Female Spirituality: The Tension Between Desires & Self-Sacrifice

Female Spirituality The TensionIf you are a woman like me, you probably heard subtle and not-so-subtle messages growing up that your desires and interests were unimportant at best, and bad and wrong at worst. On the contrary, helping and serving others while you denied yourself, was not only expected as a female in this culture, it was faithful. We learned that God wants us to sacrifice ourself, our needs, and our desires in order to follow Jesus. If we ever did let our desires and wants slip out, we might have been told that we are selfish, pushy, bossy, or God-forbid, a “bitch.” At the Enneagram conference I attended two weeks ago, we learned that girls today as young as second grade are being labeled a “bitch” when they express their desires and demonstrate leadership skills so often admired in boys the same age (they are probably just an 8 on the Enneagram with a particular set of strengths, skills and weaknesses, like the rest of us).

I had been a pastor for over twenty years when a therapist said to me, “God works through your desires.” I was both surprised and comforted since for so much of my adult life, I have had an on-going internal battle with feeling selfish for having desires and aspirations. I don’t believe anyone intended to give me this message, but I received it, loud and clear. In the book, Holy Listening; The Art of Spiritual Direction, the late Episcopal priest, Margaret Guenther wrote, “women’s distinctive sin is self-contempt, a self-hatred often centered on the body. A lack of healthy self-love means that women can neglect their own inner growth because they are so busy serving others—as culture, society, and religion demand” (128-129). Does that strike a chord in your soul? It sure did in mine. Author Susan Rakoczy, writing in Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, adds, “Self-sacrifice freely chosen leads to self-transcendence; serving others because of cultural and religious norms leads to self-naughting” (Vol. 20.2, June 2014, 50).

How much time and energy have we, as women put into “self-naughting”—shutting down our inner aspirations and hopes because others’ needs (whoever that ‘other’ might include) are more important than ours? I would agree that mature spirituality leads us to self-denial and transcendence of the ego-self as we deepen our life and identity in God. But many of our spiritual and religious traditions have encouraged our self-denial before we have achieved “self-possession” (Rokoczy, 50) or ego-strength and identity. Fr. Richard Rohr identifies building this ego-self as the task of the first half of life (see his book, Falling Upward).

Despite it feeling selfish or myopic, our first spiritual task is to achieve self-possession. We might ask, “How is God working through our desires, our passions, our aspirations, and our hopes? What kind of contribution to the world do our skills and strengths lead us to offer? How is God calling us through our desires and skills?” We need to walk through this conscious self-development before we have anything to sacrifice or transcend in service of the reign of God.

I have felt this tension in the process of writing and publishing, Motherhood Calling: Experiencing God in Everyday Family Life. I felt a deep desire to write and communicate about God’s daily presence; yet it felt selfish to seek a publisher, and it still feels self-serving and “braggy” to tell others about it. But, if I don’t share it, how can it be used to help others see God in their daily lives--the whole purpose of the book? Even using this as an example feels uncomfortable! Aaaargh!

I don’t think this internal battle is what God hopes for in any of us! Today, I live in the tension while praying for how God desires me to resolve it, and trying to practice healthy self-love in the mean time.


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The Enneagram: Growing into Our Most Pure Self

The Enneagram Growing into our Pure SelfLast week I attended a conference sponsored by Revgalblogpals (a community of female ecumenical clergy bloggers!) on the Enneagram—a 4,000-year old spiritual system that describes nine ways of “seeing” the world and of responding to it. The gift of exploring the Enneagram is to learn how we can grow, change and heal our soul, becoming more fully who God made us to be. For more information, you can read The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr or visit Life in the Trinity Ministry, an organization founded by our conference speaker, Suzanne Stabile and her husband, the Rev. Joe Stabile (I am still new to the Enneagram, so please don’t learn about it from me; what follows is not instruction about it, just new information I am processing and sharing!).

One powerful insight from the conference addressed how we take in and process information. We have three centers of intelligence—Thinking, Feeling and Doing—and while we possess all three, most of us operate out of only two centers. We usually take in information out of one dominant center, process it with a second support center, and repress the third center. Between the ages of 8 and 12, we received messages that one center was less desirable, and we repressed that area. The Enneagram helps us discover our lost intelligence center and develop it. As adults, our repressed area shows up most dramatically in our home life.

  • Thinking-Repressed: some of us Do and Feel or Feel and Do without productive Thinking. For example, we have a hard time living on budget, analyzing long-term consequences of choices, planning, strategizing, setting boundaries, and tend to leap into action without asking if the task is ours to do.
  • Feeling-Repressed: some of us Do and Think or Think and Do without awareness of or processing our Feelings. For example, we dismiss or repress feelings until they erupt, channel emotional energy into activities, avoid feelings, cannot identify or name feelings, only allow positive feelings, and avoid of intimacy.
  • Doing-Repressed: some of us Think and Feel or Feel and Think without much productive Doing. For example, we procrastinate, do what’s in front of us instead of what’s important, miss deadlines, neglect to help others when we have the skills and resources to do so, feel powerless, and can be blind to possibilities.

