Personal reflection uncovers 'benevolent' sexism

Editor's Note: Lisa Rothman is a new blogger for GCSRW whose series will reflect upon experiences of sexism in her personal life and in the church. This first entry explores a personal experience with benevolent sexism and the ways even this can unintentionally buy into traditional gender expectations and relationships. As you read and share with others, consider these discussion questions (and share your thoughts in the comments).

  • When have you had different expectations for a person because of their gender, age or race?
  • Can you think of a time when you noticed another person expected less (or more) of you because of your gender? How did you react?
  • What steps or books would you recommend to help someone move past gender expectations of themselves and others? 

Recently my congregation received a new pastor who happens to be a woman. Before the transition, I did not expect her gender to have any major impact on me. I have experienced an equal mix of male and female pastors, so a women pastor was nothing out of the ordinary, but a friend challenged me to notice if our new pastor’s gender changed how others related to her. In making an effort to pay attention to how others responded, I realized I was responding differently myself.

I am very protective of all my pastors. I often try to make sure that my pastor has time for self-care in a role which often expands to be a 24/7 job. After some self-evaluation, I realized that how I acted out this protectiveness changed depending on the gender of the pastor. The best way for me to describe this is in an analogy of students on a playground. For my male pastors, my view was let them run, and climb, and jump as much as they want and when they get the normal bump or bruise that students get on the playground, I would find a Band-Aid and then send them out again. For my female pastors I wanted to wrap them up in bubble wrap and follow them around as a body guard and make sure that nothing that might hurt them would be able to get close. I would protect them from stones and dirt as well as mean kids on the playground. Nothing would reach her without my permission.

But these two types of protection are very different. In trying to protect my female pastor from anything, anyone, and any situation, which might “bump or bruise” her, I was removing her agency and her voice from and control over her own experience. My protection (if I could ever have been successful) would have kept her safe on a shelf, but that is not where ministry happens. Ministry happens out on the playground. Empowerment and growth also do not happen on a shelf. Empowerment and growth as clergy persons is critical to the vitality of our congregations. It appeared to me that I was looking out for her, but in reality I was conveying that her wisdom and her experience somehow did not count and that she could not be trusted to have the self-awareness to identify when she might need help. I was protecting her using the dreaded idea of “for her own good.”

My self-evaluation has challenged me. While I want to be supportive and let my pastors know that there is always someone there if she get a bump or bruise or just needs to talk, I also have been working hard to provide the support she feels she needs and not the support I think she should need. It comes down to listening more and “knowing” less. I need to let her out on the playground and play and learn and improvise. It is only on the playground where she will be able to live out her call, flying into the sky, to touch the hearts of others.

Lisa Rothman has experienced the complexities of a journey of faith and seeks to better understand where her journey fits in the intersections of her life, her community, and the wider world.  Lisa is a member of Holy Covenant United Methodist Church in Chicago, where she serves as a committee chair and community activities instigator.

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