“I hate being a pastor’s wife. My experience from the church has been a re-enactment of my own past trauma,” she says with a trembling voice.
I remain quiet, holding the tension for a bit longer.
“How will you take your power back from this re-enactment?” I ask with curiosity.
This client is one of twelve pastor’s wives that I work with in my practice. Their stories are all different, but their experience in the church is hauntingly similar. This pastor’s wife has just completed her Masters of Psychology and two years of her own therapy. She is weeping that she may have to leave the church altogether. My heart hopes to help salvage her relationship with herself and God. I long to invite her to bring her voice to her role as a pastor’s wife.
“Why don’t you ask your husband if you can teach a series on psychology and the church?” I ask.
My question is met with heavy silence. She looks up at me, her eyes wide with bewilderment. She has never thought of teaching at her own church. I have to restrain my frustration at another brilliant and highly-educated woman who has remained silent in the Western church culture. Sadly, we both know the answer. Although her husband would welcome her voice and expertise, her gender would never be invited by their congregation to the pulpit.
The most common complaint of middle-aged women in my practice is a lack of knowing their life’s calling and using their voice in this world. Research shows us that a woman who has not established a strong self-identity will struggle to feel self-worth and fulfillment. The number one indicator of a woman’s well-being is her level of self-identity, and the second indicator is the community that bears witness to her life. In short, self-awareness and friendships are vital to wellness.
Many women have been raised in an objectifying society, and most Christian women have been groomed to be subordinate by a Western patriarchal culture. The female has been unconsciously named through a patriarchal reading of Scripture as the “weaker vessel,” “taken from the rib of a man,” or taught that she is to not speak, teach, or preach in church. This narrative, coupled with objectifying media that reduces women down to their body image as a measure of worth, has left many women without the most important tool for success–self-identity.
The godly female voice has been under attack.
The pyramid of power often looks like God, male pastor, husband, wife, and children. Regardless of whether you hold complementarian or egalitarian beliefs, the psyche of the woman is not well in our Christian society.
The Western Christian church has a history of male dominance. As Mike Cosper states in his podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, “The church seemingly is more comfortable to be led by misogynistic leaders.” Spiritual trauma shows up deeply ingrained in women who believe they must serve the male voice in their life rather than show up individuated and require from it. In the Creation story the female was deemed the “helpmate” to men, which translates in Hebrew as “savior” to men. The objectifying lens on our Christian narrative implies to both males and females that women are subordinate to men. This ingrained belief keeps women from naturally seeking their own self-identity and ultimately keeps them from knowing their voice in the Christian world.
My client is looking at me in silence, but her eyes have shifted from sadness to disbelief. “Have I really been serving a church for 24 years that doesn’t believe in my voice?” she asks.
Internalized sexism is one of women’s greatest betrayals. Women find that they have come to participate in the misogyny that has spiritually traumatized them. While the lack of female voices in the church is tragic, it doesn’t break my heart as much as the disconnect that happens in women’s spiritual relationships with God.
When we illuminate the spiritual abuse that has been perpetuated onto women in the Western church, we begin to see the Christian female name her own distance with a male-dominant God. I have found the plight of a woman is untangling and individuating herself from men. First, she must do the work to leave her father’s house, such as a daughter finding freedom from her father’s ownership of her. Second, she must engage Genesis 3:16 that “she will long for her husband and he will rule over her.” Spiritual trauma shows up deeply ingrained in women who believe they must serve the male voice in their life rather than show up differentiated and bring their whole self to the relationship.
At the end of our session, my client thanks me for our time. As she opens the door to leave, she turns and looks at me, “I know what I must do now. I must use my voice.”
Christy Bauman, LMHC is committed to helping women come into their true voice. She offers meaning-making and storywork consulting. She is the author and producer of three works: Theology of the Womb, A Brave Lament, and Documentary: A Brave Lament. She is a psychotherapist, supervisor, and adjunct professor who focuses on the female body, sexuality, and theology. Christy is co-director of Christian Counseling Center for Sexual Health and Trauma with her husband Andrew. They live in Seattle with their three kids: Wilder, Selah, and River.