On February 2nd, 2023 an online petition created through change.org was authored and circulated on Facebook by a seminary friend of mine. The petition heading read, “The committee responsible for choosing scripture passages for the ordination exams to be a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) chose a passage that features intense sexual violence and intimate partner violence (Judges 19). Sign this petition if you agree that stories such as these should not be chosen for high stress, high stakes exams.” I immediately signed the petition and waited with bated breath to see what kind of traction the petition would get within the denomination that I had recently left.
The previous year I resigned from my last call as the solo pastor of a rural congregational in upstate New York. I left as quickly and quietly as possible, as a small group of congregants coalesced to drive me out of a church that was otherwise grateful and supportive of my ministry. The term "clergy killing" exists within church circles, a phenomenon that is embarrassingly common, yet systemically silenced within church governance structures. However, what I realized following my own clerical death, was the highly gendered nature of clergy scapegoating and the ingrained gender bias within predominantly baby boomer congregations that make boundary-conscious Generation X and Millennial female clergy particularly vulnerable to attack.
Within hours, my friend’s petition exploded through mainline Protestant social media channels, followed by an underwhelming initial statement from the PC(USA)’s Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates, defending its position and delegitimizing the use of social media to bring about change. Large faith-based publications also took notice, with a litany of articles covering what became the most rapidly-mobilized grassroots protest movement within the PC(USA) to date.
Amid the storm of attention around the Judges 19 decision, I quickly saw the connection to my own research on female clergy boundaries and psychological safety and offered my own brief social media response:
The failure of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to acknowledge the humanity and psychological safety of its female clergy is yet again highlighted by the use of Judges 19 for the recent ordination exam for new clergy. The national exam committee's dismissive response to a widely circulated petition reinforces my relief in no longer working for this denomination and raises my deep concern for the safety and well-being of its current female seminarians and active clergy.
The ultimate outcome of the movement against the use of Judges 19 is still to be seen, with some satisfied by the denomination’s technical apology and others feeling it was a rehearsed example of detached polity that fails to address actual human harm. What I observed throughout the process are the same deep-rooted inter-generational and gender-based conflicts that take place behind the wreath-laden doors of local churches, during late night basement meetings of church committees and amidst the insidious chatter around female clergy bodies, identities and leadership.
Throughout the Judges 19 ordeal, I observed the larger social system dynamics at play, not only in decisions regarding ordination exams, but the systemic dehumanizing beliefs and behaviors that resist female professional and leadership boundaries.
Below is my (exactly two-minute) video testimony shared before the PC(USA) Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates, which point to these larger issues:
I’m Rev. Lynn Horan, ordained PC(USA) clergy and doctoral research fellow in leadership psychology at Antioch University. I’ll be speaking in opposition to the proposal for the following reasons:
Overwhelming results of this study reflect an unsustainable expectation of female self-sacrifice in the role of pastor, which is not equally shared by male clergy. There is a striking phenomenon of systemic scapegoating of female pastors, in which both male and female congregants attack a female clergy’s identity and way of being as the reason for congregational conflict.
Further pastoral trauma is experienced through public shaming and silencing by Presbytery Committee’s on Ministry, in which voluntary resignation and non-disclosure agreements prevent female clergy from seeking financial or legal recourse, which they would be otherwise due in secular professional sectors.
I share these significant research findings because it is clear that the use of the Judges 19 passage in the resent exegesis exam reflects an overarching expectation of female self-sacrifice and pastoral trauma that is far beyond the call to servant leadership within ordained ministry.
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