When Good Intentions Aren't Enough: Microaggressions In Our Churches

“We’re worried that our children’s program won’t grow. Parents won’t bring their child to a church with lesbian pastors and so many gay people,” a deacon stated woefully.

“Isn’t she pretty?” he said as he pinched my cheeks and introduced me to a prestigious male academic, “you’d never know she’s smart.” 

“It’s fine that you’re gay. Our church has dealt with that. But keep your lifestyle out of the pulpit,” a congregant steamed after a sermon about equality.

Comments like these have been a regular occurrence in the seventeen years I have ministered in local churches and seminaries. As a queer woman I knew that many elements of ministry blatantly excluded me, claiming that my mere presence was a sin, an abomination. So, I chose to affiliate myself with churches, seminaries, and denominational groups who boldly proclaim to affirm women in ministry and are “welcoming and affirming” of LGBTQ persons. 

They are organizations that pride themselves in their openness. 

Yet I’ve found myself consistently feeling invalidated, excluded, and marginalized by some of the very people and organizations that claim to be allies. 

What makes dealing with these feelings so difficult is that the individuals who make these statements are most often good, thoughtful, moral people who never intend to be sexist, heterosexist, racist, or exclusive. In fact, I would surmise that most would call themselves allies and say that they care about justice and inclusion. Many feel that their words are compliments.

Comments and actions like these are called microaggressions. Microaggressions are everyday slights, insults, or invalidations directed at marginalized groups and persons by individuals who typically have good intentions, but who may not be fully aware of their privileges. Psychologists claim that microaggressions build up over time, causing stress, pain, and anxiety for marginalized persons. 

One of the tremendous powers of microaggressions is their ambiguity, both for the victim and perpetrator. 

Though I experienced such microaggressions throughout all of my ministerial tenure, I didn’t have the language for grappling with them. I had never heard of the term “microaggression,” and I constantly questioned my own experiences because the people invalidating and excluding me were people that I thought were allies. 

My experiences of exclusion culminated when my arrival at a church entailed having two out lesbians as head pastors. It was a church with a robust history of social justice, a church that received multiple awards for its work in racial reconciliation and LGBTQ rights, a so-called coveted position for any progressive Baptist. 

“Surely this will be a place where all are welcomed, affirmed, and celebrated,” I thought. 

Yet the microaggressions intensified as good, thoughtful, progressive people acted out of their own privileges in ways that hurt, excluded, and marginalized an array of queer people, women, persons of color, and persons from different socio-economic classes. 

“Did I hear him correctly?” “Am I being too sensitive?” “Surely she didn’t mean that.” 

These thoughts and questions swirled through my mind.

At a time when the hate mail increased—always citing the same six bible verses and once describing the way my flesh would smell when I burned in hell—I looked to my faith community for support. 

I could handle the hate mail. The blatant forms of exclusion and discrimination are not what caused me so much psychological, emotional, spiritual, and physical distress. Rather, it was the underhanded comments, the invalidations, the slights from within the community that called me pastor that assaulted my soul.

As I tried to navigate this dissonance, I realized that other minorities within the congregation were experiencing similar things. I knew something was truly wrong when I began to feel depressed, anxious, and my physical health suffered. I am very fortunate to typically be an incredibly healthy, upbeat person with a positive outlook. 

Yet as a pastor of this progressive congregation I felt unwelcome, depressed, and anxious. 

I struggled with sleeping, eating, energy levels, and couldn’t figure out why. When a colleague shared a chapter of Derald Wing Sue’s Microaggressions in Everyday Life I felt as though he had read my mind, knew my heart, and named my struggles. I realized I was not alone, that my experiences were not invalid. 

I read everything I could find about microaggressions, realizing that I was not too sensitive and that many of the people perpetrating these microaggressions did so without malicious intent. If learning about microaggressions could be such a balm for me, surely it could help others.

I began talking with colleagues of color, fellow women and queers, listening to their experiences, and sharing the good news of microaggressions literature. Virtually every individual from an underrepresented group had experienced microaggressions. 

What made their stories so profoundly powerful—and often heart-breaking—is that they didn’t merely occur at work, in daily life, or at school. Rather these stories of exclusion, insult, and invalidation occurred within the walls of the church—in its myriad and multifaceted forms—packing theological weight onto an already painful experience. 

Consequently, I recognized I have a responsibility to help others grapple with these indignities. 

Studying microaggressions also helped me to acknowledge when I am a perpetrator of indignities, insults, and invalidations. Acting out of my own privilege as a white, educated, temporarily able-bodied, cisgender, thin person, I have been guilty of microaggressing against others. 

It reminded me that—no matter how many anti-racism trainings I attend or books I read about ability and privilege—I still have the capacity of marginalizing others. The more I learn about microaggressions, the more I can alter my behaviors to be a better ally. 

These experiences and research culminated in partnering with Rev. Dr. Cody Sanders to write Microaggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Violence of Everyday Church. The book discusses targets of microaggressions: persons of color, women, and LGBTQs. It also addresses microaggressions in preaching, education, worship, spirituality, pastoral care, and counseling, while providing tools for confronting these seemingly subtle slights.  

The church should be a place of welcome, affirmation, inclusion, a place where every person is respected, honored, and celebrated. 

I believe that such a church can exist. 

It can exist if we are willing to honestly examine our privileges, and how we have the potential to assault the souls of countless minority persons.

Photo via flickr user Snipps Whispers

Comments (4)

TRUTH. I belong to a church with several transgender people. I'm transgender, myself. We had a service where several seminarians who'd gone through an education program on trans issues spoke to us. Again and again, we heard people talk about how they learned to see us as people. While this is a significant shift, what I heard over and over was "I saw you as a monster, then I was enlightened." Now, this is significant, absolutely. But this seems to be a personal thing. The net effect of hearing several of these in a row is despair, not hope. Several people who considered themselves strong LGB allies telling us about how they needed this program to see our common humanity ended up as deeply stigmatizing and I left church worse than when I arrived. Less hopeful, feeling less part of the body of Christ. It was perhaps my worst experience there, and it came from the best of intentions.

Truly my grandson calls me out when I make a statement which I feel is fine and he begins to tell me that I am offending someone by my statement which I never even considered that I was doing. We all have to continue to work on this so our churches can be accepting of everyone who is there and wants to be win church with Jesus.

I'm especially glad for the line about how ambiguous these things are. Somebody says something hurtful to me,-- but I see them say something similar to a white male colleague. Is there sexism at work? Yes, definitely. It is also a socially awkward human being who says strange things to everyone, but my gender/sexuality makes him that much more uncomfortable, and that much more awkward. I wish early in ministry someone had told me to wait, that some things become clear in time. And goofy people saying weird things to ministers is kind of a thing.

"And goofy people saying weird things..." isn't always meant to hurt anyone within church or community, but comes out to hopefully generate some sign of acceptance within/ from others when "they" say all are welcome, but repeatedly refuse to specify minority exclusions still occurring in "our" church in 2016.

Post new comment