As a graduate student at Loyola Marymount University, I took a course with theologian Brett Hoover called Theology of the Parish. He once joked that there’s also a theology of the parking lot. It was an image that stayed with me. I’ve come to think of the “parking lot” as any place we gather after parish events to share with friends and colleagues what we really thought about what we’d just seen and heard, to confide our concerns, and to plan and form partnerships in ministry. In my experience, these unofficial meetings have been where the most genuine, prophetic, and revelatory conversations take place. And I’ve often wondered whether women in Church leadership are more inclined to participate in these unofficial meetings than in official ones.
Oprah Winfrey’s interview last week with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle drew more than 17 million viewers, myself included. One of Winfrey’s questions to Markle resonated with me. Referring to the institution of the British monarchy, Winfrey asked: “Were you silent or were you silenced?” In my “parking lot” meetings about ecclesial work, I often hear women express some version of “I wanted to say something, but I wasn’t sure if I should.” Women who hold positions of leadership in the Church sometimes do so at the expense of their voice. It’s not an explicit experience of silencing. Instead, women leaders are subjected to microaggressions that communicate or remind them not only of their place in Church structures but also of the impermanence of the particular positions they hold.
During a month in which we celebrate women’s history, the institutional Church celebrates that women sit at various ecclesial tables. However, women with places at the table have to choose wisely about which comments they make, what topics they raise—what battles they fight. Women remind each other in the “parking lot” that there’s a difference between being silent and being silenced. It’s not cowardice that keeps them from speaking in official settings; many times, it’s self-preservation. We use various forms of the “parking lot” as safe spaces to say the things we can’t say otherwise, to be affirmed, and to plan a way forward together. These spaces are stripped of the dangers found in official gathering spaces. In these meetings women support one another; they reclaim the voice they felt was momentarily taken from them; and they are reminded of the greater purpose they serve and of their worth in the eyes of their creator.