Sarah Bessey on being a Jesus Feminist.


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sarahbesseyLate last year I bumped into Sarah and her book Jesus Feminist. I took some time to read through her book and I found myself drawn in by her writing, her stories and how she was challenging me. Today I’m honored to have Sarah on the podcast with us as she talks about her own journey and provides some help for church leaders looking to ensure that women in our churches have a voice and aren’t invisible. Take some time to listen in to Sarah and buy her book to continue the conversation.

Have you heard about the IF:Gathering conference that happened a few weeks ago? If you interested in exploring this topic more … I’d recommend you track with that team. I’m encouraged by what I see happening in that movement.

There is a fair amount of Canadian content on today’s podcast … like a good Canadian living in America I need say that I’m sorry if I’ve offend you for talking about my home and native land. 🙂

Sarah Bessey // [Website]  [twitter]

Interview Highlights

00:38 // Rich just finished reading Sarah Bessey’s book ‘Jesus Feminist
00:50 // Fellow Canadians talk about the Winter Olympics
02:03 // Sarah is a wife, mom, writer, blogger, story teller
03:12 // Sarah grew up in a ‘post-Christian’ context
03:59 // Rich encourages leaders to look at Canadian ministries and learn where America is headed culturally
06:25 // Rich gives a strong recommendation for ‘Jesus Feminist’
06:50 // Sarah’s relationship with Jesus made her a feminist
10:20 // In some church contexts saying you are a feminist is like saying you are a terrorist
11:53 // Sarah talks about what it was about Jesus that changed her thinking
14:17 // Sarah talks to leaders about what they can do to engage women in leadership in the church
15:26 // First step is to Repent. ‘It’s hard to have hope when you haven’t fully recognized the disappear.’
16:50 // Second Step is to ask if women are invisible in the community
16:57 // Rich won’t ever be a part of a movement where his daughter is considered a second class spiritual citizen
19:00 // Rich recalls former BIC Bishop Darryl Winger actively responding to the visibility of women. Sarah calls it ’embodying the better’
22:02 // Is it really the Gospel if it is not true for everyone?
23:17 // Your view of scripture is being shaped by culture
24:21 // www.sarahbessey.com

Interview Transcript //

Rich – Alright, well welcome to the unSeminary Podcast. Thanks so much for tuning in. You know this is the podcast where we try to provide some non-traditional training for people trying to war it out, live it out in the real world. I am super happy to have Sarah Bessey on the line today. Over Christmas time I read her book and actually just finished it a couple days ago. It’s called “Jesus Feminist’. I don’t know if you can even see that. The problem when you read on an iPad. Super excited to have her on the phone. Thanks so much for being on the show today Sarah!

Sarah – Thank you for having me.

Rich – The other great thing about Sarah is that she is Canadian!

Sarah – That is a great thing!

Rich – That is a great thing. We are recording this during the Winter Olympics and we are currently on top which makes me feel happy on the inside.

Sarah – I know. We will enjoy it while it lasts. As long as it does. I completely bust into tears when Alex Bilodeau won yesterday. I have a lot of feelings when it comes to the Winter Olympics. This is my favorite Olympics so I am really overdosing on it.

Rich – Absolutely! It’s true you know. I had to figure out how to get the Canadian feed here in America, through some grey market technology. But this is a place of grace, love and acceptance so that’s ok.

Sarah – Absolutely.

Rich – But the last time, 4 years ago at the Winter Olympics, we had to watch the American feed which wasn’t very good.

Sarah – No. I had to do that. We lived in the States a few years ago. My husband and I did, so I ended up, it was before the days of live stream. I couldn’t even…I was very upset…I couldn’t get anything on my athlete.

Rich – Nice. Alright Sarah, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself. Give us a sense of your context. Who are you?

