When I was a little girl, I attended a church that supported a dozen or so missionaries. These missionary families would visit every so often and when they went up front to share, it was a pretty standard gig. The husband stood on the stage and his wife stood four inches to his left and and two inches behind him. He held the microphone. She wore either a denim jumper or floral skirt, because the 80s were the holiest decade. He finished talking and then half-started to hand her the mic while asking, “do you want to say anything?” And she would giggle and wave her hands ‘no’ and the congregation would giggle right back because shy women are so cute.
I’m sure it happened in other ways too, but this is what I remember. From my 16 years in that church, that was the defining memory I had of missionary couples, and in particular, missionary wives.
A few years later, in college, I was majoring in a foreign language and this thing they called “government” because I liked words and leadership and wanted to dabble in both. The summer after my freshman year, I was invited by my then pastor to attend the Global Leadership Summit. I was the only student invited and one of only a few females. I had no idea why I was there, really. Our church wasn’t small, so, why not invite someone important? During one of our breaks, out in the parking lot as we waited for the rest of our carpool, that pastor turned to me and out of the blue asked, “Do you think you have a speaking gift?”
He might have said more to me after that. I might have responded. I think I was pushing gravel around with my flip flop. I don’t remember. My brain was too busy trying not only to answer the question but also to sort through the ramifications. Do I have a speaking gift? Maybe? So what if I do? Will I ever get to use it? I mean, do women ever get handed the mic? Had I ever seen that happen? How do I develop a gift if I can’t practice it?
Good question. You join the Peace Corps, that’s how.
I spent two years talking, learning another language. Practicing cross-cultural communication. Overcoming fears of rejection and looking stupid in front of people. Trying new things. Making mistakes. Reading and writing and thinking. A lot. I taught things. To men! And no heads exploded! It was incredible!
Fast forward a few years. Newly married, back on the field with my strapping husband. Ready to go be amazing. And I had a complete and utter meltdown. We called another pastor friend and told him I had lost my mind and he said, “Mmm, no, I think you’re just having an identity crisis.”
Is that even a real thing? It must be, because I lived it. I came to realize through time and soul searching that in the transition to wifedom, I had lost myself. Quite suddenly, I wasn’t just a person, I was a missionary wife and I had a very narrow picture of what that meant. I had never really seen any missionary wives do anything other than look cute. The flashbacks from my childhood told me that the husband did all of the important work and she, well, she giggled and said she didn’t want the mic – and everything that implied.
I didn’t even own a jean jumper! What on earth was I doing with myself? The thought of tending the hearth and darning the socks and nourishing my dear husband to strengthen him for daring expeditions into the bush made me feel more purposeless than I’d ever felt.
Thankfully my husband is more of a feminist than I am and he had fallen in love with the Peace Corps/courageous/“of course I can do anything,” version of me, so in his loving leadership, he basically shoved me out the door.
You are good at organizational management. The school should be yours. No one relates to women like you do. All maternal/child stuff should be yours too. You write better than I do. I feel like you should do all of the newsletters.
He wasn’t asking me if I had some gifts, he was telling me frankly that I did, and that I needed to use them. I said to him what I hadn’t said years earlier at the Leadership Summit: “Do I really get to do that?” And Jeremy’s loving and blunt answer back was simply – “Well, why not?” (His theology is more robust than that, but accountants are also really good at cutting to the chase.)
I stammered to answer his rhetorical question. Well… well… because I thought I was just supposed to wear ill-fitting clothing and cook and stand behind you?
God bless my patient husband.
We figured it out together. He pushed me to write more and speak more and lead more and I began believing that that was ok. Even for a “missionary wife.” For Jeremy, it was never about “man’s work” or “woman’s work,” nor was it some gender-based affirmative action. It was about what needed to get done and who was best gifted for the job. Period.
In God’s goodness to me, we started connecting with churches in our region of Zambia who stretched me all the more. We started getting invited to do a lot of speaking and when we confirmed what exactly they wanted, the response was always, “Both of you. We want both of you. We need to hear from Bethany too. She has something to say to us.”
She has something to say to us.
She has something to say to us.
She has something to say to us.
My soundtrack started changing and each time I stood up to speak, a new picture filled my head. Slowly; repetition will always do its work. Bless you Zambia for giving to me what my childhood memories did not.
