This is a rough one. I keep asking, is it immature to post this? Is it airing dirty laundry? What is the reason for this?
The reason is that I have been silent. I have felt silenced and shamed. The reason is power dynamics- my lack of power in these situations, and the inactivity of those in power to help me. It’s using my power now to return to these moments and assert my value. The reason is for my healing. The reason is for others to recognize themselves in the story and make different choices. The reason is for women like me in churches like this. The reason is for light to shine in the dark and bring growth. We have all made mistakes. We can all grow. I’ve never believed in hiding our faults and mistakes.
I write this matter of factly. This is not vitriolic or bitter. It’s the story of my experience in a job as factually as I can remember it.
Nate and I got married in 2007 and plunged full force into a life centered on the success of the church plant. I was the church’s first employee outside of the pastor or “lead elder” to use the terminology of the church and its affiliated network. Working for the church was exciting in the beginning, and then less so over the four years I was solely employed. Initially, I worked in the couple’s garden apartment, right in their living room, and I got lots of relational time with them as a result. They began to rent a small office where I could work, which I was glad for because it was at times difficult to get things done in the middle of a busy family living room. I saw them a lot less, and the elder and I had difficulty staying in contact about what needed to get done and what items were priorities to him. I was employed for 16 hours a week and wearing lots of different hats doing the accounting, paying bills, restocking supplies, running errands, planning events and attempting to design printed materials in Microsoft Publisher. I always felt like I was behind and began to sense that the pastor and finance leader questioned my competence because they could never understand how everything took so long.
My relationship with the pastor and his wife began to hit some snags. He let me know that it was now a requirement of the job to go to the bank on Monday mornings. Previous to that, I had always deposited Sunday’s checks on Wednesday- the first day of the week that I worked for the church at the little office, where the bank was about 10 minutes walk away. Nate was working as a manager at a valet company in the west loop and had the car most days. So, to deposit the checks on Mondays, I’d have to bring the church money home with me on Sunday, and walk from my apartment to the nearest bank about a half hour walk each way (Uber wasn’t a thing yet and there were no trains or buses that went very easily from my apartment to the bank). I had already had no luck finding other part time work, and decided it was just God’s way of allowing me to “devote more time to the church”. So, it wasn’t about the time it took me on Mondays as much as the feeling of not being respected or allowed to have a boundary. I was really upset about it on the phone with him, and as was a pattern over the years, the pastor had his wife talk to me on his behalf. “He just has no idea what he’s done wrong. He asked me desperately, what am I doing wrong?”. In hindsight, I think part-time female employees were treated as though they were full time, salaried and benefited workers who could be expected to do whatever needed to happen to get things done, whenever they were needed. This expectation and the pressure to complete a lot in a very minimal part-time position was other women’s experience after mine as well.
The next big snag came when they asked me to meet up for lunch and to talk about how things were going with the job. This was near the end of my 4 years working there and the first time I’d had any kind of employment review. I was excited about having lunch with them and getting some time together, which is something we didn’t really do anymore. I expected to be recognized for the things I had developed in the position as the first employee- the things I had figured out and streamlined with just 2 days a week to work. What I didn’t know was that the only thing they wanted to talk to me about was that I had been “questioning his character” behind his back and “broken his trust” because he had now heard from 2 people that I was asking questions about the way the church used money.
I was in shock. I had been in conflict about some of the church’s financial practices for some time, and legitimately felt we weren’t recording certain things properly. Sensing that this would be a sensitive topic to approach with him and with our relationship already rocky, I had talked to the leader of the church’s financial team, who I reported to on those matters, and a trusted friend on the leadership team about my discomfort and questions. None of it was a direct critique of the lead elder’s personal use of money, but rather the wider church leadership’s policies on how to handle things like reimbursements, large gifts to speakers, and how we labelled travel and entertainment expenses. I had no doubts in his integrity. I did feel there was very little transparency with the church about how money was being used and what different labels actually meant. I still have never talked to those two people about the situation, or what they said to him, or how it had gotten translated as a questioning of his integrity. I was too swallowed up in shame that I had done something wrong. I was embarrassed that they were talking about me, that I had voiced my concerns, that I had used my voice. My voice! I think it went quiet in that moment. I wept painfully at that lunch, brokenhearted. Our relationship was never the same after that. I was 27 years old, and he a decade older and supposed to be my mentor. At the time, and for years after, I was sure we’d work it out and be on better footing than ever.
I think it was shortly before this that the church had agreed to hire us full time, and made clear that they would be “hiring us as a couple”, but the check would be in Nate’s name merely as a formality. Agreeing to a job where someone else would receive a paycheck on my behalf sounds crazy to me now, but I knew when I was marrying Nate that the likelihood it would be any different was small, unless I took a full time women’s or children’s ministry role, or a part-time administrative role. Plus, I was excited about working side by side with Nate- something we had always loved to do from the beginning of our relationship, of being honored for the call we’d both felt to this work as teenagers, for all the possibilities ahead with more time and flexibility for both of us to be involved in the church. As soon as Nate started working for the church, I was pregnant with our first child and was also passing the accounting duties on to a new person after communicating that I thought that role would be best served by someone else now. When I’d finished showing her the ropes and was officially off the payroll, the pastor had me stand up on a Sunday and announced to the church that I was no longer working for the church, and that they were grateful for the time I had spent serving. I was surprised at the way he phrased it, and felt really conflicted. Wasn’t I working for the church? Had I just been fired? I turned red and teared up in front of everyone but played it off like I felt honored.
