*Editorial Note: Liz Cooledge Jenkins first wrote for Missio Alliance earlier this year, a provocative piece entitled “I Don’t Want God To ‘Use’ Me.” Her perspective is fresh and sorely needed within communities of faith in 2023. When I heard that her first book, similarly provocatively entitled Nice Churchy Patriarchy: Reclaiming Women’s Humanity From Evangelicalism, was being released on December 1st, I knew we were in for a treat in inviting her to return. Enjoy – and then go do something about what Liz suggests! ~CK
In one of my seminary classes, early in the quarter, we were asked to write a sort of personal vocational statement ― a few sentences about our current understanding of what God is calling us to in the world. I spent a while thinking about the question. And then I wrote a draft.
I based my statement on something I felt God may have been saying to me, two years prior, as I inched along in Los Angeles rush hour traffic after participating in a visiting day for prospective seminary students. I was contemplating whether attending this school might be a good next step for me, and three words popped into my head: “Help the church.”
I can in no way guarantee that this was God speaking. Maybe it was just a desire I found within myself. Either way, though, I felt a sense of calling from deep within my soul, an invitation to “help the church” in some unspecified way. And, since I had just spent the day visiting a particular school and pondering whether I should apply, it seemed to point in the direction of seminary.
My first draft of a vocational statement, then, centered on this idea. I wrote that I wanted to help the American church. (I guess I added the “American” part, but I think that’s okay.) I wanted to help the American church think more deeply about difficult things, root itself more strongly in Jesus’ life and teachings, and better care for the poor and marginalized. Or something along those lines.
Before I had turned in my statement, our professor, let’s call him Dr. Anderson, reminded our class about the assignment and offered further guidance. He said something like this: “I want you all to make sure your vocational statements are realistic. I want to hear specific things you feel called toward. Things that are actually doable in your life. I don’t want to hear overly lofty and unrealistic things. I don’t want to hear things like I want to change the church in America, or I want to fix the church in America.”
People chuckled dutifully. I did, too.
Whoops, I thought. I guess I’d better re-write my statement!
These days, when I think about calling, I find myself wanting to learn to ask better questions. What if, instead of settling for what seems doable, we learn to ask, as Brené Brown does, 'What’s worth doing even if I fail?' Click To Tweet
Later that day, though, I found myself reflecting on what my professor had said. Wait a minute, I thought. Who am I supposed to listen to as I sort out my sense of calling? God, or Dr. Anderson? My spirit’s own desires and longings, lofty as they might sound, or my professor’s assessment of what is realistic? Isn’t God the ‘God of the Impossible,’ after all?
As I continued to ponder these questions of calling, I also found myself wondering this: Who does Dr. Anderson think he is, to try to tell us what is or isn’t realistic? Why shame students for dreaming big ― and why assume that lofty dreams like changing the American church aren’t doable? Surely change is needed. Why would he want us to think we’re not capable of making an impact?
To be fair, I’m sure it really was better to be more specific, and goals like “help the church” or “change the church” are certainly very general. But it seemed to me that Dr. Anderson wasn’t only talking about general versus specific; he was also talking about impossible versus doable. If seminary students aren’t supposed to believe we might be able to change the church, I wondered, what are we doing? We’ve given three years of our lives to study the Christian tradition. Clearly we care about the church. Why not us? And, if not us, then who? Who will help and change the American church in the ways it desperately needs to be helped and changed?
As I look back on this moment, I think about how women’s dreams in particular have often been squelched by patriarchal systems and attitudes that tell us we should be small, we should keep our thoughts to ourselves, we shouldn’t think too much, we shouldn’t make waves or try to change things.
But our dreams rise up anyway. And our dreams are good.
