not talk about it because we are comfortable. We want to come to a church where we know the hymns, the liturgy, and what will happen. We do not like change, and the potential for further decline or death is not a deterrent.

Finally, as a woman in ministry, I must ask why do we refuse to talk about patriarchy in the church? How can it be that only 13 percent of American Baptist clergy are women, a number that has remained flat for 25 years,[i] when in the United States and Canada, over 33 percent of all seminarians are women?[ii] Congregational membership is majority female, and yet the leadership continues to be overwhelmingly male dominated. Why don’t we talk about this?

We struggle to have these conversations because they are difficult. Nevertheless, difficulty cannot be the reason why we refuse to confront the issues. As research professor and author Brené Brown notes in her book, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts, “Daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things.”[iii] And because I value flourishing in others, I cannot remain silent when I see suffering. Does it require courage to talk about the discomfort of menopause? Absolutely. But my hope is that others might read this and be more prepared than I was.

Because I want to see healthy young adults be part of the church, I believe we must courageously and openly talk about sexuality and faith. We remember being young; therefore, we cannot don piety now that we are older. Similarly, we must bring from the shadows the challenges with which so many pastors are struggling. Ministry is hard, which is why, in addition to our faith, support is needed from other clergy, counselors, and directors. Clergy cannot go it alone.

I want to see the church flourish and as such, we all need to have some tough and courageous conversations about what is not working. Although we see aging, decline, and diminishing returns, we are afraid to alienate those who support and give. We are also afraid to admit that we do not know what to do. However, courage requires us to face our fears so that we can collaboratively seek new solutions and save our churches.

I want to see the church flourish and as such, we all need to have some tough and courageous conversations about what is not working. Courage requires us to face our fears so that we can collaboratively seek new solutions and save our churches.

Courage is also required to address the issues of patriarchy in the church, especially if we care about the flourishing of women in ministry. Hypocrisy must be called out and confronted. The historically African American denominations in the United States, for example, “decry racism as sin, yet most affirm patriarchy as biblical.”[iv] How do we address this if we do not talk about it? Women in ministry need advocates, and we are counting on all to speak out.

Too many people have chosen not to talk about various issues because of embarrassment or fear, sitting instead on the sidelines and in silence. But our loved ones, colleagues, and institutions are suffering because we will not speak out. As God tells us in Isaiah 41:10, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God.” Since God is with us, let us find our courage and our voices.

The Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is an independent consultant and author who leads custom, high impact engagements for non-profit and faith-based organizations. She was previously the Director of Lifelong Learning at Yale Divinity School. Her book “Spiritual Practices for Effective Leadership: 7Rs of SANCTUARY for Pastors” is available through Judson Press. Her latest Judson Press book “Meant for Good: Fundamentals in Womanist Leadership,” is scheduled for release in January 2020.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Eileen R. Campbell-Reed, “State of Clergywomen in the U.S.: A Statistical Update, October 2018.” Page 6, Figure 3.

[ii] Association of Theological Schools 2017-2018 Annual Data Tables. Page 38, Figure 2-12B.

[iii] Brené Brown, Daring to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts, (New York, NY: Random House), 184.

[iv] Courtney Lyons, “Breaking Through the Extra-Thick Stained-Glass Ceiling: African American Baptist Women in Ministry,” Review & Expositor 110, no. 1 (Winter 2013), 78.

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