Sure enough, I stopped being invited to meetings. I stopped being expected to show up for anything or do anything at all, in fact. This was so quiet, so subtle it was hard to address, and so painful. It would be many years before I’d have the words for what happened in this time. I was shut out of relationship, shut out of involvement. The lack of expectation was painful. Nate’s position was treated like a typical corporate position, or at least 100% more than what I’d expected going in. He had hours to clock, and I had none. He was required to be places, I was not. This also meant I would become the full-time default parent.
Nate and I would not have taken the job if we had understood what they wanted it to look like. And if we hadn’t taken the job, where would we be now? I don’t know. I really don’t. But we did take it, and it wasn’t what we expected. Nate was expected to be available for any and every church meeting- and there were a lot. He was on call. He never counted time that he would have been at church anyway as part of his work hours. Apparently, at one point, the lead elder added 10 more hours a week he expected him to work because “that’s what a standard corporate job in Chicago looks like”. We never wanted a standard corporate job, never pursued or took one, and weren’t being paid like we had one. I recently recalled with new eyes that two of the elders asked us to make a list of all our personal expenses at the time they hired us, and then based our salary off of that. When one of them moved away and a new finance leader was in place, the new person in charge gave Nate a raise, some backpay and a letter explaining the backpay and the church’s appreciation (for Nate). Even after that, we were making around 50k/year, giving 10% of that back to the church, while living in Chicago. We had 2 kids, and zero work boundaries in an entrepreneurial situation that required us to be centered on the church with our lives- personal health and wellness, Sabbath, play, and family taking a backseat. Teaching that the kingdom comes before kids, family and self was common. Many times we felt we needed to say no to something for a break or a family event, we were given push-back and our commitment questioned.
At one point, the pastor and his wife met with us again. He told me he didn’t think we’d be able to work on a team together because he felt I thought of him as autocratic. He couldn’t give an example of why he felt this way. Writing all of this out, it reads like they were trying to get me to leave without asking me to leave for a long time. It’s hard to understand why we still stayed for another 5+ years after he communicated we couldn’t be on a team together. I think to understand that, you have to realize that we were taught by this church that we were family. We were taught that relationships are primary. We looked down on taking ministry positions just to have a “job”. We saw it as an opportunity to serve God, and only needed to have our needs covered. We didn’t view it as a “career”, but a “calling” so it had different standards for what we’d accept as normal. We had faith in God that relational disruptions with our spiritual family would work out, because we believed in unity and in the work of the Holy Spirit. If it had been any other type of job, the complications we faced would have had to be dealt with, and we would have had to work it out or part ways.
I suffered depression at this time. I was crying every day. I went to the ER several times and had panic attacks. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I had a colonoscopy and did elimination diets. I would wake up out of a dead sleep and throw up. I was more alone than at any other time in my life. My husband was on a different path, leading a different life, working with a team where I was not welcome and I didn’t understand why. I was a full-time stay at home mom without ever having made the choice to become one. I felt trapped every day. I felt I was terrible, that I had done something wrong (though I couldn’t say what), that I had somehow failed the leaders by being who I was, by questioning.
When I started to try to make time for myself to do things outside of parenting, I asked permission to furnish a large loft space the church had begun to rent. For some reason, they told me yes, and that I would be working with one of the elders wives. I was asked to make a budget in order to get approval to spend (out of pocket) money and be reimbursed, but the money was never approved. I wasn’t communicated to directly about this, but through others heard that the finance elder became upset when I tried to reimburse $100 for decor I’d purchased. On the other end, the lead elder was communicating to me through his assistant that I wasn’t completing things fast enough. It was heartbreaking, again. I had a misguided faith that because God was in both of us, we would be able to work together.
In contrast, what I would want now for myself when I was 23 and full of energy, vision, some talent and lots of willingness, is to find leaders who believed in me and knew how to mentor, give feedback, and not take my exploratory questions and ideas as aggressive or questioning of their competency and integrity. It would be somewhere that valued both of our education in theology and ministry practices as an asset to the team. I’d want to be somewhere that valued us without regard to our gender. I’d want regular reviews and raises, and to have reasonable boundaries with our job. I’d want to be somewhere where I could see a model of people like me in leadership- women in paid positions, at the top of their potential in leadership roles, widely read and engaged in Chicago, people seeking to build bridges with other communities, people who saw my potential and could point out my weaknesses for the sake of my growth, continuing in relationship with me throughout the ups and downs. These are the things I’m seeking to give myself now.
Thank you for reading this far. If you have feedback for me on this story, I’d welcome it. What do you see in the story? What do you think I missed on the way? What would you do differently, if you were me?