Alaina Kleinbeck: What the U.S. women's soccer team can teach the church about worthiness

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Team members did more than just win the World Cup; they had the audacity to demand equal pay for women. This should include women in the church, writes the director of the Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

It’s hard not to be a fan of the U.S. women’s national soccer team.

In this year’s World Cup competition, they even drew me in, despite my committed lukewarm stance toward televised athletic events.

The team was ferocious. They were unapologetically undefeated throughout the tournament.

The team was audacious. They had filed a lawsuit for equal pay three months before the 2019 Women’s World Cup began.

The U.S. women’s national team is fighting for their equitable pay and treatment, but they are also advocating for an end to the vast inequities in women’s compensation and treatment more broadly.

The national gender pay gap hovers near 80%, which means that all else being equal, women earn 80 cents for every dollar that men earn. The gap is wider for women of color and older women and transcends professions, geographies, and educational attainment.

It’s no wonder the team was able to rally a whole stadium to chant “Equal pay!” Women everywhere can see themselves in the team’s fight.

“Everyone is kind of asking what’s next and what we want to come of all of this. It’s to stop having the conversation about equal pay and are we worth it,” said Megan Rapinoe, team co-captain and an outspoken advocate for marginalized people on many fronts.

Worthiness isn’t a category Rapinoe or the team wants to discuss anymore.

This audacity reminds me of the Gospel account of the Syrophoenician woman who begged Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter. Jesus first refused the healing, implying that she was a dog -- unworthy of the children’s bread. But the woman persisted, throwing back Jesus’ indelicate comparison of people to dogs while still offering him deference. She tells Jesus that even dogs eat the children's crumbs.

She didn’t wait for Jesus to understand or agree with her that her daughter deserved healing. She showed him plainly that discussions of worthiness are irrelevant. Even dogs will do what it takes to get what they need.

In conversations about our collective iniquity of inequities, we expect the underpaid and underrecognized, the marginalized and mistreated to validate their claim to equal treatment by proving their worth.

Sure, the U.S. women’s national soccer team backed up their claim to equal pay with a ferocious win. But both Rapinoe and the Syrophoenician woman are most audacious in their assertion that worthiness shouldn’t even be a part of the conversation.

Worthiness in the church is a tricky category. In worship, we collectively confess our sinfulness as a weekly testament to our unworthiness -- while simultaneously believing that we each carry the imago Dei in our very beings as an inherent testament to absolute worthiness.

There’s no denying that we value some things more than others, which is to say, we consider some things more worthy than others, and we express our understanding of that worthiness in concrete ways. We value large churches over small ones and fund certain aspects of ministry before others. We value some pastors more than others, rewarding them with better pay, larger congregations and higher denominational or network status.

Even Jesus seemed to be tripped up by the notion of worthiness, saying in effect to the clever Syrophoenician woman that despite her Gentile status, she too deserved healing. In the version of the story in Matthew, Jesus attributes to this to the greatness of her faith, but in Mark, he says it is simply “for saying that” (NRSV).

In both, worthiness is taken off the table and the demon-possessed daughter is healed. But I think it’s notable that the marginalized woman took worthiness out of the conversation -- not Jesus.

So what should the church do to address the question of worthiness?

What if we considered pay equity the standard for our Christian institutions and a sign of the inherent worthiness of each person? What if the church took a strong lead in providing equitable pay and treatment, not just of women, but also of persons of color, veterans, and people with disabilities? What if the church equipped its members to do likewise in their places of work?

For women clergy, the pay gap is one factor of many contributing to their sense of unworthiness in their denominations and congregations. Low wages and underresourced parishes can drive women clergy to take on bi-vocational roles or even leave the ministry altogether.

When that happens, it is not just the individual clergywomen who experience loss. When women are undervalued and underrepresented in the pulpit, children internalize that leadership is for men alone. Conversely, young girls who see women leading in religious settings experience positive effects, including increased self-confidence and greater educational and career success.

While Rapinoe and the U.S. women’s national soccer team kicked their way into my heart as iconic advocates for equity, and while the Syrophoenician woman’s quick wit reminds us all that we are worthy, the clergywomen down the street are the front lines of this work every day. The church should affirm their worth with equal pay.

What can the church do?

  • Create policies and cultures in the church office that standardize pay, basing salary not just on performance or perceived worthiness but on role expectations, years of experience and education.
  • Evaluate staff salary and benefits annually to uncover and correct implicit biases.
  • Increase family leave benefits for all caretakers of children and aging family members, regardless of gender.
  • Hire women to lead from the pulpit, in big-steeple churches as well as smaller congregations.
  • Seek out female preachers for pulpit supply when male pastors are away.
  • Provide learning opportunities for lay members to better understand systemic inequities of all kinds and engage their faith in action against them.
  • Create safe working environments where one’s culture, gender, race, orientation, ability or veteran status is deemed an asset, not a source for jokes, a liability, or an obstacle to be overcome.