(The title of this post is a play on the title of a book called When Helping Hurts, by Corbett and Fikkert. This excellent book describes the ways that common practices in the world of Christian missions can cause more harm than good. This post is not about that book…I just like a good turn of the phrase.)
I am sitting in a large circle of seminarians (graduate theological students), their professors, and various people connected to their seminary. As is the case in many seminaries across the country, the majority of students and professors are male, with one female faculty member and a small number of other women, some students and some spouses.
The speaker, an Orthodox priest, has just concluded his talk on what sustains his faith and the floor has been opened for questions. Excellent questions, all of them, but my mind is wandering. I think about how I would answer the same questions. I think about what I might have said had I been asked to speak. I think about a paper I wrote when I was in seminary. I think about dinner.
And then I realize something. Except for three professors, the only people who are asking questions are women.
My wife was the speaker before the Orthodox priest. She was asked to give a short devotional talk between the two main speakers for the day, and she rocked it. Her talk was about the sustaining and redemptive power of vulnerability, and she posted her notes for that talk on Neo-Restorationists. The day after the post went live, she received an e-mail from a minister who said that this blog post had sparked an amazing conversation with one of his congregants, conversation about the nature of church and salvation, and had been a catalyst in the deepening relationship between the minister and this congregant.
She received high praise for the talk at the retreat. But let me restate that last point just to make sure I’m being clear. It wasn’t my wife’s talk that sparked transformation for this minister and congregant. It was her notes.
How many preachers do you know who can say that their sermon notes were that transformative for someone?
I am not telling you all of this to brag about my wife. Okay, I’m bragging. But mostly I am telling you this because I want you to know that my wife is brilliant, well-spoken, well-trained…and completely convinced that she is not worthy to speak to a bunch of seminarians and their professors about God.
I might get nervous when I speak in front of that same crowd, but I don’t have to be convinced that I’m worthy of it. That is because fifteen years ago, I was asked to lead singing in church. I was asked to pray in front of my church. I was even asked to preach in my church. I had plenty of role models to choose from, because everyone that I saw doing those things was the same gender as me.
Fifteen years ago, my wife was asked to do none of those things. When she searched for role models who shared her gender, she saw women who were in the church kitchen doing the work of hospitality rather than leading singing. She saw women praying silently rather than publicly. She saw women asking questions instead of preaching.
I look around the circle, trying to remember where all the questions have come from. I have only mildly been paying attention, so I am finding it difficult to work through my fuzzy recollection. One question came from a female student I don’t know. Then a professor. Then the wife of a second-year student. Another professor. Two more female students and a female administrative worker. The female professor.
I was right. At least seven women in the room have asked questions, and only three men. Men, professors, who have learned through degree upon degree upon degree how to ask questions.
Not a single male student has thought of a question they would like to ask this Orthodox priest.
Though the topic of the day is that which sustains us, I start to think about that which forms us…and those are not always the same thing. You see, we men in the room have been formed by being asked to lead singing. To pray publically. To preach. We’ve been formed by watching these things done by men that we look up to, and having these same men ask us to do these things. We’ve been formed by being asked to be public, outspoken leaders.
The women in the room – though they have many additional skills, talents, and gifts – have been asked to cook. To pray silently. To ask questions. To serve. These are the only things that many of these women have been asked to do. As I look around the room, I realize that these women have learned to do these things well.
We are all formed by the things that we do. Sometimes we do the only things that we are allowed to do. And those things form us as well.
Do the rest of these men sit here silently because, like me, they are too busy thinking about how they would answer the same questions? Because they are thinking about what they would have said had they been asked to speak? Because they are thinking about that one paper?
Do we sit here silently because we have only learned how to answer questions rather than to ask questions of others?
And all the while, these women…these women…are asking beautiful questions of this Orthodox priest. Not because it is the only thing that they are allowed to do in this setting, but because they know how.