Sarah – Sure. Well I’m really excited to be here. My name is Sarah. I am a wife and a stay-at-home-mom of three tinies. I write a little bit on the edges of my life. I have been blogging for nearly 10 years no and that’s really where I’ve kind of worked out what I think about God. I think I’d be surprised if people actually read it, other than my sister. I mean she would read anything that I wrote, but I kind of call it, at this stage of my life, narrative theology. Trying to figure out what I think about God, and church, and community, and about what this means not only for me in my life, but on a larger scale. And as I’ve wrestled through that. The best way that I know to do that is through story telling, because I am more of a story teller. So that’s a place where I have done that. So of course the book really grew organically out of that. But in terms of where I am, I am a Western Canadian. I was a prairie kid, born and raised. And now I live on the west coast just outside of Vancouver. I would probably call the context in which I grew up ‘post-Christian’. When I went through school, I didn’t really know anybody who was Christian. I mean everyone was really kind, and moral but that wasn’t really a huge part of my life. My parents came to faith when they were, gosh, I would have been a kid. So we didn’t really have a whole lot of context for church. I didn’t grow up in the world of denominations, and in the world of tradition. I didn’t grow up with any understanding of any sort of cultural Christianity. We went to church in community centers and basements.

Rich – I’ve said to many leaders here in the States that you really should pay attention to Canadian ministries, not just because I am Canadian and I am partial. But I also think there is a thing culturally in some ways…I don’t know what you call it…it’s more progressive. It’s further down the road. Culturally, I think in a lot of ways, it’s where America is going. So I think to look and study how the body of Christ is really thriving in Canada, to find those places where it is thriving, I think it can be a huge benefit. I know when I made the switch from being in Canada to being here, there were just certain assumptions that I had with me that I think actually uniquely equips me to work in a culture that didn’t go to Sunday School when they were kids, and it wasn’t because they were evil, mean, atheist people. It just wasn’t a big deal to them.

Sarah – I think you are right. I think that’s probably a good way to look at it. In some ways I look at what’s probably the shift that’s happening in the States right now, is similar to the shift that even my parents generation, in someways even my grandparents generation, walked through. So I am on the other side of that now. And what does church look like? What does community look like when you don’t have that dominant narrative? And to be honest I am really tender hearted towards it. I enjoyed the way I grew up. I enjoyed the way I understood church and even now I still feel more at home there. I feel more at home in a school gym with folding chairs than I do somewhere else.

Rich – That’s fantastic. When I first came across your book, there’s a statement, it might have just been on the cover or who’s kidding who, it may have just been in the description on Amazon. You said that your relationship with Jesus made you a feminist. That really grabbed my attention and I was sucked in by that, and read and over Christmas, and over the last couple weeks finished up, there were multiple times that I found your book incredibly touching. There were actually multiple times I found myself getting choked up because of some of the stories you tell are incredibly compelling, and that’s for a guy who’s not known for crying. And said this earlier, but my goal is that people listening would say ‘I want to give that book a read.’ I really do. If people who listen to my podcast know that I don’t sell stuff on my podcast. But I feel so strongly about this book, I really do hope that if you are listening in, and you enjoy the content of our conversation here, that you will take time to read Sarah’s book because I really do think that it is a thought provoking work. But let’s get back to that original statement. You feel like your relationship with Jesus has made you a feminist. Now what do you mean by that?

