Ahh, the Church Lady. Love ’em or hate ’em, they play a big part in the story of anyone who grew up in church culture. Those hat-wearing, fan-flapping, Bible-toting spiritual matriarchs hold a lot of power. Think it’s only the men who made the decisions in the church? Think again. The church ladies had a lot to say behind the scenes, and over time they finally gained access to the governing committees that direct the church, and rightfully so. They have wisdom to share, and they deserve to be heard. But it hasn’t always been that way.
Back in the day, the men ran the church. Well, they were the pastors and deacons and trustees and elders. But you can be sure that the women knew the score, and the wise church man listened to his church lady wife, and took her opinions seriously.
In my small-town church when I was growing up, one of the best ways to catch up on all the dirt, field and otherwise, was to attend the annual church work day. This was the church’s big Spring Clean, as well as one of the only times we girls were allowed to wear pants to church. Sounds a little strange these days, but that was the fundamental baptist church culture in the 1960’s.
In our small rural community, most of the church ladies were farm wives.
I was very small – still pre-school aged, and the youngest of nine kids born to a second generation dairy farmer. I loved going to church for any reason. It was a happy, safe place. On cleaning day, the men did the heavy work and repairs. The women did what they did every other day – they supervised the kids, while cooking and cleaning and making coffee and sharing the news.
One of the ladies, who was scrubbing the floor on her knees, invited me to work next to her. She gave me a rag and showed me how to wash the floor. My mother came over to be sure I wasn’t being a bother, which of course I wasn’t, because I was heart-breakingly adorable at that age. Trust me – I’ve seen the picture.
I dunked the rag in the cleaning bucket, squeezed it out, scrubbed my little patch of floor, and repeated, under the watchful eye of the church lady. She kindly listened to me while I chattered, and didn’t tell me to be quiet or to stop bothering her. I felt comfortable in the space she made for me, like I belonged. She was a nice church lady.
I wish I remembered her name, or even her face. I do remember she had a soft voice, a kind smile, and a gentle spirit. She was patient with me. I don’t remember anything else about that day, but I do remember feeling happy in her presence, even 50 years later.
Isn’t that what church is supposed to be? It was originally meant to be the body of Christ, functioning together as a whole, serving the community. According to James 1:27, Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. Are we looking after the widows and orphans? Are we serving the homeless? Are we serving one another? Could we do it better?
Wasn’t it Jesus who said ‘Come all you weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’? (Matthew 11:28) I have witnessed the weary and burdened coming to the church, looking for the rest and hope Jesus was talking about, and never coming back, because their realness made people uncomfortable.
I heard the church lady comments.
I haven’t seen them here before.
How does he expect to fit in around here with long hair and tattoos?
She should know better than to wear pants to a church service.
That pregnant girl shouldn’t be playing the piano up front.
Everyone knows she is divorced. I can only imagine why.
It doesn’t have to be that way. I want to bring back the real Church Lady. The Church Lady who is kind, patient, loving, believes the best about others, and serves those in need without deciding if they are worthy. Isn’t that the brand of Church Lady we all need?
In fact, I’ve decided to rename her. She is now the CL.
- I want to be real. We are all messy sometimes – I choose to embrace the mess. We should normalize things like broken hearts, broken minds, broken families, and broken relationships. If we can’t take those messes and hurts to church and find hope and healing there, in the arms of Jesus and loving CL’s and CG’s (Church Gentlemen, this applies to you too), we might as well lock the doors for good.
- I want to start on my knees. I choose to kneel down in humility and admit my inadequacies before God. I want to acknowledge the stuff that gets tracked in on the shoes of the precious people who have been walking around in real life, wading through real yuck, and then coming to join the body of Christ. That’s a mess I want to show up for, every time. I’ll even help clean it up.
- I want to hold space for the Othered. There will always be space next to me for the Others. Have you ever been judged by the church? Have you ever felt like you shouldn’t go to church because you don’t measure up? Do you feel you aren’t good enough, holy enough, churchy enough? Maybe you feel like you are on the outside of the church-club looking in, where everyone else knows the right songs and the rules and and has the right haircut and nice clothes and perfect marriages, and somehow you missed the mark, so you don’t quite fit in. You, my friend, have been Othered. Jesus was Othered by the religious leaders of His day, so the truth is you fit right in, and there is space for you, right here next to me.
- If I have something to say, I’m going to say it out loud. There will be no under-handed back-stabbing gossip disguised as “prayer requests”. There will be honest, respectful, forthright conversation. If there is a problem and I feel I need to address it, I will talk about it to the face of whomever it involves. Like a CL.
What’s your church lady story?
Is she one of the good ones, or is she a pill? Did she inspire you or make you cringe? I’ve met some truly great church ladies. They were the CL before it was a thing. Stay tuned – I want to introduce you to a few of them. Share your story in the comments, and let’s celebrate the Church Ladies.