• Caroline Penfield

God, our Mother

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

My mom is really cool.

An alumna of Little Rock Central High School and a very small liberal arts college in Louisiana, she raised two girls while being extremely involved in her community. She is smart and empathetic. She loves in a radical way, one I can only hope to imitate, she puts others before her with grace, and she is a badass female pastor. She’s also just southern enough that if she’s reading this, she’s probably not happy with my use of the word “bada**.”

My sister, my mom, and me (Easter 2018)

But, most of the female clergy I have been lucky enough to know are, in fact, total bada**es. (I can literally hear my mom scolding me). They fight for others because to be a woman in ministry, others have had to fight for you. It’s not a secret that for most of the history of the Christian church, women could not formally be in ministry. The only way a woman could publicly devote her life to Jesus Christ was to be a nun. In the mid-to-late 1800s women began to be more involved in mainline denominations, but their ordinations and work were still largely contested by their churches. It was not until 1956, just 63 years ago, that the United Methodist Church, in which my mom is ordained, began to ordain women.

Of course, the theology that has been used to ban women from formal ministry is both encouraged by and encourages the patriarchal systems that have dominated cultures around the world, secular and religious, for millennium. But, the argument that women were unfit, or not called by God to serve in that way never made sense to me. This is partly because my mom was my pastor and I have been hearing about Jesus through a female voice as long as I’ve understood language, but it’s also because the strong women in the Bible were highlighted for me. The Old and New Testaments are filled with stories of women working for justice and caring for God’s children. Esther used her position of privilege to speak truth about the injustices towards her Jewish community. Ruth, facing incredible loss, left everything she had known because she felt called to follow her mother in law.

When I was about eight years old, I played Mary, the mother of Jesus, in my Church’s Christmas pageant. I was too small for the regular costume. During the dress rehearsal we found that the beautiful, long, silk, colorful dress with elaborate gold detailing drowned me. Instead, I was put in a burlap shift dress and given a blue scarf to wrap around my head. I was so upset. I had literally been waiting years to wear this costume. Then, it was pointed out to me that my costume was much more realistic. God chose a young girl, with no money, power, or silk dresses to bring His son into the world. Jesus was always close to women. He spent time with them, taught them, and listened to them. It was women who first found the empty tomb from which Jesus had been resurrected. It was the women who told the news, the first preachers.

Me as Mary with my sister, Eliza

Recently, an influential evangelical pastor was asked what he thought of Beth Moore, a female evangelical author and teacher. He responded that he thought she was narcissistic and should “go home.” In the same response, he also criticized the #MeToo movement, saying it should not have a place in the church. While I do not identify as evangelical, and do not know much about the ministries of either of the individuals involved, I do know that female leadership and ministry has been so important to me in my spiritual journey.

In a tradition where God is almost exclusively referenced with male pronouns, the human form of God was male, and religious spaces have been dominated by male voices for most of their history, a female presence reminds me that God is also motherly. I would have been severely underserved if the women who felt called to ministry in my life had “gone home.”

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