Sarah – Well, there’s a short answer and there’s a more in-depth answer. I definitely right off the top I would say that I am not someone who had a lot of baggage about the word feminist. I know that there’s a lot of people that do and what I have learned through research and study and whatever else is that, particularly with people who grew up in the 80’s in the United States where there was a group called the Moral Majority, apparently, have a lot of connotations about the word ‘feminist’. And for them it can be a bit, when they first read it it’s like, clutch your pearls, and need a moment. And so it’s almost hard for people to understand that someone who loves Jesus would feel so comfortable with that word. And so I get that, I really do. And the truth is that it was following Jesus that made a feminist out of me. It’s what lead me down a path of understanding what the word means. What it means to be women who love. I think that part of it too is that we tend to confuse feminism with matriarchy. And it’s really not the same thing. It’s certainly not something that would try to hold back men, or hold down men at all. It simply is equality. So, I think part of the reason that I would say that is because I really did start and end and everything is about Jesus for me. After a period of my life where i was really perhaps in a wilderness, maybe, and really struggling with church and community and what that would mean. I honestly spent so much time in the Gospels, really fell in love with Jesus. And I know it sounds a little emotional, and charismatic of me, but I am a child of the renewal movement and I cannot help that aspect of it. My tent is really wide now, and my borders are certainly wide open and I have really benefitted and learned, refined and reclaimed and done all of the deconstructing and rebuilding that was necessary, but I am still happy-clappy. But part of the reason of why that was because I felt like as I was reading about Jesus and learning who he was, it changed everything for me. He changed everything for me. And just understanding who he was as he moved through life, I began to understand my life as a disciple, and not just a church goer…changing my life and reorienting my life around who Jesus was, what he taught, changed my marriage, it changed my mothering, it changed my politics, it changed my opinion. And ironically, it brought me back to the institutional church. It brought me back to the practice of intentional community. So I mean all those things were a part of that, and this aspect of my calling, which was that I had a tremendous passion for women. I had a tremendous passion for women’s issues. And the more I learned, the more I learned about how Jesus looked at women, the more I looked at His interactions with them, the more I looked at even Paul and John and the rest of the church as a whole I was like ‘This is amazing!’ And of course my passions and vocations lined up there, I just felt really comfortable at that point in saying, ‘Well of course I am a feminist. Of course I am!’ It became so clear to me. it really came into place. It was quite funny, I remember the first time I said it because it was so…I was working with Mercy Ministries, and I was working with women’s ministries and I was quite passionate about global women’s issues, maternal health and that type of thing, and I would just say ‘Well I am a feminist.’ I remember I was in a church and somebody was like …..

Rich – It was like you said you were a terrorist.

Sarah – Exactly it was like dropping the f-word. And they said, ‘Well what kind of feminist are you?’ And just being cheeky and I said off the top of my head I said, ‘Well, I am a Jesus feminist.’ I am a feminist because I love Jesus, because following him lead me that way. And it just kind of took on it’s own life on my blog and it’s completely made up. It’s a completely made up term, and it was definitely a bit risky putting it on the cover but you know, at the same time, I think it’s gotten some good conversations started.

Rich – Now was there something particular or maybe is there a way to narrow down on a particular part of the Jesus narrative, that spoke to you, and maybe drew out some of those, drew out the feminist side of you? When you saw Jesus doing this or doing that, that kind of resonated with you on that.

Sarah – I think probably the kind of thing that resonated with me the most was that he didn’t treat us any differently. That there was no story, no joke, no aspect, no parable, nothing that seamed to poke fun at women. Or seemed to…I remember Dorothy E Sayer saying the same thing that ‘Nothing He said borrowed it’s pungency from the perversity of women.’

Rich – Oh ya, wow.

Sarah – No matter what, who he encountered, whether it was a man or a women, they were really engaged on their own soul’s two feet. There was no real difference there. I think it was almost that moment of realizing that we were there at the same time. There was not a lot of fanfare about it. There was not a lot of specialness to it, or difference. There was just a lot of wholeness that He engaged humanity whether they were female or male, rich or poor, religious or irreligious. There was just a tremendous amount of love and value that you engage with every incident. I mean there were a lot of stories throughout all of scripture that really captured my heart for sure.

Rich – Cool. I think there would be a lot of people listening to today’s show, who, their churches would be characterized, not necessarily anit-women, in the sense that they don’t have some sort of written policy, they’ve kind of landed in a theological place, I think for the most part. Well there obviously still are people who are in the broader church who are in that camp. For the most part. I think probably most people, particularly the tribe that we end of swimming with here, would be in that camp where they would say, ‘Women can do whatever they want. They can lead. And there are a lot of strong women doing a lot of great things, and are involved in all sorts of activities, leading in all different kinds of things.’ But there just seems to be a lack, those churches still seem to be dominated by men. And so what would you say to a church leader? How can we include more female voices at the table? And that’s a real personal question from my world. How do I as a guy, a guy leading in a church, I am a part of that team, I look around I say, ‘I want to find a way to have more women at the table here?” How do we do that?

