Is Feminine the New Normal?

An article by Doug Muder, 29 January 2006

This morning the female student minister at my Unitarian Universalist church told a heart-warming story of how her previous church had welcomed a woman in distress. The woman’s partner had died three weeks before, and she came to this church looking for the kind of community support she could not find anywhere else in her life. At the door the greeter recognized her as a newcomer and started a conversation, during which the whole story spilled out. Some empathic parishioner was found to sit with her through the service. Afterward she was introduced to other sympathetic members, who let her cry when she needed to and supported her in letting her emotions out. Having been met with this kind of acceptance and compassion, the woman joined the church and was last seen singing in the choir.

This positive example of seeking support and finding it was contrasted with congregations where it is necessary to “wear armor”. In congregations like this, everyone pretends to have life well under control and engages in all sorts of do-good projects to help unfortunate others — who of course resemble ourselves not at all.

I understood the point our student minister was making, and in fact I sympathize with it. We UU’s do have a tendency to be paternalistic, and to project our own pain onto distant others rather than dealing with it in the first person. But I had trouble listening to the point of the sermon because I couldn’t get past the story. My wife has survived two different cancers over the last ten years, and has come close enough to dying that I could easily identify with the story’s recently bereaved woman.

And I thought: I hope to God no one treats me that way.

Because no matter how politically or socially liberal I may be, I am a man, and I deal with my emotions in a masculine way — alone, or in front of at most one very trusted person. When hurt, my greatest fear is not that my pain will go unrecognized, but that having once plunged into the overwhelming depths of pain, I will never come back up. I fear being so broken that I will never stand up again and take my place in the World.

And so, if I am ever bereaved, my showing up at church will be a sign that I think I’m done processing my emotions, at least for now. It means that I believe, or at least hope, that I’m ready to take up my role again in some limited form. I’m going to show up with a few extra plates of armor that day, and be glad to have them. My goal will be to have more-or-less normal interactions with people, ones that don’t revolve around my woundedness and inability to function.

People who want to support me that day can do so by creating social situations that are easy to handle. Let’s talk about sports or the weather or whatever cute thing your kid did this week. I’ll be like a racehorse newly recovered from a leg injury. I’ll want to trot around the track gingerly and make it back to the stable without incident. Help me out. Don’t create any special opportunities for me to cry. If I break down, I’ll have failed in my mission. And the more people who see me fail, the longer it will be before I dare to come out again.

Contrast the minister’s feminine story with this masculine story from the Neal Stephenson novel Cryptonomicon. Goto Dengo is a Japanese soldier who has survived a series of disasters, each of which killed nearly all the soldiers around him. Though he did nothing wrong, he feels dishonored by his very survival. Rather than dying an honorable death like his colleagues, he now recovers helplessly in a Catholic hospital in the Japanese-occupied Philippines.

The Filipino priests and nuns who staff the hospital have been forbidden to proselytize, but Dengo feels that merely by caring for him in his helpless condition, they are forcing him into Christianity. How? Because their care dishonors him. His Japanese religion requires him to maintain his honor, but he sees Christianity as a religion for “low people” — people without honor. Now that his honor is gone, he fears he will have no choice but to become a Christian.

Does that story feel foreign to you? Good, it was supposed to. The moral I want to draw from it is that people who are different from you may need a different kind of care. Merely being good to them according to your own lights may not be good at all. In particular, the emotional process that seems caring and supportive and healthy to a woman may be exactly what a man does not need from his church.

Last summer I read the book Why Men Hate Going to Church by David Murrow. Murrow is a Christian, and his book examines a paradox: Why does a church founded by men, whose ministry is overwhelmingly male, attract about twice as many women as men? He finds a self-reinforcing cycle, in which the church’s message, environment, and activities are geared for women because they’re the ones who show up. (This matches my experience programming UU adult education classes. My wife used to joke that the reading course I was leading was my “night out with the girls.”)

Murrow’s book is populated with many semi-fictional characters, including the Christian couple Greg and Judy. Judy loves their church, but Greg hates it. Partly, it’s the way the message is pitched. “Greg,” Murrow writes, “has no desire to fall in love with a wonderful man, even one named Jesus.” Hearing this message preached by a man every Sunday does not make it any more palatable. Worse, the whole church environment is stacked against Greg. The skills their church needs and rewards are typically feminine skills that Judy has but Greg doesn’t. “To really [succeed] at Judy’s church, Greg would need more than a conversion experience; he’d need a personality transplant.”

Murrow characterizes the men who fit in well at churches as feminized. Men’s ministry so often falters for this simple reason: it’s actually women’s ministry for men. When Christian men gather, they’re expected to relate like women and to enjoy the things women enjoy. Men’s ministry is built around the needs and expectations of women — or more precisely, the soft men who show up for men’s ministry events. So the men’s retreat features singing, hugging, hand holding, and weeping. Men sit in circles and listen, read, or share. We keep our conversations clean, polite, and nonconfrontational. While there’s nothing wrong with men doing these things, it feels feminine to a lot of the guys. So they stay home.

Murrow is describing Christian churches, which are bastions of the Patriarchy by UU standards. At the Boston General Assembly a couple years ago, I attended a panel discussion on UU men’s groups. Someone in the audience commented on the difficulty men’s groups had addressing standard male topics, like sports. One of the panelists had an answer: A UU men’s group could discuss how it felt to be the last kid picked.

That’s great. Just fabulous. Hey, guys! Were you always the last kid picked? You ought to be a UU! We’re all losers too!

A couple years before that I attended a meeting that the Massachusetts Bay District organized to promote the new Small Group Ministry program for UU churches. The male minister of a church in Maine told us how the program had revolutionized his church and could revolutionize the UU movement. Like the men’s ministry Murrow describes, SGM has a lot of quiet talking and sharing of emotions. It is supposed to build intimacy and relationships, two words men use only when they’re trying to impress women.

I had my hand up, but somebody else asked my question first: How did this minister get men to join the program? The answer, after a lot of hemming and hawing, is that he didn’t. “It’s hard to get men to talk about their feelings,” he explained.

So apparently the “revolutionized” UU movement doesn’t need men.

Almost a decade has passed since I heard the claim that UU’s had achieved gender balance in our ministry. I assume that is ancient history by now. Our older generation of male ministers is being replaced by a younger generation of female ministers; for a brief moment it all balanced. In my church, the senior minister is male and about my age (49), but for many years our student ministers have been either female or gay. The only straight male I can remember left without completing the program.

The problem I see is not that women or gay men can’t be good ministers, or can’t be good ministers to heterosexual men. I’ve had a lot of respect for all of our student ministers. (And the only reason I’m being so hard on our current student is that I think she has what it takes to benefit from criticism.)

The problem is that feminine has become the new Normal. Look back at the story from this morning’s service. Can you imagine any of the characters in that story as men? I can’t. Even the deceased “partner” seems to be female. It’s a story about women helping another woman in classically feminine ways. And it’s a story about how church is supposed to be.

And someday soon it will probably be that way. But don’t feel sorry for me, I’m sure I’ll be OK. I am unusually verbal and empathic for a man, so I should do well. No doubt the feminized UU church of the future will welcome men who know their place.

At times, though, I’m probably going to feel like Goto Dengo: I will feel that I have no choice but to be in this church of women, because by then I’ll practically be a woman myself.