I’ll never forget the first time a man sat in the back row, arms folded across his chest, scowling at me while I preached. Thankfully I wasn’t completely disarmed, but I was perplexed. Still in my early twenties myself, I was young and naive, and didn’t fully grasp why or how people would be opposed to women preaching. Of course, it didn’t take me long to learn this once I discussed this situation with the leader who was hosting me as a speaker. He explained how the young man was adamantly opposed to the pulpit being handed over to me.
I had been invited to speak for an entire week and was determined not to let this burly young man intimidate me, but I confess—it was difficult. It would have been easier if he would have simply left instead of continuing to sit there and stare me down. But he didn’t. He stayed. He stayed and glared.
Miraculously, by the end of the week he was lining up to speak to me personally so he could apologize for his behavior and confess how much he had learned and been ministered to throughout the week. This isn’t always the case, but this particular story happens to end with redemption.
I once shared this story with a friend who is also a preacher and pastor and she recalled the time when a man turned his chair around while she was preaching. He didn’t leave—no, that would have been too passive—he turned his chair backwards and stayed there to make sure everyone in attendance knew how much he disapproved.
These stories took place more than a decade ago for each of us, but they illuminate something women in church are faced with every day: We are made to feel—and sometimes outright told—that our voice and gift are not welcome.
I recently spent fifteen+ hours over the course of five days teaching another group of fifty 20-somethings about life, God, and finding your identity in Jesus. It’s a huge honor to be invited into people’s lives like that and—as much as I do regularly teach and preach—I hope I never take this privilege for granted. All over again I was reminded that women being “allowed” to preach is not a given—and certainly not celebrated in some circles the way I have been fortunate to be embraced and celebrated over the years.
Growing up it was fairly normal for me to see women at the pulpit, though at the time I didn’t know any female pastors other than women’s or children’s pastors, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized not everyone believes teaching ministry or pastoral leadership within the church are legitimate places for women. (Many believe these roles should be limited, such as women only pastoring or speaking to other women or children.)
This makes me incredibly sad because as long as our women aren’t included in the full spectrum of church life we’re missing half of the expression of God’s voice and gift to the church and to the world. (Let it be noted how grateful I am to be a part of a mission and church and family that affirm the contributions of women.)
My week with these young men and women was so rich and beautiful. We went deep as they asked question after question—not the type easily addressed with clichés or Sunday school answers—but the kind that mix doubt with faith and honesty and struggle and conviction and hope and leave us all seeking Jesus a little bit more. How humbling and fulfilling to get to facilitate that, and after pouring out all week I left with my heart absolutely full.
Here’s the thing: God has gifted me to teach and preach and my soul comes alive when I’m given the opportunity. I used to feel timid about saying this but I don’t any more. Preaching is something I’m good at and it’s okay to say that out loud. Honestly admitting we are good at something is humbling because that’s what humility is: it’s confessing who we are— strengths, weaknesses, and all—and not being afraid to be our whole, true selves no matter who is watching or listening or how we perceive them to perceive us. It makes me giggle a little, sure, but I’ve always admired Moses who said he was “the most humble person on earth.” This is humility: agreeing with God about who he says you are (just as Moses did). And as I mature in my own faith, I hope I continue to grow in humility as well. (It’s worth noting here that false humility is when we are self-depreciating or when we downplay the gifts God’s given us. This serves no one and certainly doesn’t honor God. Don’t make the mistake of calling that ‘humility.’)
I hope as a speaker/preacher/teacher I will always make room for the hard questions and give space for others to come to personal revelation through helping unpack the bible and the good and mysterious and wondrous ways of God. I also hope that by being bold and confident in how God’s created and gifted me I will make other young women (and men!) discover and sense permission to be themselves fully, too.
So this is for the young women coming along after me, wondering if you, too, have permission to follow your heart and desire and gift onto a stage or behind a pulpit: There is room for you—all of you.
There’s room for us all at God’s table, in his arms, and within his plan for making all things new. Take your place sisters. Take your place brothers. We can’t change the world flying solo. And we can’t change it without each other. The sisterhood + the brotherhood = the family.
There is room for us all.
Books exploring the theology of women in church and pastoral leadership
This is not the post where I will break down the theology of women in church or pastoral leadership, but I can recommend some resources for you if you’d like to learn more or if you’re still grappling with women’s roles within the church (or home—which is another topic, but intimately related).
The following books and blogs are a good starting point. They are biblical and sound, but still accessible (and not overly academic)
Blogs & Articles:
15 Reasons Why I Support Women in Church Leadership by theologian Marg Mowczko
Mutuality Series by Rachel Held Evans
The Junia Project (this is their resource page—start there—and then explore the blog)
Why Not Women by Loren Cunningham and David Hamilton
Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women by Carolyn Curtis James
Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey