by Amy Jacober
I was blindsided the first time I was told that a woman could NOT be in ministry. Perhaps even more surprising, I was in seminary the first time I heard this concept. How could I have made it all the way through church life, have been a youth leader, graduated college, and gotten into seminary before I learned not everyone was OK with me and for no other reason than I was born female?
I still have this and variations on this theme said to me from time to time. I hear almost weekly from current and former students and colleagues of this phrase being echoed in a variety of settings throughout the country.
I spent a great deal of time and energy trying to play nice with those who held this view. I would come alongside gently, I would defer, I would listen more than I spoke and pray for the Lord to change their hearts. I knew it was a matter of my own dignity and self worth. Even more, it was a matter of creating a smoother path for women who came after me so they didn’t have to live through the indignities of being questioned at every turn. I try to speak truth and encouragement, and turn to scripture at every opportunity to allow young women to serve in the kingdom without having to waste time sifting through the rocks and arrows of insults thrown their way.
And then my game changer happened. While still pregnant, I found out my first child was female. It happened that my husband and I had just moved to a new community. We were looking for a church. We talked about all that we wanted theologically, musically, and community-wise. It turned out in our town, there were precisely six churches open to women in ministry. Where I was willing to invest in a place that might not be open to women in all positions of leadership, my husband was not. His take involved our unborn daughter and a series of “what ifs.” What if after years of spiritual formation she loves the Lord, becomes a student leader and eventually is excited to stand before her people, her church, and announce her call into ministry only to have them say NO. To have them tell her after all the time and relationships, the fruit they have seen in her life and spiritual growth that through the very design of God she was created “unworthy” to serve the God she so loved. And so the decision was made. We would only attend churches that affirm women in every role.
We are currently in such a church. Women are on staff, volunteer, and serve in every capacity. I have even filled the pulpit a time or two. It is in this church that I heard (not read) for the first time Numbers 27. My pastor preached on this just yesterday. It’s too long to write here but trust me, you’ll want to go look it up for yourselves.
The gist of the passage is this: Moses is with the Israelites in the wilderness. There has been struggle and a clear dissenting group voicing that it may actually have been better back in Egypt. There was a census to be taken. Given the custom of the time, it was the men, aged 20 and older who were to be counted. It was in this way that an inheritance was to be established for every family in every tribe of the Israelites. Upon hearing this the daughters of Zelophehad had some concerns. They were five in all with no brother. Consequently, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah approached Moses and Eleazar the priest saying, “’Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.’ So Moses brought their case before the Lord and the Lord said to him, ‘What Zolephehad’s daughters are saying is right.’” (Numbers 27:4-7)
Here’s why this matters. These were young women who by their own society’s standards had no authority. Even still, they were bold enough to ask for what they believed in their bones to be right. They knew there was risk! They had already mentioned those who had died in the process of just being in the wilderness but death paled in comparison to living in a way that was not just. They approached the leadership with confidence, not antagonism. Moses and Eleazar became advocates and liasons. Men are not the enemy.
For most of us today, the penalty is not physical death but a slow deterioration of our souls when we do not stand up for ourselves. These daughters were not passive aggressive or subversive. They went straight to the leader and spoke plainly. I wish it were always the case that when this happens, that male leader takes it to the Lord but I know better. Life experience says that in speaking up you may be writing your way out of what you know to be true and right before the Lord. That said, if you never bring it up, change cannot take place.
I firmly believe the Lord is for women in ministry. In every position of ministry. Youth ministry happens to be a special, vitally important place where we, as women, can change the world through the lives of teenagers. You have a right to be in ministry. God created you and called you to serve. In a time when it would have been scandalous, a few relatively unknown daughters demanded to be counted. It was God who affirmed them saying they were right! Their one request changed the legislation for all of Israel from that time forward. For some of us, asking to be recognized pastorally or ministerially seems scandalous. It’s OK. God knows how to turn scandal into sanctification.
In the heat of the moment it may feel like standing up for yourself is all about you. What many of us cannot see is that standing up for ourselves is rarely just about ourselves. Rather, it is about a much larger picture and movement of God. We get to be a part of God’s overall plan bringing about greater equity and justice.
While you may not have a daughter of your own to consider, you do have young women watching your very life. They too may one day be called to ministry. What do you dream of them getting to hear from their church family when that day comes? May you celebrate the portion of path that was cleared for you and turn right around to be certain that it remains even more clear for those who follow. Be bold. Stand up. What you are doing is right.
Amy Jacober is the proud mom of two beautiful girls and one handsome son and wife of one husband. They spend loads of time as a family doing ministry together. When not at camp or on a mission trip, they can be found at home cooking and playing games. She is a professor of youth ministry, serves as a volunteer with teens and loves to write and read with the intent of being a part of kingdom work. She has most recently authored The Adolescent Journey and has two new projects in the works.