Those Preaching Women

Years from now historians will be tripping over themselves to explain how and why the church in America changed so radically toward the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries. Three trends of the period will fascinate historians: 1) the rise of radical Christian fundamentalism and its influence upon American politics; 2) the role that Neo-Pentecostalism or the Charismatic renewal movement has played in the decline of mainstream Christianity; and 3)the groundswell of women entering the ordained ministry.

The one I worry most about is how the influx of women into the pulpit will be judged by historians. What difference will it make that 50% or more of those attending seminary these days are women? Has the church changed in any fundamental ways since women have fought for and gained access to seats of power within the institutional church? Or has it been business as usual? Has the presence of women in the pulpit made any difference in history?

Who knows whether we have come to the kingdom for just such a time as this? It just might be that women are the prophets the church sorely needs to hear from these days.

Prophet. Um, er, duh, prophetess. Ah yes, now there’s a word that raises a lot of hackles. In the pentecostal, charismatic church of my youth, being prophetic meant being able to foretell a coming event or being able to look into the heart of an individual. I grew up hearing lots of evangelists. I also grew up believing that some indeed had the gift to discern my lustful appetites, or to sense that I cursed around my friends, or to see that I’d mastered swiping Butterfinger candybars from Mr. Jim’s corner store when he wasn’t looking. In the church of my youth individuals were the focus of prophetic utterances, not kings, governments, and economic systems (as these were in the days of the prophets of the Bible).

And then I grew up. Or was it that I ventured outside the church of my youth? Whatever. Not only am I a child of the church, but I’m baby boomer as well, someone who came of age at the height of the the anti-war, civil rights and women’s movements of the 60s and 70s. Which explains why I prefer the social and political indictments of prophets like Amos and Jeremiah to the pietistic, didactic teachings of prophets like Paul and John.

It’s easier and more popular to preach about a woman’s depression and emotional disappointments, and to make her think that she’s the problem. It’s more difficult and dangerous to talk about the sexism women encounter daily that makes us depressed, or about how the church (and the men) we love so much has benefitted from our illnesses.

What we preach about says a lot about what we care about.

How can we preach for years and never bring up domestic violence, sexual abuse, and the kidnapping of girls that take place every week in our cities? What will it say about us if we mastered the art of preaching, but never figured out a way to persuade audiences to see God as more than Father? If we insist upon our right to preach, only to preach a gospel of prosperity and say nothing about war and systemic poverty, what was the point? If God is as terrifying and punitive in our preaching as God has been construed by previous generations of preachers, if men are not offered new models of manhood and women are not offered new, life-giving ways of being whole and holy vessels of God, if hierarchy and patriarchy continue to define the way the church does business, then what difference will it have made that women outnumbered men in seminary in the 21st century?

If history records that we stood to speak, and no one feared that we would turn the world upside-down with what we had to say, then we missed our opportunity in history as the groundswell generation of women clergy. If we are remembered for the fashionable clergy outfits we sported in the pulpit but not for any prophetic stance we took, then Lord have mercy on us all.

If it’s said that we saw no connection between our struggles in ministry and the efforts of a certain senator to become the first woman to become President of the United States in 2008, then it will be obvious why we failed to make a dent in history

I wonder what history will say about us preaching women who lived during the 21st century.

14 Responses to “Those Preaching Women”

  1. crt Says:

    This weekend, sparked by a situation I am experiencing in ministry, I had several conversations with some close sister friends in ministry about counting the cost. Specifically, we talked about…had extended pauses and sighs in the conversation about counting the cost for being a thinking, questioning, outspoken, skilled, and continually growing woman in ministry. We are sister friends who are striving to be awake, authentic, and relevant. We have become the women who read the Bible and Women Who Run With Wolves, Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Time, O Magazine, Showing Mary, and Stories from Inner Space. We are the type of women who cry and scream and snot in the service and then get up and discuss strategy to impact the lives of those whom God has given into our charge beyond another church service alone. We are the kind of women who believe you can flow in the spirit and still operate effectively and responsibly as administrators. And yes, we are the type of women who say abuse of anyone, under any circumstance is ungodly and unacceptable. We say we can not continue to free women up to serve the church without ever working to minister to them so that they can live free in Christ. We are the women who tell our brothers in ministry that regardless of how long it has been this way, the resources of the church and the people of God are not at their disposal for unchecked and unchallenged pleasure.

