When I married Andrew 9 years ago, we tried to squeeze ourselves into traditional gender roles: husband at the top of the chain, then the wife. The hierarchy of gender was the ‘biblical’ pattern for marriage we both had been taught, and I secretly hated it. In college, I had some Christian female friends who longed for marriage and wanted to be stay-at-home moms. Not me. I wanted to be married, sure, but I also longed for adventure, a writing career, and purpose beyond the home. I refused to believe that life started when I got married.
I was labeled a feminist. Sometimes that label irked me, sometimes it empowered me.
After publicly declaring our vows, Andrew and I tried to settle into American life. The newspaper I worked for had just gone bankrupt. Unemployed and job hunting, I had become a stay-at-home wife. In many ways, I felt like the wild within me had to be locked up. I questioned whether those desires were from God. Did God want me to stay home? Cooking and cleaning were part of what I understood as my role. Andrew worked a job that required him to travel four hours a day. Did God want Andrew to feel pressured to take a bad job so he could provide? He was clearly the breadwinner. He was first. My role was one of support. Searching for a job wasn’t just an economic search. I hoped it would bring back a bit of my ‘higher calling’ beyond the home. This only magnified the ridiculousness of my resistance to be ‘domesticated.’ No one was calling me a feminist now.
It wasn’t until I began doing ministry with my husband that I really started to see another option beyond traditional gender roles.
Co-Partnering in Ministry
We were seven months married when we moved to Mexico as missionaries. I knew Spanish. Andrew didn’t. So in many ways, the power balance between us swapped. I had to be his mouth and his ears, and as he often says, his crutch, until at least seven months in when he began having conversations on his own.
When we began our coffee shop ministry, El Búho (The Owl), we were both ‘domesticated’ as I had previously seen it. We both swept and mopped. We both cleaned the toilet. What seemed like gender roles turned into personality strengths. He is good at carpentry and logistics. So he built stuff that made our upstairs residential apartment transform into a welcoming coffee shop. His extroverted self is good at having conversations with random strangers, so he would talk and talk and talk to the international rock climbers. I am an introvert and a writer. So I kept up with our blog and though I had many-a-conversation, I had to recharge afterward. I am an artist, so I painted a lot of owls on a lot of scrap pieces of wood. I love to bake, so I baked pay de queso, roles de canela, and pastel. But I didn’t bake cookies because for some reason my cookies never came out right. So Andrew began baking cookies, and he was good at it.
Ministry seemed to be more about our personalities than our gender, more about our talents than our genetic makeup. The vertical hierarchy of gender started looking more horizontal.
Callings Rather than Boxes
When we began volunteering as youth pastors, I preached more often because I spoke better Spanish and because I was a better public speaker. But when we took our youth rock climbing, Andrew—a rock climber—took the lead. He was great at teaching the youth how to look for holds and how to rappel. I was the rock-climber-by-association, the one who cried on the top of several climbs Andrew took me on. But I was great at encouraging them as I belayed. “You can do it — si se puede!”
In the midst of a heavily saturated machismo-mentality culture, Andrew and I didn’t so much learn distinctions for gender roles as we learned personality-infused ministering. We learned to come alive by ministering to others from the depths of our souls rather than from the boxes we were taught to fit into. We attended a counter-cultural church where women preached to the whole congregation. Pastor David and Pastora Monica were rebels in their own culture, paving a path we didn’t have to pioneer.
Shifting Our Perspective of Ministry
Serving as a married couple had a way of refining us. There was more opportunity for conflict, but also more opportunity for the gospel to be worked out between us. "If we agreed or disagreed about what was going on, we kept pushing each other forward. We weren’t afraid to argue with each other. To solve a disagreement, you have to work it out, you have to figure out what you need to change, or die to, and then you move forward accordingly. Fortunately, I married an Italian woman so I got plenty of that, and so did she," Andrew said.
Looking back on it now, I think because our pastor and his wife were already serving as co-partners at our local church—and they served as a covering over our coffee shop—we may have helped affirm their already ongoing witness that while genders are distinct they are not hierarchied in the Kingdom of God.
And as the gospel was being worked out between the two of us, we saw it bear fruit in the same way in the ministry we were leading together. When our fellow church congregants referred to the coffee shop, they always used both our names with it. The onda—vibe/spirit—of the shop was always communal. Our partnership as a married couple set a deeper tone for our work together in the broader community. Whether the customers were male or female, dirtbag climbers who hadn’t bathed for days, Mexican youth spiffed up and out on their first date, or a mixed group of locals and internationals sitting around playing another long game of Settlers of Catan, the inclusive vibe was always there.
We began to see ministry more simply. Ministry is building community. Ministry is tearing down communal hierarchies. Ministry is bridging cultures. Ministry is tearing down cultural hierarchies. Any label that put someone else on a pedestal seemed to go against the gospel that says all are sinners, all are in need, all depend on One King on the throne. Jesus, the ultimate servant leader, offered humility to those in power and power to the lowly. He made flat hills and valleys of power.
Through lows of selfish frustration and highs of authentic unity, together Andrew and I witnessed the upside-down un-hierarchical Kingdom emerge inside out.