Disciples News Service

Georgia pastor conducts ministerial gender experiment online

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.”

11 Responses to “Georgia pastor conducts ministerial gender experiment online”

  1. I gave up my quest to be recognized as a minister decades ago because of the flack I received for no reason. No one had a problem with spilling their guts to me as a “counselor.” They would accept my support in secular language, but would question my credentials too speak theologically. I have spent my working adult life feeling that my M.Div. should be in quotation marks.

  2. Hakizimana Jean do Dieu:

    Nice work

  3. Rev. Charles Ragland:

    The results of Rev. Fain’s experiment are regrettable but not surprising. My wife earned an M. Div., summa cum laude, from Phillips Theological Seminary in 1981. This was after her M.A.R. from Yale Divinity. She was ordained before I was. Throughout her ministry she was underemployed by the church. Some fifteen years ago, a church member during a Board meeting characterized her youth and children’s work as “babysitting.” On another note about the author’s word choice. I respectfully suggest the article’s author didn’t mean to write, “…Pastor Jerome received more karma.” More likely and accurately “…Pastor Jerome received more praise, approval, accolades, affirmation, or commendation.” Yes?

  4. Emily Martin:

    Hi Rev. Ragland, thank you for sharing your wife’s experience. To answer your question, “karma” in that sentence is referencing Reddit’s system of up- and down-voting posts and comments, so you’re correct — Rev. Fain told us that PastorJerome’s posts and comments received more praise and support than than RevMelissa’s.

    • Charles E Ragland:

      Hi, Ms. Martin. Thanks for kindly expanding my meager understanding of Reddit a tad and for your gentle clarification.

  5. Jo Kane:

    I am 75 years old and almost a lifetime member of the DOC and a church elder. As a teenager, I thought that I could not be a minister because I am hard of hearing, tone deaf, and can not sing. I try to minister to others as a lay person. We need to be more accepting of others no matter their sex, race, disabilities, etc.

    • Mary Ann Ward:

      May I just say “Thank You” for your hard work and your sharing of God’s love?! It is a pity, that women have not been encouraged over the years, even though they are recognized/accepted, once they seek and push and try, as ordained ministers now-a-days. BUT, then, as this article shows me clearly, we may just not come as far as I had hoped. Thank you, anyway. I am sure God is appreciative.

  6. Rev Ragland,

    At first it was about karma, and in the end the Jerome username gained more over the six months. Really, what shocked me, like really shocked me, was the blanket acceptance the Jerome username received that the RevMelissa one did not. In fact, before this experiment I couldn’t understand why male ministers, who would post something online, would get confrontational when I would seek clarification or offer my own opinion. Others would do it to me all the time, and I just thought it was normal. Then I took on the Jerome handle and realized how little I was questioned or asked for clarification. In fact, I remember this one time I wrote “verses” instead of “versus” as Jerome comparing movies in another sub. Someone responded that they would give me pass. It struck me as odd. I was expecting to be mocked, because that was how my RevMelissa handle was being treated.

  7. Keith Wilson:

    Rev. Fain, thanks for sharing the results of your study. While we all like to believe that we are open minded and progressive regarding women in ministry, this short but notable survey certainly indicates we have a long way to go. I also think you have developed a very worthwhile online ministry. We need to reach out to the “unchurched” in new and different ways. You have done that. I wish you continued success.

  8. Mary Ann Ward:

    Thank you for taking the time to perform this experiment. Sadly your findings are just as I would have expected. SADLY. But, I do hope you find welcoming people who accept your ministry with the spirit in which it is offered.