Interestingly, most of us don’t believe any of these areas are repressed! It seems like we engage in our repressed function all the time, but the real question is, are we engaging it productively? I discovered last week that I am Thinking-repressed, which sounds strange to me because I am thinking all the time! But when I ask myself, “Is it productive thinking?” I am taken in new direction. It’s not productive thinking if it’s the steady barrage of self-criticism, judgment and comparison with others; it’s not productive thinking if it’s about re-doing more perfectly a task which is already completed; it’s not productive thinking if I’m planning how to take care of others while neglecting myself—you get the idea!

Similar questions can be asked if you are Feeling-repressed: Am I expressing feelings indirectly in a passive aggressive way? Can I name how I’m feeling? Where do I feel this emotion in my body? When did I first become aware of this feeling? What’s a healthy way to release it, if it’s a negative feeling? Those who are Doing-repressed can ask questions like this: Is what I’m doing the most important task for today or just what’s in front of me? Have I prioritized what needs doing today or this week? On what tasks am I procrastinating and why? Am I doing what I committed to complete?

These questions just scratch the surface. Deep, intentional soul work involves practicing and strengthening our repressed intelligence center, (usually with a therapist) so we can live balanced lives that allow us to bring our best to the world. It takes work and consistency, or we fall back into what’s most familiar. I was delighted to learn that 12-Step programs help us express all three intelligence centers, so if you’re thinking of working a 12-step program, go for it! (I attend Al-Anon). I have also decided to work with a new  Enneagram-trained spiritual director who can help me bring up my Thinking center. The conference speaker shared that when we operate out of our repressed center, we become our most pure self—and that’s beautiful soul work!

Image from: Aetherforce.com

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Offering Good News This Week

Offering Good News this WeekOne of my husband, Dan’s requests in accepting his new call to Legacy Presbyterian Church in Frisco, Texas, was to have a ministry coach to help guide him as he and the congregation seek to grow in mission and ministry. Last weekend his coach, Pastor Tim Roehl, came from Minnesota to Texas for a weekend visit. He spent time with Dan getting to know the community of Frisco, asking great questions, visiting Legacy’s worship service, and teaching an evangelism workshop with the congregation’s lay leaders. I was blessed to tag along and participate in much of Tim’s visit.

During the Evangelism training, Tim asked a question I just love, “Who can I ‘good news’ today?” We struggle with the word, “evangelism” because it has negative connotations of beating people over the head with the Bible, convincing them of their sin and the right way to believe, or kindling a fear of eternal damnation. But Biblically, evangelism means simply to bring “good news.” How can we bring good news to everyone we meet throughout our day? It may be with a smile, holding open a door, a word of affirmation or encouragement, offering unexpected help, or really listening to someone with all of our attention.

Tim’s evangelism training reminded us that communication is only 7% words, 35% tone, and 58% body language! We can always tell if someone is really interested in and listening to us, and vice versa! Do visitors to our worship service feel we listen to and are interested in them? Do we engage them and listen deeply? Many admit they don’t know what to say to people they don’t know, or how to engage them, even at church. Tim offered a simple, memorable way to “good news” visitors to our congregation, WIN:

W=Welcome - Let them know you’re glad they’re here, introduce yourself, ask their names, and about their family.
I=Interests - Ask about their work, activities of their children, or how they spend their free time. This enables you to introduce them to others in the congregation with whom they share a common interest.
N-Need: Ask how you or the congregation can serve them, and then, how you can pray for them.

When lay leaders make this kind of effort at connecting with visitors and praying for them, newcomers can begin to personally experience God’s love and care through your church on their first visit.

This formula offers a wonderful tool for getting to know a new person in any context. Listening and communicating interest, connection, care, and prayer is a great way to ‘good news’ anyone you meet. Who will God put in your path to WIN this week?

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The Challenge and Gift of Forgiveness in My #MeToo Stories

The Challenge and Gift of Forgiveness in My MeToo StoriesAfter reading my “#MeToo” story, a friend asked whether I had forgiven the colleagues and professors I had written about. As a spiritual and religious person, I am a little embarrassed to admit that I had not thought much about forgiveness in the context of my personal harassment. So as we welcomed and celebrated the Incarnation of God in the human being of Jesus, I pondered this question. I’ve come to realize that forgiveness for those who failed me in various ways when I was a young female pastor had been a part of developing spiritual and emotional maturity; it rarely came as an intentional decision.

I saw that I’d overlooked forgiving my harassers, in part, because my anger at them was conflated with my frustration with the institutional church, which failed to listen, to take me seriously, and to help me seek justice; it failed even to require appropriate behavior from its male leaders. Further, the church had failed to provide much-needed support as I tried to serve my first two congregations.

