Rev. Melissa Fain has long known that people view her pastoral calling differently because she’s a woman.
Last year, she decided to put that personal understanding to the test with a digital experiment.
As a minister of the online Fig Tree Christian Church, she’s spent significant time ministering in digital spaces. She conducted her research on the online discussion platform Reddit, where she already had experience participating.
Fain planned to partner with a male minister and post and comment on religious subreddit (focused subcategory) conversations under each other’s username – to see if gendered usernames would affect the amount of karma (Reddit’s system of up- and down-voting posts and comments) each received.
But every male colleague she invited declined.
“I couldn’t understand how my male counterparts [in ministry] couldn’t understand my experience,” Fain says about the project. “I put myself in their shoes and I saw how easy – almost too easy – it is to be accepted as a male and not think to question the system around me.”
Fain decided to take a different tactic with her experiment, posting and commenting on religion-related subreddits as both RevMelissa (her existing username) and PastorJerome (the new username she created) for an average of 30 minutes a day for six months.
Responses to RevMelissa often called her ministerial credentials into question, but no one asked PastorJerome if he really was a minister. Even when posting almost-identical comments by each user at the same time of day, PastorJerome received more karma.
The experiment taught her lessons about gender inequality, but also about how churches should utilize digital communities. “As churches we need to understand that the broken are going online,” Fain suggests. “If we don’t act toward that kingdom, then it will be lost.”
“I believe part of my calling as a minister is to be real and show the love of Christ online,” Fain says. “Some of what I was doing was sharing conversations from seminary classes or telling people who shared difficult experiences ‘I’m praying for you,’ or advise them to seek out people in their real life to talk to.”
As a female minister continuing her online work, Fain hopes for change.
“Let’s bring equality back to the congregation, where we are walking beside one another – not replacing or walking ahead – but truly being brothers and sisters in Christ. We are all called for a reason and are called in our uniqueness.”