I am a woman. I am a woman who preaches. Though we are not many, more and more women continue to use their voices and their gifts to speak prophetically and pastorally in their churches and communities. One of the greatest gifts of knowing other women called to preach is when we are able to sit together, share a meal or a drink, and talk about the complex and difficult realities of being a woman in a world/field/church wherein men have ruled for centuries. When I’m alone, it’s too easy to question the anger that surfaces when men consistently cut me off or (consciously or otherwise) insist their voice have a louder hearing. When it’s just me in the room, I too quickly reject the painful emotions of not feeling heard or seen, or I suppress the frustration of having to jump through yet another hoop in order to secure a seat at the table. But when I’m with my sisters, when I’m surrounded by other women whose reality mirrors mine, I am free. I can shed the felt-need to hold it together or represent all women or not show too much emotion, and I can simply feel all that I feel and name all that I experience and find it/myself validated. There is nothing like it.
The reason I desperately need community with fellow women preachers is because they see through a similar lens. They encounter similar experiences. They hear what I hear and none of us has to convince the other that any of it is real. This is not the case outside of such a circle. As a woman who preaches, I hear and see and experience life in a particular way. I notice and observe certain realities that others simply don’t. This is not a critique; it is simply true.
Allow me to give an example. Recently I was invited to preach a sermon at a conference where hundreds of persons (mostly men) were presenting papers and lectures and sermons. I was among a small group of women asked to participate in a preaching series focused on particular biblical figures. I say “sermon” and “preaching series” because this is what it was, but this is not the language that was used by the conference organizers. They called it a “speaking series.” The women asked to participate were labeled “speakers,” not preachers. The words we crafted and delivered were not described as a sermon but as a “lesson” or “presentation.” In previous years when only men have participated in this way, it was rightly referred to as a preacher’s series, because this is what it was: a group of men preaching sermons. But in the first year the group was comprised of females, the language had to be altered to appease the sensibilities of those organizing and attending the event. Most persons did not notice. Most of my friends who listened to my sermon that day paid no attention to the nuance in language, nor did they care. They came to listen and support me. But for the handful of us women who preached, we heard and felt the sting every single word. We were aware of the subtleties. Our antennae were tuned in to the insidious and simple but nonetheless powerful ways in which language shaped our reality that day. We could not be called preachers, though that is what we are. We could not deliver sermons, though that is what we did.
My experience with these inequities goes beyond nuance in language. I have been asked to preach in settings where, not only could my sermon not be labeled as such (as not to offend those with particular positions of women preaching), but where a man had to remain on the platform with me to demonstrate that indeed, he still retained authority over me (and thus all was still right in the bureaucracy of church polity and no one had to be concerned that women were usurping power, even as we pretended women and men had equal voice). I have been asked to teach in settings where it’s permissible for me to instruct students in certain content, such as spiritual disciplines, but where women are not permitted to teach explicitly scripture-based classes, such as Luke-Acts. I have heard stories from women with PhD’s from Ivy League institutions who, while seeking to share their gifts in a Bible class on Sunday mornings, had to not only co-teach with a lesser qualified man but who had to remain seated while he stood (once again demonstrating proper authority). I know women who invest invaluable time and energy into ministry positions in churches but whose title must remain “coordinator” while a man performing the exact same duties is labeled “pastor.” And on, and on, and on.
Here is the most important thing I want to convey. For those whom these realities do not obviously affect, they almost always remain unaware of and ignorant to what I and other women preachers experience. And I don’t fault them for this. The intent here is neither to drum up sympathy for myself nor to lay blame at the feet of others. My sole intent is to say that I experience reality in a particular way because of who I am (i.e. a woman preacher), a reality largely missed or ignored by others who do not claim this identifier. In fact, many might look at the circumstances and deem them equitable. They may even celebrate that a woman was able to speak in a church or participate in a conference. They might genuinely perceive this as a victory for equality and justice, and hold sincere gratitude in their hearts for it. They might never notice the subtle shifts in language, or the continued presence of a male figure on the stage with me
But for those of who spend countless hours pouring into a sermon, only for it to be called a “lesson,” for those of us who have spent years of our lives studying and earning degrees in preparation for ministry only to find our presence must still be validated by male authority, you damn well better believe we notice. We cannot help but notice. It affects us. It shapes how we think and feel about ourselves. And quietly but powerfully, it ensures that unjust power structures and church practices are able to remain in tact all the while pretending to be more equitable.
And ultimately, here is my point: just because you do not see or hear or experience something does not mean it doesn’t exist. Because I have known this to be so undeniably true for me, I have become convinced it is true for my black and brown brothers and sisters who claim experiences that I have not had. They decry a reality that is not readily visible to me in my white-skinned existence. The stories they tell are not the stories I tell. And far too easily, I can dismiss them because it does not comport with my own reality. I can reject their cries as an attempt to stir up discord and disrupt order, and entirely miss the fact that what I perceive as order is in fact utter chaos for those who live it in different skin.
I know what it feels like to champion gender justice in religious communities, only to encounter those who claim our cause as seeking to divide our churches, those who insist we are making a big issue out of what is not, those who witness our anger and hurt and passion and label it dangerous, disruptive. And because I know what this feels like, I will continue to insist that we open our ears to hear what our black and brown brothers and sisters are saying. I will insist that when they describe their interactions with persons in authority, or lament the subtle ways they are dismissed and marginalized, or articulate the realities of embodied existence as persons of color in a world that claims to be post-racial but is in fact anything but, I will insist that we listen. I will insist that we stop talking, that we reject the felt-need to counter their story or share our own opinion, and just listen. I want so desperately to have a posture of humility, to place myself as a listener at the table where others share their stories, because I so desperately need others to do that for me and for the women with whom I am called to preach.
And when we do finally listen and seek to understand, when we stop outright rejecting another’s claim because it does not immediately mirror our own experience, when we ask questions instead of demanding our opinion be heard, we begin to discover a reality that was true all the while but escaped us entirely until we had eyes to see it. This is true for gender justice, and it is true for racial justice.
I am a woman. I am a woman called to preach. And while at times my sermon might be labeled something else or my power attempted to be restrained by men in authority, I will use all of my energy and my abilities and my voice to speak what is true, to peel back the curtain and cast light on reality, to pursue God’s intended shalom in every corner of this world–for women, for black and brown bodies, for the kingdom of God.