The first congregation had longstanding internal power struggles. It was an inappropriate post for a first-time pastor of either gender, yet my requests for help and guidance from colleagues and judicatory staff went unheeded. Eventually I resigned and embarked upon eight months of therapy to put myself back together, spiritually and psychically. My next call, in a different state, was from an inner-city church in need of an urban ministry strategy. I turned to that judicatory staff for help with developing a cooperative vision and a plan for resourcing and supporting it; again, I was met with inaction. Independently, for four years, I formed partnerships there with other congregations where feasible, as I pastored a congregation in frequent crisis.

But then, after almost a decade of being a female intern and novice pastor seeking help from my church leaders and finding none, I resigned from the ministry and answered another call – to become a full-time mom and to heal an exhausted mind, body, and spirit. During my extended leave, I focused on my family and self-care. Not on forgiveness.

Now, turning my attention to that left-behind matter, I find that something has changed, even without my awareness or intention. First, I found that I’ve often thought of forgiveness as something to offer when someone who has wronged me apologizes — forgiveness wipes the slate clean and erases a debt, giving the relationship a fresh start. Such reconciliation is essential in our close, on-going relationships with friends and family. I am grateful to have experienced this in one situation of harassment. The Bible, however, reminds me that I am called upon to forgive others simply because God has forgiven me (Ephesians 4:32). God’s forgiveness is free, unmerited, a gift of love and grace. God expects us to offer this same selfless mercy to others, whether or not it is requested, undeserved, or the hurt goes deep. This kind of forgiveness frees the other, but also frees us from bitterness, resentment, and the spiritual and physical illnesses that can result from hanging on to toxic emotions.

Still, forgiving does not mean continuing to put ourselves in harm’s way. Forgiving does not mean accepting or condoning a wrong-doer’s behavior. Forgiving does not mean that we do not pursue justice through administrative or legal channels. Forgiving does mean letting go of the desire for revenge. “Repay no one evil for evil … Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19). At its fullest, forgiveness frees us from giving those who have harmed us power over our emotions, choices, thoughts and self-identity; we stop giving them free rent in our heads and hearts. This can be done alongside an adjudication process, or without such a process. Each of us must wrestle with the healing path that is best for us.

Taking leave to raise my children was a first step in the forgiveness process — a decision to get myself out of harm’s way to heal. What I’ve learned over that time has helped me with other important aspects of forgiveness—forgiveness both for my perpetrators and the institutional church. That included looking at myself and confronting my own expectations. I needed to stop being surprised by sin and to stop expecting the church — or any human institution for that matter — to be free of sin and brokenness. Of course, the church and the people in it fail me and others on a regular basis — as do I, and all of us! My sin has been putting my faith and trust in something other than God incarnate in Jesus Christ (a wonderful reflection as we celebrate the Nativity).

It is freeing to understand that I am not to expect nor look to the church or anyone in it, to take care of me; that is my job through my relationship with God. I learned the distinction between asking someone to care for and about me in a healthy way versus asking them to take care of me and giving up my own personal power, volition, and responsibility. Without this shift, I would have been perpetually wounded and disappointed by the fact that the church and its leaders are all part of our fallen world. This realization opened me up to forgiving the church. This growing spiritual maturity has resulted in deeper emotional freedom. I have stopped giving my perpetrators power over my identity and confidence and, over time, I have stopped letting mistrust of male colleagues prevent me from exploring team ministry. The last step in this process has been to forgive myself, both for having unrealistic expectations and for hanging on to fear, even unconsciously. Reflecting on and writing about this has helped move me into this last step of self-forgiveness.

After nine years at home with my children and running a home business, in 2006 I returned to parish ministry. The ELCA (Evangelical Church in America) as an institution also had grown and changed over these years. For instance, there are more policies in place to make congregations safe for everyone, including children, and when pastors or other leaders commit boundary violations, there are procedures and ways to find help. In addition, it's thrilling to be part of a denomination that welcomes LGBTQ+ people into the full life of the church, its ministry, and its marriage rites! In fact, I can say that I love the ELCA now more than I ever have since my ordination in 1989. This reveals my own spiritual and emotional growth toward the freedom and fullness of forgiveness that includes my perpetrators, the institution, and myself.

This love leads me to care for the church – to help it be faithful when it fails, to seek the path of truth, reconciliation, justice, accountability, and forgiveness — but not to expect it to take care of me. I need to be okay at my core because of the salvation God freely gives in Jesus Christ, and that’s true both when the church and its leaders are faithful, and when we fail. For me, that’s the freedom of forgiveness that comes from a process of deepening my own spiritual life rooted in the love and mercy of God. Through God’s unmerited forgiveness of me, and love for me, I am freed to forgive others, and freed to love and serve as God calls me to today, regardless of what has happened in my past.

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Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.