It’s remarkable how the pictures we see – or don’t see – in our youth shape what we think we’re capable of when we are older. In some circles they call it mirroring – the idea that we need to see our future selves in the adults around us. The key principle is this: we don’t become what we don’t see. I didn’t grow up seeing Christian women lead and teach outside of children’s and women’s ministry. My struggle to accept myself in co-ed speaking/teaching/leading roles was a struggle precisely because I had no picture of that in my mind.
Stepping into water known to have the sharks of disapproval is basically terrifying. I went back to the states this spring for the sole purpose of public speaking; that thing I had never seen a missionary wife do. Every state-trip before this, Jeremy and I had always done our presenting together, and somehow his presence always seemed to make mine more acceptable. Flying solo was a whole other deal. I started out with my knees knocking.
The number of times I was asked, “So why isn’t Jeremy the one doing this?” – approximately 563 million.
The number of times Jeremy was asked, “So why aren’t you the one going?” – approximately 974 billion.
At first I made excuses – a lot of them. Oh, well, he had conferences to run and I had a wedding to attend and this and that and the other (all of which were true,) … But after the 800th time, I borrowed Jeremy’s confidence and script and just said, “Well, why not?”
Why did I come instead of my husband? “Why shouldn’t it have been me?”
The struggle is real. While my experience is not at all universal, I know it’s also not unique. In a hundred subtle ways it gets communicated that missionary wives are background decoration. From the missions articles women aren’t featured in and the mission conferences women aren’t speaking at. From the classes women aren’t leading and the policy they aren’t making. From the gatekeepers who say that wouldn’t be appropriate anyway.
The lack of affirmation translates as condemnation and creates a setting in which every feminine move feels controversial. I have sisters who have accidentally breached boundaries and have been questioned why they feel the need to do this or say that and in those places. And if they answered, “Well, why not?” they were branded “contentious.”
It took me eight weeks of presenting to really find my voice – to feel like I was joyfully sharing my gift and not timidly auditioning on behalf of women everywhere. The churches along the way that were clearly used to working with women were inspirational. She has something to say to us! The Zambian soundtrack had followed me across the ocean and I stood up a little straighter because of it – only to be taken down a notch when later someone would say, “Wait, they let you speak?!?!”
When a woman feels called to be a wife and mother and has a heart’s desire to serve quietly in the church nursery, this is easy – for everyone. But when a woman feels called to lead or teach or preach, and is actually gifted to do so, it is real work for her to figure out the right spaces to do that. And the question plagues me, and so many others – should it really be hard at all?
Indispensible people with essential gifts are being tragically neglected as whole swaths of the American church can’t seem to figure out what to do with these women. Too often, the action plan is to have them serve children and other women – basically keep them busy – but heaven forbid they might actually have influence!
And all the little girls are taking notice.
|they are watching. and who they see matters.|
Those girls will grow up, you know, and some will end up following husbands to the far reaches of the earth. This is my story, and my experience is this: global missions is hindered when 50% of the population doesn’t even know what they are good at.
We met a fellow missionary couple some time back and in the course of getting to know them and sharing about our respective ministries, Jeremy and I and the other man all talked about our areas of expertise after which the other woman just stared at us blankly and then finally said, “I don’t know what my expertise is. I guess cooking.” And then she did that shy giggle thing.
Maybe she’s following her heart’s desire. Maybe she’s meeting others’ expectations. Or maybe she just never had an picture of anything else. Now that I’ve been spoiled, all I can think is, Where are all the Jeremys???
Where are the brothers serving as cheerleaders for their sisters saying:
You have a gift of compassion – you should be running this outreach.
You are an amazing teacher – you should lead a co-ed class (because the men need to hear this too.)
You lead brilliantly – take this seat at the table and share your views with us.
Where are all of the men saying on repeat, ‘you have something to say to us’?
We have a job to do, and there is no logic in marginalizing half of our best talent.
I know that there are young girls who are growing up with amazing examples. Those who see women up front every Sunday. Who hear them preach and watch them lead. Who see ladies on boards and serving in a variety of places outside of the nursery and I am so excited for their future. These girls are actively developing their gifts while they are still young because they can see themselves using those gifts when they’re grown. And when they go out? They are going to hit the ground running and will have no need for identity crisis because they’ve known all along what things would look like. And they will gift us with Christ in them, without explanation or hesitation.
And the world will be blessed.