Imagining God

The presence of female pastors offers a rich theological opportunity for people to consider how they talk about -- and engage with -- God, says writer Sarah Sentilles.

In some ways, the challenges women face as leaders in the church are similar to those of women leaders in any profession.

While researching a book on women clergy, I interviewed 30 female ministers across many denominations. They told stories about experiencing sexual harassment and inappropriate comments as well as being underpaid and passed over for promotions.

But female ministers’ stories differ from those of their counterparts in at least one crucial way: They have something to do with God.

Seeing a woman in the pulpit not only challenges the assumptions that people in congregations have about the categories “minister” and “woman.” It also challenges how they think about God.

I believe this challenge offers a rich theological opportunity for church communities as they look critically at how they support -- or fail to support -- female leaders.

During my research, I discovered that the congregations best able to support female leaders often used a variety of images and metaphors to talk about, think about and pray to God.

Many of these congregations used inclusive language. But for these congregations, inclusive language did not mean that people simply stopped calling God “he” and started calling God “she.” They understood that replacing one form of gender-exclusive language with another did not solve the problem. These congregations claimed inclusive language as a way to practice their faith.

They dared to believe that God is bigger than anything human beings can say about God -- that God transcends the words and images humans use. This belief allowed them a degree of flexibility, expansiveness and risk-taking in their theological thinking, enabling them to use multiple images, metaphors and analogies for talking about God. This allowed them to believe that God is not only father, lord or king, but also mother, breath, mystery, creativity, darkness and light.

If the ability to support female leaders in church communities is somehow linked to congregations’ willingness to imagine God in a variety of ways -- as my research suggests -- then it seems to me all congregations and ministers need to be encouraged to practice expansive, faithful, theological thinking. Divinity schools, seminaries, congregations and church leaders at all levels have important roles to play in this work.

Divinity schools and seminaries can help students connect the study of theology with the practice of theology in church communities. As a divinity student, I read everything from John Calvin to Jon Sobrino. I studied feminist and womanist and liberation and black theologies. I took classes on Gnosticism and the Nag Hammadi.

But I was not taught how to take this rich theological material back to my church community. Nor was I taught how to understand -- or to bridge -- the gap between the theologies I learned in divinity school and the theologies being preached from the pulpit and practiced in the pews of the churches where I would soon work.

Congregations can encourage their leaders to take theological risks by reminding them that people are hungry for new ways to think about and experience God. When the ministers I interviewed experimented with new language, they often heard from people who didn’t like it, but rarely heard from people who did. Many of us are used to speaking up when we don’t agree with something happening in our faith communities, but we forget it’s equally important to speak up when we agree.

Finally, leaders at all levels can shift the focus from “true” or “traditional” ways of thinking about God to holding congregations and denominations accountable for the effects of their thinking about God. What if we did not worry so much about getting the words we use for God “right” and instead worried about how our words affect the world in which we live? Theology matters, and denominational leaders can support all of us as we engage in the hard work of examining how the way we think about God shapes how we live, how we treat other people and how we care for the earth and all living beings.

What might this important theological work look like in practice? One possibility is a simple one: Denominations can encourage congregations to create small groups dedicated to exploring theology and faith by reading common theological texts. These groups can provide opportunities for communities to reflect on what they believe and why they believe it, to engage in critical conversations about the language of faith and its effects, and to deepen their theological understanding.

What might happen if denominations were to choose common texts to read together throughout the year? What would happen if people read books like James Cone’s “Black Theology and Black Power?” or Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s “But She Said?” or Gustavo Gutierrez’s “A Theology of Liberation?”

Not everyone would like these texts or agree with them, but everyone would be challenged by them. I wonder how deep and faithful engagement with a wide range of theological thinking in community might change how churches understand their roles in the world. How might it change how we support our leaders and how our leaders support us on our journeys of faith? And, ultimately, how might it change our relationship with God?