Sarah – That’s a really good question. And part of what I love about the conversations that are developing is that people are wanting to have that conversation. I tend to agree with you. I don’t see things necessarily black and white and I’m not someone who thinks you have to 100% agree with everything I say or else you hate ladies. But I think that there are certain things that are different for every single community. I think that we need people who are very pragmatic and are willing to really engage in the hard work of staying within and look at things like church constitutions, and voting practices, more like the nuts and bolts of a community that can sometimes emerge over time. And then there are people who are really called to almost be the poets and the prophets of that kind of movement. The ones who are celebrating. The ones who are challenging. The ones who are inviting. And so theres a lot of different ways to kind of move through that. And so every community can look at what makes them unique, and follow Jesus and follow the Spirit and discern those things together. How that would look. I think probably the first thing I would recommend most of all is probably repenting. I know that’s not very…

Rich – No that’s good. Preach it sister. Common!

Sarah – I know really I’m just going to get all renewal movement on everybody. I think that part of it too is that sometimes it’s hard to have hope when you haven’t fully recognized the dispear. And I don’t know that that’s something that really emerges until we can really admit and see with clear eyes where we have been, where some wounds have happened, where something has happened. For me, my book is called “Jesus Feminist’, but it’s not a feminist book by any stretch of the imagination. It’s about the kingdom of God to me. It’s about what it looks like when we walk in wholeness. It’s about what it looks like when we are working together and are healed and we are moving through our lives and each other’s lives with that kind of love and joy and peach and patience with one another. So I think that’s a place that I would start. And I think another good question is to ask whether or not women are invisible in the community. I think that sometimes having more visibility for women will open up the opportunity for other women that they can be visible and that will normalize the experience for the church. And sometimes that’s a good place to start.

Rich – Absolutely. Well I appreciate that. My tines aren’t so tiny anymore. They are 13 and 11 and I know for me over the arc of my parenting, my eldest is a girl, and she’s fantastic. And I know on this issue what’s resonated multiple times in my own heart is I don’t ever want to be a part of a movement where my daughter is looked at as a second class spiritual citizen. Where at some, even at a subtle level, it’s communicated, ‘That’s great, you can.’ I love the whole part of your book where you talk about church ladies. The highest call is a fashion show. And you know, nothing wrong with fashion shows.

Sarah – No, nothing at all.

Rich – But, she can do whatever she wants. And that doesn’t necessarily need to mean that she’s going to be the teaching pastor next week.

Sarah – No it doesn’t at all. I think that part of it too is even questioning our own assumptions. That can be a hard thing sometimes. There was one church that I attended in my late teens. Most of my life women had always been a part of…maybe we just didn’t over think it very much, but a big part of it was, we needed them. When you are talking about smaller churches that don’t have, can’t afford to pay a full time staff, if there’s a woman that wants to serve communion…I mean we needed you. So there was the practical side of things for sure. On the other side of it, it was funny because even when there would be youth leadership communities or programs or whatever, they would often always only choose young boys for that, or young men for that. And there was no one really on the inside saying, ‘You know I think that 18 year old girl over there who has been leading small groups, and ministering in her school and whatever else, would be a great pastor.’

Rich – Right.

Sarah – There was no one that was the person putting their hand up and saying that. And that would have been amazing if that had been the case.

Rich – Absolutely. I remember years ago there at, well I’ll name it because it was positive…I worked at a church in Toronto called The Meeting House, we talked about that earlier. Our Bishop at the time, who was like the Grand Puba at the time in our denomination, this guy by the name of Darryl Winger, fantastic guy…he probably doesn’t listen but fantastic guy. And I remember one day at our church we were having, it speaks to the idea of invisibility, we were having a lunch at our church. And it was like a staff thing so it was a bunch of people from a bunch of different churches and it was one of those moments where I was like ‘Gosh, I need to learn from him.’ Behind, everyone was serving like at a buffet. And behind the buffet, there were only women. Now it just kind of defaulted out like that.

