Behind The Curtain

It’s no secret that I love Beth Moore. If you are a woman in a church of almost any kind, chances are you’ve done at least one of her Bible studies in your time. And if you’re a woman who works in the faith-based world of communications of any kind, you most definitely have Beth to thank for blazing your trail.

Last year I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be one of just a couple hundred women who attended a conference Beth put on designed specifically to pass on everything she’s learned in her years of ministry to the female writers, speakers, and teachers coming behind her. And that’s what I love about Beth. Not only is her career about helping people find freedom in Christ, it’s also about laying a foundation for the women coming behind her. 

In short, Beth’s my girl, ya’ll. 

Last Thursday I was drinking my morning coffee when I saw Beth posted this blog. And there at my desk in my room, I cried into my coffee as I read it.

Because as a woman who has spent the majority of her adult life working in some realm of ministry, it was as if Beth had pulled the curtain back on my experience. She did it with courage and clarity to paint an accurate picture of what it’s like to be a woman at work in that world. 

Her blog moved me so much that I did what I do with most things that I love: I read it aloud that night to my friend Steph. Poor Steph has listened to me read almost entire books to her because I’m so excited about them, and she graciously pretends to be as interested as I am in whatever it is I’m reading. 

When I finished reading Beth’s blog to her, I said, “This sort of makes me want to write about some of my own experiences like this on my blog. Not to bash anybody, but because I don’t think people know what it’s really like to be a woman in this world. But I feel like maybe I shouldn’t. I don’t know.”

Steph didn’t miss a beat. “I totally think you should. Maybe it would be helpful. You never know. Plus, Beth did it. Why wouldn’t you?”

So here we are. 

I worked for a specific ministry for about four years in my twenties. It was my first real job as a writer so I was really excited for the experience. My boss at the time was an amazing woman who I credit to this day for shaping me into a pretty decent writer (most of the time at least). She was simply amazing. And every single person on her team—man and woman—was amazing, too. Females were definitely a minority there, but the ones I got to know were great people. And the men who worked closesly with me on my team were great people, too. They never once in my four years made me feel anything other than encouraged, supported, and poured into as a writer. They gave me great feedback, opportunities, and friendship.

But they weren’t in charge. There was only so far their ship could sail in creating an overall tone for the workplace. My experience with the leadership was a different experience. That ship sailed on much choppier waters.

I never experienced the kind of abuse and such that so many other women are speaking about now. To my knowledge, nothing like that ever happened where I worked. But it was a culture that perpetuated misogyny to the highest level of leadership—a culture similar to so many other ministries and churches around the country. And in a culture where such underscored and accepted misogyny exists, it’s impossible to thrive if you’re a woman. 

I was single when I started that job and single when I left. It might actually kill some of them to know I’m still single now because singleness so “late in life” is almost unheard of in that world. (News flash: 34 is not “late in life.”) Your aspiration as a woman was to be a Godly wife, and if you aren’t focused solely on that, something is off. 

“Why are you still single? Not learned to cook yet?” 

“26 and not married? We’ve gotta figure out what’s scaring the guys off!” 

“You’ve got some catching up to do!”

From the outside in, phrases like that don’t seem like a big deal, but the implication is heavy: Something must be wrong with you as a woman. #ouch.

When my first boss left to take a new job in a new city, my new boss was also awesome. He worked hard to get me moved officially out of a cubicle and into an office as my position changed. I’ll never forget sitting in that office one day and hearing someone come by looking for me. When I wasn’t there, she asked the person nearby, “Does Sara not work here anymore?” When she was told I moved into an office, she responded, “Wow! Most women don’t get offices around here.”

Once after a particular frustrating day, I was in my office really upset. A male coworker came in and as I vented my frustration, he stopped and told me that I just needed to pray—right then and out loud with him in the office. I declined, telling him I wasn’t really comfortable to do that in the moment, but that I would take it up in prayer privately. His response? To tell me I had a disobedient spirit and needed to learn to submit. 