    But I am learning by experience that when you give yourself to be this kind of woman it costs. Whether in your preaching, teaching, or general mode of living and witness, it costs. It may cost you position, especially if your denomination is one that does everything by vote. It may cost you opportunities that are given to those who are less rambunctious. It may cost you status, even if you never realized that it was important to you. It may cost you the support of those who just can’t or won’t handle the heat your brand of living seems to incite. And as much of a trooper I have thought myself to be, sometimes the cost seems more painful and more expensive than what I think I even have to give.

    But in the end, I am reminded that whatever the cost I am paying, so many other Preaching Women, known and unknown, have paid (and still are) greater costs. And because of that my balance is not as high as it could be. And so then, I sing a song like “I have decided to follow Jesus,” wipe the tears that sometime fall, work through my internal stuff so that bitterness and resentment don’t take root, and pray as I go forward, “Lord, PLEASE help me to pay the cost!”

  2. Woman in Transition Says:

    Thank you, crt, for the above post. There is a cost, isn’t there? Something has to suffer, doesn’t it? I would that it may be me instead of a sistah in the church who is trying to find her way and just wants someone to reach out to her and hold her hand and say, ‘it will be ok.’ Perhaps my story will help her keep moving forward instead of giving up. I reflect on Luke 18:29,30: Then 82 Jesus 83 said to them, “I tell you the truth, there is no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of God’s kingdom who will not receive many times more in this age – and in the age to come, eternal life.” Perhaps in my reflection I look at this passage out of context, but I don’t care. It keeps ME moving forward. Many times I’ve thought to just give up on the church and ALL of its awful people and their awful issues. But then I see one woman, one child, one man whose life is changed simply because they believed, and I drag my beat up body back in that pulpit or behind that desk or in that chair facing a counselee. Count the costs but keep moving. We will receive many times more in the age to come.

  3. rdeemed70 Says:

    This article was profound for me. First of all, let me just say that I am so glad that I found this blog. It is so hard to find something of substance on the net. It is crucial that we have an intelligent voice. This article has caused me to reexamine my ministry… it is so easy to get sidetracked. It’s easy to lose focus on why we are doing what we are doing. God is doing new thing. Women theologians are on the rise and the key is, what are we doing to change the world. There is so much that needs to be done and God’s Word must be heard. Women are struggling and trying to understand where they fit in society, and it is up to us as preachers and seminarians to shake up the world… Dr. Weems, thank you so much for your words of wisdom!

  4. valerie bridgeman davis Says:

    renita,
    thank you for posting these thoughts. some i recognize from what you reflected on in The African American Pulpit article you did and that I have my students read now that it’s in print. here’s my input: you asked how people (WOMEN) can preach and never bring up the things that press, oppress, and depress woman so. having preached for 30 years now, and having broached all those questions–and not just in women-only circles, i can merely say patriarchy is a strong and vicious foe. the people under it–women and men–will fight you to defend it, even to their hurt. and they will and do hurt you emotionally, professionally, and, yes, sometimes, physically. one of the most vicious attacks i ever got came from my then-pastor’s wife. and my spouse stood by and watched. when i ripped into him about not coming to my defense, i learned, much to my horror, that he agreed. i was, as it turned out, “an uppity woman who thought too much of herself, who thought too much, who made trouble for the sake of being a trouble-maker, who spoke too much, and out of turn, and said things that shouldn’t be said in church.” that was 28 years ago and I can still feel the sting of it, even though I continued to function out of that stance. it does, as CRT noted, costs bunches. over the years my spouse has “embraced” his feminist/womanist self, he says. but when patriarchy and it’s “stay in your place” rigidity and oppression serves him, he has used it. I say this, not to emmbarrass him, but to speak the truth, and to say that patriarchy is cyborgian in its pull-people often feel as if resistance is futile. in the end, i think that is why so many of us have dropped out of the fray, or gone dejectedly back into “the system” (i’m not one of them)–we perceive it to be an unwinnable fight. But isn’t that what prophetic means, at least in some sense: you speak the truth to a “stiff-necked, hard-faced” generation, with your face set like a flint against them. you say poverty is a human invention in a world of plenty and god is not please; you challenge the militaristic language of even the “good book” that becomes an excuse of revenge and devastating a land and people for its and their resources; you say God is not pleased with the church’s complicity and active participation in the abuse and pain of women in the name of Paul and the Roman household codes. you say that Rebecca Jackson, Teresa of Avila, et al, were more than right when they received visions and revelation of god that breaks the human language and human myth-making of “the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Mankind,” that god, who created a 51% non-man of the species would not image only in that side of creation. Besides, there are Rocks and Eagles that are much better representations of the divine one. being a prophet is lonely. that is what someone once said to me when i lamented the fact that i had few people with whom to be in deep relationship because my presence messes with their concept of god. what i found out, later and even now, is that people just dismiss me in order to hold on to a vision of god, and god’s work in the world–a vision that is death dealing. but they stone the prophets and ridicule them. and i think women ministers who cloak themselves in male trappings, male ways of preaching, male authoritarian models of leading, are all trying not to get killed. but death is the reward of the prophet. and since we all have to die to leave this planet, dying for justice sake, for the cause of Christ, is as good a reason as any…