Sarah – Yep, often times it just does.

Rich – It does. And so he, it was a subtle movement and it was super small, but I remember him stepping in and saying, ‘It’s ok, let me do this. I don’t want there to be just women here.’ Wow. It was one of those small things and he probably doesn’t even remember doing it, but it resonated with me. Here’s a guy who is literally the Grand Puba of the denomination who was concerned about that issue and willing to step in and serve spaghetti or whatever it was that we were having that day.

Sarah – I think that’s part of what I mean when I talk about ’embodying the better.’ That idea of saying in this exact moment maybe I’m not changing everything for the better of history and time, every women and maybe I’m not rewriting UN legislation. But right now I am going to nominate a women to our elder board. Or right now I am going to go behind the buffet table and serve. And right now I am going to embody what I want to see the whole being and just take this moment and embody that a better way.

Rich – Absolutely. You speak a lot in your book, you talk about some of your international experience. And that has always been one of the great ironies as I have…I have not done a lot of international travel, and haven’t done a lot of work with missionaries, but the little that I have done, I am always amazed at really in a lot of ways, women are holding up the world. They are supporting the world, particularly when you get into the developing world, the 2/3’s world. And so it’s a fantastic book. I don’t want to give too much away because what I don’t’ want people to do is think ‘Oh I’ve listened, I don’t’ need to read this book.’ Is there anything else that you would like to share with people who are listening in, church leaders, just about your book or just about life in general.

Sarah – Oh my goodness,. Well you should’t just ask such an open ended question of someone like me. Back to what you were saying about the international connection. I think that was the point where I really started to push back against the really narrow box that we have identified as Biblical womanhood, or Biblical manhood even. Because to be honest I feel like they are both pretty damaging. But part of the reason why is because I began to feel like, if it’s not just as true for a woman in Haiti as it is for me in middle class Canada, than I have to really ask if what we are preaching about is really the Gospel. And so I think that was part of where that connection was for me. It’s bigger than this small, narrow box…an affluent, western, married, two kids vision of womanhood. Even you look at women who are widowed, women who are single, women who are single mom’s. All the different seasons and stages of our lives, and yet we focus on this really small view of what that would look like and miss the freedom and expansiveness of the Gospel and what that would really look like. I think that’s part of it for me. That’s why it’s shaped me so much is I mean you spend any amount of time and you really have to say ‘If it’s not true in, than it’s not true here.’ Then that’s maybe just a new law that we are creating. Anyway, that definitely did open my eyes and hopefully that will continue to.

Rich – Ya, definitely. That’s even just a good point to end on, that as people think about what they believe. There will be some people listening to the show that would be from a more restrictionist point of view, and a lot of times I’ve found in those conversations, people can’t acknowledge that their view of scripture is being shaped by their culture. That is a starting point for the conversation. We need to start with asking what is the Gospel, and what is our culture. And that’s super hard to do, I acknowledge that, because we all come to the Scripture with our own understanding. I come at it with a guy, I used to say 30 something, now I guess almost 40 something, tech guy who is interested in that stuff, I realize I read the scripture with that point view on.

Sarah – Absolutely.

Rich – I have to figure out how to take that, celebrate that, but also get to what the scripture actually says. Sarah, if people want to get in touch with you, read the book that sort of thing, how would they do that?

Sarah – My website is Sarahbessey.com. I’m on twitter and Facebook pretty much all with the same name and just the little yellow book everywhere you see it.

Rich – Nice, fantastic. We will also link to that. Put a link to all that stuff in the show notes. Sarah I really appreciate you being with us today and taking time out of your schedule to take some time.

Sarah – Well thank you for inviting me! I really appreciate it Rich. Thank you.

Rich – Thank you!


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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.