I am so deeply grateful for the comments and information I got with the last post like this, that I thought I'd ask for your thoughts and feelings again - but on a different issue altogether.
I got an email this week from a woman who is a colleague in ordained ministry. For the past several years, she and two other ordained women have been leading a bible study in a prison.
It has been well attended and quite successful, but recently, some of the men have stopped coming. And, they have convinced the other men not to come.
My colleague has asked for a meeting with the Prison Chaplain, which she thinks will happen some time next week. She wrote asking me if I had any suggestions about what might be done so she could offer them as possible ideas when she meets with him.
Here's what I wrote, but I'd be interested in your thoughts. Thanks in advance for your contributions.
My dear Sister in Christ,
Well, ain't that just a kick in the back end of your Victoria Secrets! I'm so sorry for this. It must feel like a huge loss.
I suspect the men are basing their boycott on either 1 Cor. 14:34-35 “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
And possibly from 1 Tim. 2:11-12 “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”
You could argue those scripture passages with the inmates, and "talk them down" - even make them feel bad/guilty, and do that without even breaking a sweat.
Not only is that not your style, that's really not the issue, is it? As we say in pastoral counseling, 'the thing is never really the thing; it's usually something else." In other words, the presenting issue is rarely the real issue.
Or, to quote May Sarton, there are 'crucial conversations' that happen underneath the social or polite conversation where the real conversation is happening. That's what you've got to listen for/to. If you get together with the other two women before you meet with the chaplain, you may want to go over interactions, body language and other clues about what might be the real issue.
Several possibilities - in no particular order of importance - include:
1. The guys are just asserting what little power they have - even the power to reject Bible Study - and strike a small victory within the system by getting them to get 'real men' to teach them.
2. They could really believe what they are saying to you b/c the another evangelical or RC prison ministry team of men are telling them that.
3. They could be real assholes. Some men (and women) are. Prison just intensifies their assholedness.
4. This may be symptomatic of another kind of power struggle going on in the prison population between Christians and Muslims. The Muslims may be laughing at them b/c they have women teaching them the bible! Imagine! Must be highly inferior to their "real" Koran teaching.
5. Another kind of power struggle in the prison population may involve prison rape - and these guys may actually make themselves more vulnerable to gang rape b/c they are seen as 'inferior' in terms of taking bible study in the first place, but, to boot, an 'inferior' brand b/c it is led by women. There are lots of gang members in prison and no place in gang hierarchy for women or weak men (read: those who are taught by women).
6. They may find you attractive (well, b/c you are) and they are having a hard time (as it were) concentrating on scripture b/c they can't get their minds out of what's going on in their pants.
7. It could be all of the above, in various permutations and in various manifestations among the individual men in the group. No doubt, they do not have the emotional maturity or the social skills to do this kind of self-assessment - but you do.
I strongly suspect that at the very bottom of this is a struggle about power - personal or institutional or both. That shouldn't come as a surprise, I suppose. They are men who are incarcerated for breaking the law. Understand the power dynamic here and you've got a key to unlock the possibilities of finding a solution.
So, what you do depends on your assessment of what's really going on, which you'll need to do among yourselves and with the Chaplain. You may need to face the fact that, if you are going to continue this work, you are going to have to involve men on your teaching team. That may mean someone from your church, the diocese or someone from the prison population who helps you lead the bible study.
You may also need to face the stone cold fact that the solution may be out of your hands. It may even be out of the Prison Chaplain's hands. There may be power dynamics at play here that are symptomatic of another, bigger problem that is unknown to you presently, or may be at the initial stages of brewing.
Whatever you do, I hope you don't give up. That would be a shame. You may need to take a bit of a sabbatical for a while and then try to start it up again in the early spring. If you have to give up with the men, then I hope you consider transferring your energies to the women's side of the prison, if that's possible.
I'll keep you in my prayers. If I think of anything else, I'll write again.
May God continue to bless you and this important ministry.