  5. Methodist Preacher Says:

    I have linked to this post and invited my British visitors to read what you have to say:
    http://methodistpreacher.blogspot.com/2007/09/feminisation-of-clergy.html

  6. Anonymous Says:

    I have read all of your published books (and many journal articles, including this blog that was in “The African American Pulpit” and sought you when I’ve known you were preaching in or near my hometown. I am not in ordained ministry, but I agree with most of your viewpoints and look to you and many other contemporary black women ministers/theologians/scholars to add value, meaning and understanding to my own faith talk and walk. I agree with this article; I disagree with the ipso facto note for Hiliary Clinton. I sincerely believe that her woman hood is insufficient for black women, in particular, to support her. The 1996 welfare reform legislation (or official title: Personal Responsibiliy…something that she was an advocate for has done much harm to black women (and all poor women); her tenure on Wal-Mart’s Board of Directors did nothing to advocate for the multitude of poor women who work there without health insurance, non-sustainable wages and other egregious work conditions, without even mentioning what Wal-Mart means in a global context of women and labor worldwide. Now, if you or anyone else chose to argue that Hiliary is an advocate for middle and upper class women, you would be right. Today, however, I don’t think this is the objective reality of most women of color in this country or worldwide. So, as far as I am concerned, the jury is still out on our support for her candidacy. And there are hard questions all of the candidates need to and should address. We should demand commitment and engagement for our communities, not goodies for a select few. Everybody else does. Electoral politics has not been a panacea for black folks and our engagement of it should be in the context of what is the ‘greater good’ that can be rendered to communities where black and poor folks live.
    I hope in this time of looking at the candidates, that gender not be the only criteria - there are too many patriarchal women out here already.

  7. rjweems Says:

    As much as it pains my liberal heart to admit, I am not mad at the Clinton administration for signing the Welform Reform bill. We all know the system was screwed up, and that there were lots of deserving families that never got the help they needed and lots of others who got more than they deserved. What’s left left many out in the cold, admittedly. But I was alive back in the 90s (as were the rest of you), and I remember the mood of the country. Welfare was on its way to being revamped by the Republican Congress with or without Clinton’s signature.

    A former board member of Walmart? You’re correct: HRC is a former board member. Serving on the board of Walmart doesn’t automatically make you any more or any less of anything. This is a capitalist country. Capitalism is the problem. Any socialists on the ticket?

    Is HRC probably more familiar and naturally attached to the concerns of middle to upper class white women? Hah. That’s a good one. An old one, but a good one. Everyone knows that nothing scares black women away from supporting white women like reminding us that white women are only for white women, middle and upper class white women to boot. What’s new? We know that. Like we’re in better hands with Obama? He naturally knows and cares a lot more about poor people and black women? Yeah, right. Edwards? I don’t think so. Politics involves forging alliances and making sure your interests are represented at the table. Black women are doing just that, especially those of us who sense that HRC has a serious chance of winning the election. We are making sure NOW that HRC knows our concerns and knows that we will be watching how she treats our concerns.

    Finally, I don’t see HRC through rose colored glasses. I’m pragmatic. The most ideal, most just, the cleanest, and most unimpeachable candidate for the office (and most nonpatriarchal one to boot) isn’t running and probably wouldn’t stand a chance of winning anyway. HRC is the best and most qualified of everyone that’s running — hands down. She deserves a shot at it. She certainly can’t do any worst than the men who’ve occupied the office up to now. And if she does do worst…well, I’ve voted for blacks before because they were black. I’ve voted for Democrats before because they were….
    You get the point.

