Holy Mischief: In Honor and Celebration of Women in Ministry, by Mindy Makant

[1] Holy Mischief is a timely book that witnesses to the painful and difficult reality of women’s oppression and discrimination in the church.  Her book talks specifically about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but the situation there is not unique. Many people seem to think that because women have been ordained in this Church for 50 years, and now the church even has a female Presiding Bishop, surely there must be equality and equity in leadership. However, if you are a woman in public ministry, or if you are friends with a woman in public ministry, you know well that this is not yet the case.

[2] The occasion of the book is the 50th anniversary of women’s ordination in the ELCA. Makant notes that, at the time of writing, approximately 35% of active ELCA clergy are women, and roughly 50% of seminary students are women. However, as she notes, “women in collars still confuse and anger people“ (4).  For the material in the book, Makant interviewed 85 female clergy, nine bishops (as well as the presiding bishop) and multiple bishop’s assistants, specifically in the American South. Over and over again, what they said to her, when asked what they hoped would come out of this project was, “I just want my Bishop and my male colleagues to know”— to know what their experience is like, to know how much they love their work, to know how hard it can be for them, and to know all that they are doing for the sake of the body of Christ (9-10).

[3] The strength of this book is that Makant allows her interviewees to speak for themselves, sharing their own stories, and from these narratives she weaves together a story that is without a doubt discouraging and sobering. At the same time, hope is not entirely absent.  Her account makes clear how important it is that the Church knows not only where we have been, in regard to women in leadership, but that we take stark and honest assessment of where we are today. This is for the sake of the future; in this way, Makant suggests that perhaps, together, we can envision a different future for the church that is more genuinely inclusive and welcoming for all its members and leaders, especially women.  She writes, ”…this book is written in the believe that hope for a different—better—future is made possible by an imagination that is shaped by the past.” (4)

[4] The first chapter begins with an account of a workshop for female clergy that Makant was facilitating. Roughly half of the group talked about the different ways they felt they were “holding back”—not working at their full capacity in order to avoid challenging or threatening their male colleagues.  In some ways, this is a leitmotif running through the entire book; over and over again, we hear stories of ways in which women are held back by others, held back by the system, held back by colleagues, held back by parishioners, held back by stereotypes and prejudice.  And yet, these women, and hundreds like them, persist.  And in spite of all the pain and frustration, this is a cause for rejoicing and hope.

[5] Chapter 2, “Wilderness Voices,” talks about the process of finding one’s voice in the face of resistance, and the harassment and misogyny many women experienced during seminary, during candidacy, in their parishes, and from colleagues. She records the experience of women who have “first fatigue”—the exhaustion that comes with being the first in a new situation and having to do the hard work of trailblazing. Some even talked about feeling like a zoo exhibit, and the loneliness they experience as perhaps the only woman in their local ministeriums.

[6] Chapter 3 focuses on the particularity of women’s bodies, and the ways in which feminine stereotypes and archetypes create additional challenges for women. Makant writes, “when body language is used to describe personality traits the language almost always denigrates the female body while holding up the male body, even if crudely, as a standard for leadership. The standard is next to impossible for a woman to meet and is one for which she is judged as somehow or other failing to be a ‘good’ woman if she does,” (41). The section in this chapter titled “Women as Unclean” is particularly unsettling in this regard.

[7] Chapter 4 is on “gatekeeping” as a means of control, particularly the way in which naming can function this way—like when women in ministry are called “lady pastors.” Chapter 5 tackles the challenging issues of domestic violence and sexual harassment, and Makant notes that even though she never once asked a question about domestic violence in her interviews, in more than 10% of them individuals shared personal stories of violence (84). For people who think such things simply don’t happen in the church, this chapter is an important reality check.

[8] Finally, the last chapter, “Changing the Narrative,” invites us to imagine a different Church, and then work to make that Church a reality.  To that end, Makant suggests several concrete practices through which we can begin to foster the changes we so desperately need: boundary training, equitable employment practices, and faithful hermeneutics and catechesis. Together, they can help us move forward, but this is critical: only with “the encouragement and support from each bishop and all of the synod leadership,” (111). We have come a long way in 50 years, but we still have far to go.

[9] This book is an excellent resource for leaders and lay members alike, as each chapter concludes with sources for further reading and discussion questions.  It should be required reading for all congregational call committees, and all bishops’ staffs. Additionally, I recommend it for every woman in ecclesial leadership who wonders if she is the only one who has felt this way, if there is anyone who could possibly understand what she is experiencing. This book is an expression of solidarity, a challenge to the status quo, and a powerful call for transformation—all of which the Church desperately needs.