Is Your Pastor Sexist? Is the New York Times Sexist? Are You Sexist?

Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched our Presbyterian colleagues protesting Princeton Theological School’s plan to honor Tim Keller, who in his long ministry has argued women should be subservient to their husbands, a point of view that is also interpreted to state women should not be ministers.

Before I go any further, let me be clear: CBP/Chalice Press strongly disagrees with that stance, or with any stance that espouses inequality in any form whatsoever. There are many, many, many1 women doing incredible ministry that should inspire us all to step up our game. We’re lucky to work with them.

Back to the story. Traci Smith, author of the recently released Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments at Home and a Princeton alumna, blogged about this and caught the attention of both Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News (she declined their interview request) and the New York Times, which didn’t reach out to her but quoted her blog instead.

Is Your Pastor Sexist?, by Times contributor Julia Baird, referred to “Rev. Tim Keller” and “Dr. Keller.” It then referred to Traci as “Traci Smith, a former Princeton seminarian who is now a minister,” and noted Christian author Carol Howard Merritt as “a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” No Rev. before their names.

Surely this was a mistake, right? Copyediting gone awry? 2

Traci and Carol both mused about that on social media, and their connections jumped on the bandwagon. I’m not one to fire off Letters to the Editor, but this was clearly an instance where we could offer our opinion as a publisher regarding one of our writers, as well as share a view on the world of ministry with some folks who might not necessarily understand how things work in the professional field. So this morning, I sent off this missive:

    Dear editor,

    Julia Baird’s opinion piece, Is Your Pastor Sexist?, contains several unintentional but extremely ironic sexist errors. The male subject of the article is referred to as both Rev. Keller and Dr. Keller, indicating the Times uses honorific titles. Two female pastors, Traci Smith and Carol Howard Merritt, do not have Rev. attached to their references, indicating the Times does not use honorific titles. Which is it? Surely this decision isn’t driven by gender?

    It’s likely bad copyediting is the culprit here, but this oversight epitomizes the everyday challenge female pastors face in their vocation — sexism undermines the equally challenging work they do in a workplace that is all too often hostile to them simply because of their chromosomal combinations.

    I see one correction already in the online version. If a story about sexism is inherently sexist, that probably merits at least a correction as well, does it not?

    Sincerely,
    Brad Lyons

A few hours later, an email rolled in from Matt Seaton, Staff Editor in the Op-Ed Department:

    Thank you for your letter regarding Julia Baird’s Op-Ed essay “Is Your Pastor Sexist?” I am responding because your letter was forwarded to me as the editor of this article.

    Times style usually allows for use of the title “Rev.” (for Reverend) only on first mention, and this was applied to the Rev. Tim Keller in this case. (Thereafter, he appeared as Dr. Keller, given his doctorate of ministry.) But honorifics are applied as context allows, not as a rigid rule.

    Our chief copy-editor explained to me that the “Rev.” title was not applied to the other two ministers in the piece, Traci Smith and Carol Howard Merritt, because they were introduced in ways that would have made the addition of “the Rev.” awkward and clumsy, and because, in each case, they were both clearly identified as minister or pastor.

    On second use of each of those ministers’ names, “Ms.” was the correct honorific, since neither of them, to the best of our knowledge, has a doctorate of divinity or ministry.

    Thank you for your attention to this matter and taking the trouble to communicate your view to us.

    Best, Matt

So the honorifics were cut because it would make the writing clunky. That’s weak. Very, very weak. Just rewrite the sentence! You’re not going to wear out your computer or need Tommy John surgery to fix that.

But it’s more than weak — it’s offensive.

I understand we’re talking about a few letters, but those few letters make a world of difference. Though their choice was intentional, their choice also subliminally subjugates female pastors in their vocation and in our culture.

CBP/Chalice Press is a ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which has for decades ordained women, and our first female General Minister and President, Sharon Watkins, is about to be followed by our second female General Minister and President, Teresa Hord Owens. We’re darn proud of that. Beyond that, we work with women and men, ordained and non-ordained, from many denominations, because we believe everybody has gifts from God regardless of whether they’ve gone through school or the proper training.

What I hear from my female colleagues in ministry is that it’s getting better but that the gender gap we see across society still exists in ministry – in the lack of respect shown to female clergy, in disparate compensation packages, and in the opportunities to lead at vibrant congregations. It’s going to take a lot of work to fix this, but we must fix it, and all the other prejudices in our culture, if we are to live in the Beloved Community.

