Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A while ago, Michael Spencer posted his impressions of attending (as a Southern Baptist, it was his first time) a mainline pastoral conference, where one-third of the pastors were women. Overall his impression was favorable. He offered a surprisingly "complementarian" argument that male-only environments generate one-ups-manship and competitiveness that the presence of women blocks:

Can I get away with saying that turning the “ministry” into a boys’ club–no matter what you believe about ordination–produces an atmosphere that I don’t really like? I don’t think I’m alone in that, and I assure you I’m not a mama’s boy. I’m just suspecting a lot of the grunting and chest hair in recent discussions of the “ministry” isn’t really necessary. God calls and gifts women. Even if you don’t ordain them, you believe that.

I also noticed that there was far more mature reflection on the experience and identity of the pastor in this group than in the other gatherings of ministers I’ve been a part of. Instead of being a driven kind of atmosphere, there was generosity, encouragement and thoughtful insight. I was really surprised that out of the whole group, over three days of discussion, I never spotted an ass……..well….a jerk. Or whatever term works. Not even one. In a room full of ministers listening to one another for three days, that seemed almost eerie to me. I’m used to gatherings of ministers being overt competitions of alpha males bragging, jousting for attention, bullying one another, playing games. My experience this week was absent all of that, and it had something to do with the fact that the role and person of the minister was taken more seriously than in my other experiences.

There was also an obvious gentleness in the leadership. No one seemed to have the need to vent their spleen and call it “leadership” or preaching. In the times of preaching, egos were set aside. Lots of scripture read, simple liturgies followed by 25-minute homilies. Where was the 1 hour 15 minute exposition telling us all what to do? Where was the parading of “names” to imitate? Not there…and I liked it.

Well, since Michael Spencer has given a "complementarian" perspective, let me too play against type and give an egalitarian perspective. Basically I don't think that the non-competitive, non-egoistic, gentle spirit he saw has anything to do with one-third of the ministers there being women. Rather I would say it has more to do with the different placement of mainline and sectarian pastors vis a vis their flocks.

Let me start off with a question: how many high-powered law firms ban women? None of course. And then: how many high-powered law firms are characterized by "overt competitions of alpha males bragging, jousting for attention, bullying one another, playing games"? All of them, of course. It's the same for business and politics, even poor old academia: women today are full players (at least at the "one-third" level Michael Spencer observed), and yet the "alpha male" behavior goes on.

So what accounts for the similarity between the "alpha male" ethos of a conference of Southern Baptist pastors and that of a high-powered law firm?

I would say, both are outlets for the ambitious of their community. This is, frankly, the weirdest part of being an adult convert to the evangelical community: realizing that all over the land, many driven, competitive, ambitious kids grow thinking the way to respect and power is to become . . . . a Baptist (or other evangelical) pastor. (But understanding this is useful for understanding, for example, the position of lamas in traditional Tibet, or mullas in the Islamic world.)

For those in the mainline world, the idea that religion would be an outlet for ambition, competition, and drive is just bizarre. In the mainline world, those who are driven, ambitious, and competitive go into law, business, or politics. In that world, religion as a career is, almost by definition, the province of the shy, the self-doubters, the bookish, and nerdy. And that is true whether the career cleric is male or female.

In the evangelical church, the pastor is preaching down at his sheep, for whom he is the leader of their social universe. The pastor's role is as a leader, a commander. And the ambitious boys in that world want to be the pastor, because that is leadership. This is the homeland of the link which Veblen noted between competitive sports and religion: in their own communities both are the outlets for ambition.

In the mainline church, the minister is preaching across, or even up, at parishioners for whom he or she is at best only one voice among many. The minister is an adviser, or a therapist, or counselor, offering words of counsel to the leaders and led of society. And the office attracts those who don't want to be leaders, but instead stand apart from leadership. The jocks go on to earn big money and make big decisions; the shy and bookish go into the ministry to warn them every Sunday of the dangers of ambition.

(OK, this is a broad generalization and there are many exception, and so on and so forth.)

Personally, I much prefer the style Michael Spencer found at the mainline convention. (But then again, I'm in academia, the other refuge for those who can't or won't do "alpha male" chest pounding). It might even be more genuinely Christian. The problem is, this ethos depends crucially on being a church whose pastor's word is not taken as a message from God by its flock. And that's a problem for me too.

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