The list goes on and on. But the worst was a day that a company wide email was circulated from a VP in the organization. He sent it to the entire company by mistake, asking that I be removed from writing any stories about his area of ministry and instead he be assigned one of my male coworkers. His reasoning? “I’m just more comfortable with him doing it.”

It was humiliating. Literally every person in our office read that email. I had a meeting not twenty minutes after it was sent, and there in the meeting I sat silently while the male leadership around the table had a good laugh at my expense. It was straight up awful. And what happened? Well, no apologies were ever made, no acknowledgement of my embarrassment. And just like that, I was taken off his assignment just as he requested. I lost the opportunity (and a little bit of my dignity, too). 

By the time I left for a new job, I was questioning my abilities as a writer and a woman. It took a long time to remind myself that I was good at being both. I spent many hours telling my counselor about this job, and when I finally told her the name of the organization, she said, “Oh yes, you’re not the only woman I’ve seen from that ministry.”

Listen, I’m no shrinking violet, ya’ll. I’ve got a pretty strong personality and have never really been afraid to stand up for what I think is right. But that season of life did a number on me! I was single, 26 years old, and in my first job as a writer. I didn’t have anything to fall back on so I couldn’t just leave. I stayed until I just couldn’t take it anymore. And I left that job to move into a totally different field, afraid I’d never get any more opportunities to be a writer. 

Fortunately, we know how this story ends for me. But that same fear I felt both in that job and leaving it is why so many women don’t speak up. Do you think Beth Moore would be where she is today if she’d said something about the misogyny in her world thirty years ago? I’m gonna doubt it.

My point isn’t to bash this ministry, or make men feel bad, or to generalize it to the fact that all men in ministry are guilty of this. I would never make such blanket statements because they aren’t true. In fact, I can tell you the names of tons of great men who have paved a way, supported, and encouraged me in ministry and my career. Men like Stuart, Mack, Ben, Mike, Tobin, Joe, Adam, Reggie, Elliott, and more. Men like my dad, a pastor himself.

The point is that there is a real and strong undercurrent of misogyny in this Christian culture. And it’s dangerous. It slowly but surely plants seeds of privilege and superiority in young men. And as they grow up, so do those seeds. All those little comments, jokes, off-handed remarks, and beliefs that reek of misogyny—those things build up over time. And eventually, they become a worldview. A worldview that places women as less than. A worldview that makes it hard, and even scary at times, to be a woman in a culture like this.  A worldview that doesn’t let women thrive in any way.

Now I’m no theologian, but I do know this: That’s most definitely not the way Jesus treated women during His time on Earth. His is the example I’m trying to follow and fellas, I think you could take a tip from Him, too. 

If you wonder why more people in this country don’t want to come to church, well… this might be it. I often hesitate to talk about my experience in ministry as a woman outside of circles of faith because I don’t want my friends who don’t know otherwise to believe that this is what happens in the church world. I don’t want them to be put off by church or Christianity in general because of things like this. Because even though it’s pretty crappy, it’s most certainly the exception and not the rule. 

I’m so glad to go to a church that makes me feel seen, heard, and valued just the way I am. I’m so lucky to work with organizations where I am given the amazing opportunity to speak into, lead, write, and develop ideas. I sit in meetings all the time with men who champion and value me. The guys aren’t the enemy, ya’ll.

But there is an enemy.

He’s about lies and deceit and power. And I believe he’s real. I believe he’s the one whispering those lies into the ears of men in ministry (and elsewhere) that lead them to believe that women are something to be threatened by or overpowered or quieted in a corner. Not to get too spiritual (though it may be too late for that), but if we really want to see a change in this part of Christian culture, we have to quiet the voice of the enemy and replace it with the voice of truth. 

Because I also believe that he doesn’t get the last word. That my prayer for the girls and boys coming behind me in the world of ministry is—that the words and whispers of our enemy won’t ring louder than the truth. Because truth—real, solid truth—is what’s going to change a worldview for the better of allpeople. 

That and following Beth Moore on Twitter immediately, of course!

Sara Shelton