I believe that the church can be helped; I believe that we ― as women, as humans ―can help the church. I believe that the church can be changed; we can change the church. We can embrace our agency. (1/2) Click To Tweet
And we can embrace a God who is always transforming us ― and, in the process, always transforming our theologies, our practices, our policies, our institutions. Our big, spacious dreams might actually change our world. (2/2) Click To Tweet
Glennon Doyle explores this beautifully in Untamed. “When women stay numb, obedient, quiet, and small,” she writes, “[we do] the world a great disservice.”1 Doyle reflects on the years she has spent listening to women’s deepest and most dearly-held dreams. These are some of the things different women have told her they desire:
- “Help, community, and connection.”
- “Justice for all.”
- “Joy and safety for my children and for everyone else’s children.”
- “To look at the news and see less pain, more love.”2
These are beautiful dreams, spacious dreams, desperately-needed dreams. And our world needs people who are willing to pursue these kinds of dreams, unattainable as they might sometimes seem.
Our churches, too, need this kind of vision. We need women’s insights into what exactly isn’t working, women’s pursuit of help and healing, women’s imagination of what church could be. After all, it is people who find themselves on the underside of religious and societal power structures ― patriarchy, white supremacy, or otherwise ― who see most clearly what needs to change so that all people can thrive together as equals. We need women to dream big dreams ― and we need people in positions of religious authority to encourage these dreams, not to shame them.
Sure, we can make our vocational goals more specific. But we do a disservice to both the church and ourselves if we try to make our sense of calling smaller.
These days, when I think about calling, I find myself wanting to learn to ask better questions. What if, instead of settling for what seems doable, we learn to ask, as Brené Brown does, “What’s worth doing even if I fail?”3 When we attempt to accomplish a goal, we never really know in advance how it will go. There are no guarantees of success ― not for changing the church in America, but also not for the things that might seem smaller and more manageable. Perhaps our vocation is to provide therapy in a way that opens people up to love, healing, and healthy relationships. Perhaps it is to preach sermons that get people excited about God and the Scriptures. These things, too, may sometimes fail. Our vocations call forth courage. They call for faith ― faith that emboldens us to put ourselves out there and risk failure.
I find myself wanting to ask big questions, full questions. Questions like Karen Walrond asks in her beautiful book The Lightmaker’s Manifesto: “What do I believe in?” Or, “If I had a magic wand, how would I change the world?”4 Of course we cannot change all the things we want to change ― at least not immediately or easily, and certainly not on our own. We need other people. But we might find, when we look around, that there are other people who want to see the same sorts of changes ― a cascading abundance of people with their own different gorgeous gifts to put to the cause. And there is God. There is the Holy Spirit, the justice-bringer, the light-shiner, the truth-teller.
Our world does change. Not without cost. Not automatically, as if progress always comes with time. But with pushing, with striving, together we might birth something new.
I want very much to “help the church,” still. I want to dream big dreams, and to do so without shame. And I want to see more and more people ― especially women and others who are often on the underside of religious power structures ― do the same.
I want to live out my best and truest answers to the question of “What do I believe in?” I want to do the things that are worth doing even if I fail. I want to live with courage. I do not want to shrink my dreams to fit into anyone else’s imagination of what is or isn’t possible.
I believe that the church can be helped; I believe that we ― as women, as humans ―can help the church. I believe that the church can be changed; we can change the church. We can embrace our agency. And we can embrace a God who is always transforming us ― and, in the process, always transforming our theologies, our practices, our policies, our institutions.
There is no shame in dreaming big. And our spacious dreams might actually change our world.
Liz Cooledge Jenkins is a Seattle-based writer, preacher, and former college campus minister. She is the author of Nice Churchy Patriarchy: Reclaiming Women’s Humanity from Evangelicalism (2023) and can be found on Instagram @lizcoolj and at @postevangelicalprayers.
It is people who find themselves on the underside of religious and societal power structures―patriarchy, white supremacy, or otherwise―who see most clearly what needs to change so that all people can thrive together as equals. (1/2) Click To Tweet
1 Glenn Doyle, Untamed. New York: The Dial Press (Random House Group), 2020. 75.
2 Ibid, 120-121.
3 Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Avery Press (Penguin Group), 2015. 42.
4 Ibid, 95.