It falls to all of us in the ways we talk about each other, the ways we hold each other accountable for our biases, the way we work on ourselves to erase those biases. But the New York Times, bless its heart – I sure hope it comes to its senses soon.

Footnotes

1. Many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many… well, you get the gist.
2. Baird reached out to Traci and said she hadn’t used titles, that they were added later.

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.

Published by

Brad Lyons

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.

12 thoughts on “Is Your Pastor Sexist? Is the New York Times Sexist? Are You Sexist?”

  1. You know, as I look at the editor’s response again, I notice the importance of his phrase “honorifics are applied as context allows.” Surely in this case the context would warrant the application of honorifics to female clergy as the context of this opinion piece is sexism!

    Thanks to you, Brad, and Chalice, for having integrity on this and for caring about much more than (only) selling books.

  2. Thank you so much for your commitment to fighting sexism within media.
    I would like to share that this letter, while a good first step, perpetuates violence against transgender people, particularly trans women and femmes. By equating chromosomes with gender, you erase the many transgender – women clergy present and emerging in the church, like The Rev. Rebecca Steen, The Rev. Dr. Erin K. Swensen, The Rev. Allyson Robinson, and not to mention emerging clergy candidates, like Nicole Garcia and myself. We do nothing to tear down sexism if we just replace it with transphobia and cissexism.

    1. Thank you for your comment, and you’re correct. My line of thinking was that chromosomes=genetics, not necessarily gender. I certainly did not intend to erase, overlook, or undermine anybody. Admittedly, it’s too late to make that change for the New York Times, but lesson learned.

      Thanks,
      Brad

  3. Bravo for your great work on this. One friendly-suggested amendment. By the same editing logic you’re advocating (and for which I also wrote to the editor), shouldn’t it be Rev. Sharon Watkins and Rev. Teresa Hord Owens above?

    1. Thank you, Patrick. I don’t advocate for or against honorifics; I advocate for equal treatment and consistency. The honorifics in this blog are quotes or cited examples. CBP/Chalice Press’ style is to avoid honorifics, but I will concede we too struggle with that as well.

      Thanks,
      Brad

  4. In many articles and academic papers after the honorific is stated once it is acceptable to use the last name alone with no gender reference either as in “Jones said…” and “Williams suggested…”. Also just use last name in footnotes after full name, honorific and source named first time use such as ” 5 Harris, p. 76.”

  5. I’m also a news editor, and I can’t help but note that “Traci Smith, a former Princeton seminarian who is now a minister” is a whole lot more “awkward and clumsy” than “Rev. Traci Smith, a former Princeton seminarian” or “Rev. Traci Smith, who attended Princeton Theological Seminary.”

  6. Thank you for speaking out. Ironic. The writers implicit bias is showing in an article supposed to support women. Adding someones title as Rev. Is not awkward. Own the mistake. Would you omit the title if it was a medical degree … Say Traci Smith a neurosurgeon no it would be Dr.

  7. Thank you Brad! Celebrating my 19th year of ordination this year, it has been an uphill Journey as a woman minister. I have lost count of the number of times people know what to call the male Minister but what do they call me Ms. OR Pastor? I am ordained and have the Rev. Title and because of my education and God’s calling I tell them. You may call me pastor or Rev. or in my case Chaplain in the capacity I serve as a State chaplain in institutions rather than in a church on the outside. When people beat around the bush as this article and reply included they are only hiding their insecurities or perhaps regrets that they didn’t take the steps to earn a degree or achieve a professional status. It was God’s grace and mercy number one that got me to where I am now and my willingness to sacrifice a lot of spare time and be super busy raising a family and having time for them in the time I was going to Seminary and College. Now to be told I can’t lead and I shouldn’t be in the pulpit leads me to say to the institutional congregations that I serve, and other places I’m called to be a supply preacher I am not above men or trying to lead them but rather Christ is the true leader and Head of the church. I am an assistant leader and Shepherd of the flock. Why do we have to look at the gender of a person in the Pulpit or leading the church? Having been in an abusive marriage and finally needing to divorce, I tell people Jesus is the man I submit to and allow His decision and guidance to keep me on the right path because yes He was a male who walked on this Earth, but the only perfect male who ever lived but Divine and I know I can fully trust and love his guidance for me. Thank you again for going to bat on this issue of sexism.

    Rev. Sharon VonBlohn, MDiv, MSW

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