2008-05-30 / Faith

Camarillo author talks about sexism in ministry

By Eliav Appelbaum eliav@theacorn.com

Sarah Sentilles Sarah Sentilles Sarah Sentilles has heard the horror stories of female ministers, and now she's sharing their tales. The Camarillo author spoke at California Lutheran University's Overton Hall recently about sexism in religion and the struggles women face in the ordination process, from the more senior male church leaders and from difficult congregations.

Sentilles, 34, a teacher of critical thinking at California State University Channel Islands, published her second book, "A Church of Her Own: What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit," in April.

Nearly ordained as an Episcopal priest, the author discussed the inspiration for writing the book and what she gleaned from interviewing more than 30 women from Protestant denominations and two Catholic women. She called the subjects of her book "bright, funny and very faithful women."

"We all need to work to make churches welcoming to everyone," Sentilles said after the discussion. "I find that we have to admit sexism is a problem and that it exists in churches and communities. We have to be brave enough to take on that challenge."

Sentilles explained that her "ordination process did not go well," causing her faith to falter; she said she no longer felt at home in the institutional church.

"I thought what happened to me during the ordination process was my fault," Sentilles said, "but then I began to pay attention to the experiences of other women from my divinity school. . . . Brilliant, faithful women were being driven out of churches. . . . I wrote 'A Church of Her Own' to understand what was happening."

In her talk, Sentilles compared sexism in religious circles to the political arena, noting how society is afraid of women, especially women in power. As an example, she said Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has been scrutinized for certain features, such as having a shrill voice, not being nice enough or showing too much cleavage.

The crowd listened attentively to her stories, and half the discussion involved a questionandanswer forum.

Trudy Milburn, a communications professor at CSUCI, read Sentilles' book aloud over the weekend with her husband, Cal Lutheran professor Chris Christian. Christian, who introduced the author and invited her to speak, works in CLU's graduate psychology program and is the director of community counseling services.

"I think (the book) really speaks to all professions where sexism exists," Milburn said. "I loved her analogies with Hillary. . . . It's good to see the similarities of sexism in politics and religion. I hadn't thought much about that."

Christian said he was "inspired" by Sentilles' work.

Sentilles earned her undergraduate degree in literature at Yale and a master of divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School. She completed her doctorate in theology at Harvard on April 28, although she won't officially graduate until June 5.

The author is currently working on another nonfiction book about people who lose faith. Sentilles also wrote "Taught by America: A Story of Struggle and Hope in Compton" about her experience with the Teach for America program.

Even though her research on sexism troubled her, Sentilles thinks there's hope for women who hope to become religious leaders.

"I'm surprisingly optimistic," Sentilles said. "I started off angry writing this book. But women are doing some inspired ministerial work. As a friend told me, the train's left the station. There's no going back."

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