Mutuality & Biblica Equality: A Remedial Case Study

"I think we can do this," she said. Frankly, I thought she was crazy.

I had been supply preaching for a congregation in West Dallas for eight months or so, loving every minute of it. In fact, Linda told me she had never seen me so happy.

That took in a lot of happy ground in my life. My marriage to her, watching my kids Nate and Meg grow to love her intensely, learning to canoe in a straight line with her, discovering the Dodge Poetry Festival with her. That is territory that I wouldn’t just call happy. I’d call it downright ecstatic. It was certainly enough happiness to unfreeze my Baptist stiffness and almost make a Pentecostal out of me.

Stepping into the pulpit every Sunday was one thing. Attempting to co pastor a congregation that was seriously trying to grow while we both tried to hold down jobs as directors of chaplaincy departments in very large hospitals was another kettle of fish altogether.

To add to the challenge, Linda didn't speak Spanish. In fact, she wasn't that experienced at preaching. I could see the heavy end of the load sliding my way as we launched into another of Linda’s "We can do this!" projects.

Not that Linda shirks labor. She is not the kind of person to stand on the sidelines and watch other people work. To this day I still have no idea where she gets all the energy to do what she does. I only know that I seem to possess about one-third the ability to get things done that she easily accomplishes. By mid-morning on most days.

Like the beat up old Ford station wagon my parents once owned, I require lots of time to warm up, every single day. I don’t guarantee a smooth ride once I am warmed up. I take a lot of coaxing along the way and I am prone to stop and rest in the middle of the road for no apparent reason.

Do you see where I figured this was going? I could see this project ending with me as the victim of an unreasonably early demise while Linda was forever deprived of my chipper early morning demeanor.

I was also worried for Linda, because, well that is just the kind of guy I am. Big hearted like that.

She didn’t know that much about Latino cultures. I’ve been living among and working with Latinos for forty years. My Spanish is good enough to make lots of Latinos from many different parts of the world assume that I am a native Spanish speaker.

Linda's Spanish is terrible. Truth be told I was more than a little embarrassed to hear her attempt it in public.  And her voice squeaked too much when she first started preaching.

O.K. to tell the whole story is going to require a book, so I will cut to the chase. It turns out that nothing turned out the way that I thought it would, especially the me-doing-all-the-heavy-lifting part.

It also turns out that this Hispanic Baptist church in West Dallas, Texas- very uncharacteristically for churches with those particular qualifiers in front of their names- could not wait to have a woman as one of its senior pastors. They have loved me, it is true. This church has loved me with a love greater than I could have believed. But as our church administrator and partner in ministry Elsa Cadena often tells me with a smile, "Mark we love you. You know we love you. But we really love Linda."

To add insult to injury, it turns out that Linda understands the culture just fine. She wasn’t wasting her time over there at Parkland or before that in her clinical training days as she learned about navigating in other cultures.

And it turns out that after forty years with a boatload of preaching and other kinds of pastoral and even executive experience behind me, I am learning some things from my wife and partner in local church ministry.

I am going to let others talk about the hermeneutical and theological basis for the idea of mutuality between the genders. Frankly the theoretical part got settled for me a long, long time ago, and a good bit of the practical stuff as well. I’m proud of my advocacy for the work of ordained women in my places of ministry and I like to think that you wouldn’t have a very difficult time finding women colleagues to vouch for my support of them and my desire to partner with them in the workplace.

But the truth of the matter is that I don't think I really understood much about mutuality until I took a dive into the deep end of the pool and began to work with a full partner in ministry who had as much power as me. Or until I worked in a local church setting where everybody is on the board and everyone is a volunteer. Maybe I knew as much as was possible for me to know. Working with Linda at Iglesia Bill Harrod, however, has challenged me in ways that stretched me beyond anything I had known before.

Today I believe that is the reason I was afraid to take on a church and a woman as a ministry partner of a church in my fifties. I was afraid of how I was going to have to change.

Here are some things that I think I am beginning to learn about mutuality from my church and from my co-pastor:

1. It is easier to fool yourself into thinking you are a mutual type when you do someone's performance appraisal at the end of the year. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about my colleagues at work, it just means that politeness and the use of jargon and reading all the right books are not very good substitutes for real partnership. Differences in power make for very effective masks of patriarchy. Mutuality means giving up some tangible privilege. I’m just exploring these possibilities at my day job and in large part because the women at my night at weekend job keep showing me how important it is.

2. A corollary to # 1 is that it is easy to fool yourself into thinking you are mutual when you can politely request that your wife butt out because, after all, it is your job, not hers.

3. It is a lot easier to listen to someone else's perspective when you realize that you can't get anything done without them. Literally can’t get anything done without their mutual consent and participation.

4. I was shocked. Shocked and disillusioned, I say! To discover how insufferably patriarchal the church can be, especially the wing of the church that says it supports your wife in her calling. It has been personally painful to discover that so-called moderate theological institutions which supposedly support women in ministry are so blind to the depth of bias against women that exists in their ranks. To which my co-pastor sometimes responds, “Chill out, Mark. And welcome to my world.”

5. While we're on that subject, I’m learning to consult with Linda before I go riding off to fight another battle on her behalf and on behalf of all the women ministers in the world. It just could be that consulting instead of mindlessly bark-howling my protest and protection is a more collegial thing to do.

6. It is a lot more fun to ask than to assume.

7. Did I say that an unexpected benefit of all this mutuality is that I get to ask more questions now?

8. I know some things. Linda knows some things. The women and men in our church know some things.  Who knew Linda would know so much about women in an Hispanic congregation? Or that our church members would know so much about the need in our community? Who knew?

9. Some of what Linda knows and practices have changed the way I understand and minister to both the women and men in our congregation. I can’t quite explain it, but I see it happening, slowly but surely.Watching Linda minister to both women and men has tangibly enriched my ministry and my connections with both men and women in our congregation.

10. Mutuality is messy. Linda is no shrinking violet. Truth be told, she hasn’t made this mutuality thing a walk in the park. Which, I suppose, is the point of it all.

11. Someone in the blogosphere has already lifted up the beautiful ideal of mutual submission. I like the sound of that, but frankly some days I’m willing to settle for a little hard-earned mutuality through embarrassing trial and error and stubborn persistence. Fortunately I found a ministry partner- actually lots of them- who are willing to hang in there with me while I learn on the job.

As a matter of fact, I’ve learned so much from the mistakes I’ve made while on this journey toward colleagueship that I’m thinking of making a few more. Who knew?

P.S. There is a ton of wonderful stuff being written about the subject of mutuality this week, thanks to Rachel Held Evans’ invitation. You can find a lot of it by looking up Rachel’s blog here. And if you are curious about finding a very good description of the process by which women and men might move toward genuine mutuality, try this source A MALE-FEMALE CONTINUUM: PATHS TOWARD COLLEAGUESHIP.

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