  8. Christine Says:

    Renita,
    I am delighted to have found your blog. I am catching up on my reading on the voices of women in the church and I love what you have to say. Have posted a link to my blog. www.godspace.wordpress.com Many Blessings
    Christine Sine

  9. Minister Tompkins Says:

    It was truly enlightening to happen across this website while doing research for a project that I am working on in my church. I agree that there is indeed a cost associated with doing what we know the Lord has called us to do. The challenge for most of us is balancing who we are with who we need to be. There are those around us who will disagree not only with what we do, but with the effectiveness associated with how we do it. I stand here on my soapbox encouraging all women in ministry to stand up and say it with pride; stand up and say it with pride; no matter what - just stand. I have been given the responsibility of the Women’s Ministry at the church I attend and as a result of that charge, have dealt with many sensitive subjects. The most profound thing i have discovered is that even the women who receive the messages and teachings that are delivered, are oftentimes the most difficult to get the message to. We have discussed domestic violence from the perspective of the victim, batterer and bystander, and cautioned that if this issue is not addressed in our churches, the very institution we call “home” will suffer. Each of these 3 categories of people (victims, batterers and bystanders) sit in our congregations weekly, begging for help. How dare we ignore their cries for help. How dare we ignore their pleas for assistance. How dare we act as if they don’t exist. Lest i go on and on, we have developed a site devoted to this single issue - THE EPIDEMIC OF THE SILENT CHURCH (Domestic Violence and Church Culture). Please visit www.thechurchspeaks.com.

  10. beauty4ashes12000 Says:

    I’m glad to see someone–a WOMAN–address the issues that we women preachers face. I can add my own story to the lot of them.

    I accompanied my former pastor to the hospital one Sunday afternoon, along with the assistant pastor and an associate elder. We went to have prayer with a young woman and the immediate family–she was terminally ill (cancer, I think). Upon leaving her hospital room and getting ready to leave the hospital, my former pastor asked me to return to the patient’s room to retrieve his vial of blessed oil. Understanding the delicacy of the situation, being the only female in the group, I went and fetched the bottle of oil.

    When I returned, I was informed by the pastor himself that they–he and the other two ministers–were planning a dinner get-together to which they would bring their wives. I was told to my face–the other two ministers standing right there!–that I was NOT invited since I wasn’t married, unless I planned to get married in 24 hours!

    And I continued to be excluded from all such functions in the future.

  11. Ouida Says:

    Renita,

    I certainly know the difficulties of being a clergywoman in an area where the buckle over the bible belt is pulled tight. And as a seminary trained pastor, it is most important for me to broach the difficult subjects that confront our society. The issues of domestic violence, the denial or push back against women in leadership being subjects of Sunday morning services does not make one popular. Yet, we are compelled to help an unjust society face the issues that confront us. In other words, we must not so much seek to condone the injustices as we must challenge the perpetrators.

    It is my prayer that as Clergywomen of the 21st Century, we will seek to cast visions of inclusivity and broach those topics that will allow all of us to experience the true spirit of freedom.

    Ouida

  12. Kathy Says:

    Dear Rev. Dr. Weems,
    What a blessing this blog has been. For years I have been journaling. I was so excited when I saw that someone was not afraid to tell it like it is and frankly just be real. You serve as a role model to all of us up and coming women in the ministry. Most especially those who come out of the traditional churches where you can speak a word but it can’t be from the pulpit has to be on the floor. I thank God for you. Your blogging is a God Send. Surely the Lord has sent you for such a time as this.

  13. RevHassan Says:

    Dear Friends,

    It means a great deal to me to be able to participate in this conversation. i have a number of sister-friends who are colleagues and mentors in ministry, so i have some sense of what your world is like from observing and listening, albeit from the outside. Yes, i am really clear that my walk is different because i am male. At the same time, i pay some of the same costs because i am seeking to encourage the church where i serve to be socially engaged, intellectually responsible, woman friendly, and an affirming place for all people. There is a lot of pressure for me not to rock the boat of comfort and privilege that long-time members of this congregation have carved out for themselves. Many of the church’s elected leaders are not happy with this. Yes, i tend to be more like Amos and that is no easy road. In a situation where wrong is normal, trying to do right will cause you to catch hell. Yet, Renita is right when she says that our being in these positions should make a difference. i do not pretend that i do not have male privileges that you do not, but on some level i can relate. May God continue to guide and bless our work; may we be bold an faithful enough to fully lay hold of it.

  14. Just DD Says:

    The article was both timely and profound. I have begun my first year in seminary and the women in attendance surpasses the men. However, the chapel services preaching has been dominated by women. It speaks to the truth that women are still struggling for acceptance and equality in the pulpit. The article has convicted me as it relates to studying, teaching and preaching. The goal for women in ministry is to leave a substantive mark for the next generation, from our perspective.

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