Someone has to stay, someone has to stay to make change or we’ll die. This has been the plea that I have heard expressed to myself and to many other women (and to be fair, men as well) in my first year of seminary. I’m lucky enough to be able to attend a seminary that understands my issues with being a woman who grew up in the churches of Christ, little c or it doesn’t count kind of church of Christ, and in many ways this is one of the reasons I chose this seminary, but it also comes with a dose of desperation to save the denomination.
After a year of hearing this plea, though, I have to finally express my exhaustion with it. It’s important to note the need for change agents to stay, but it’s also important to acknowledge when one’s own health is compromised by staying. Asking me to stay in the churches of Christ is like asking a abused spouse to stay in a marriage because fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. I struggle with identifying and labeling my experience as abusive because it seems severe and I love the people and the church that made me who I am; most days I don’t look back on my experience and feel like I was purposefully subjugated, but purposeful or not, it happened.
It was in a small, cinder-block church classroom, with brightly colored paint that was desperately trying to bring some life to the room, that as a 13-year-old girl, I realized that I could never be enough. It was in this class that I realized that I would have to change who I was to become who God wanted me to be. As a shy child, I was hardly as loud or as opinionated as I am today, but even still, I knew that being the Proverbs 31 woman would be an uphill battle for me and that the gentle quiet spirit did not reside in me in the way it did to the women in the church who I adored. I was devastated.
This devastation lead to self-doubt, which lead to self-esteem issues. Those self-esteem issues were not merely about my appearance or social status as most teenage girls struggle with, but rather they were consumed with the guilt of being a better leader than the boys in my youth group, they were ravaged with what career path to take in college, and on a very personal level, they began to create problems in relationships, subconsciously creating a fear of the rights I would lose if I were to be married. I have switched from career to career; teacher, missionary, teacher again, counselor, etc. Those who don’t know or value my story see that as me being flighty and wasting my 20s, those who do, however, can see how I was trying to make my calling to ministry fit into socially acceptable boxes, dancing around what God has designed me for: ministering to wounded, scarred people.
I was born into a generation and a society that allowed and thought that the education of its young girls should be equal to that of its young boys. While this was the case in my public school, this was far from the case in my conservative church in which women were held to a very specific ideal of Christian womanhood. The two places that were most influential in my young life and personal development, the church and the school, both sent clear, intrinsic messages in their structure and intent. The vast dichotomy between the two, as well as the value and potential that I felt, highlights what has plagued me and many females in my generation: a theological identity crisis.
Growing up in a community and family in which church was vital to everything, this theological identity crisis became so central to who I was, in every aspect of life. The church who I gave my whole life to, consistently, by word or by deed, sent the message that as a woman, I could never be enough. This became my underlying schema and the narrative that ruled my life.
Honestly, sometimes anger creeps in when I think about how my life could be so much further along if I had been instilled with the theological identity God gave me rather than the gender identity the church has boxed me into. It doesn’t plague me all the time, but it’s there and everyday I fight; I fight for the theological identity that God has instilled in me and my church denied me. Everyday, in my religious, personal, and professional life, I fight to undo the wounds caused by growing up in a very conservative church of Christ as a woman.
This is why it’s so hard when people ask me to stay. I have wrestled with God and the church, and for me to be a healthy, life-giving member of the Christian story, I cannot stay. I have met those who have the heart and the support and the hopes to change this denomination into a healthier place for women, but I cannot be one of them. Each day I’m growing in grace towards my past but my gifts fall to better use in another denomination, and the wounds still run too deep, so please don’t ask me to stay.