I was fifteen years old and standing against a wall of the church after the Sunday service, waiting for my parents to quit yakking so we could go home. I was the shy, quiet type, and I didn’t like to be in the spotlight. In fact, earlier that month the idea of speaking in front of my English class had terrified me so much that I got sick for several days.
So I was confused by the strong draw I felt to preach from the pulpit to a congregation.
Of course, I told no one. My Southern Baptist church made it clear that women who wanted to preach were 1) deceived, 2) ignorant or apathetic about Scripture, 3) rebellious, or 4) evil. I didn’t want to be any of those things, so nobody knew of my desire nor my confusion about it.
A lay deacon in our church walked by, stopped, looked at me, and said, “You know, you’d make a great preacher!” Then he started to walk away.
I was shocked, but hope began to well up inside me. Maybe this desire to preach is from God after all!
I guess what he said shocked him as much as it did me, because he stopped short, came back, and said, “It’s a shame you’re a girl.”
He left smiling, no doubt feeling that he had given me a high compliment. I felt like he had just punched me in the stomach.
As a result, I shoved the desire to preach way down deep inside. I didn’t want to be the sort of woman who wanted to preach.
Struggling to Accept “My Place”
Fast forward several years. As an adult, I still had a strong desire to serve God somehow. I got a job working for my denominational headquarters in a large state. The pay was pitiful, but I was working for a missions organization and it felt good, in spite of the blatant sexism I experienced there. At church I gravitated toward ministries where my knowledge of the Bible was helpful, even if I wasn’t allowed to teach. The Holy Spirit pointed things out to me that needed doing, and I did them—including extensive ministry to Spanish-speakers in our community. Repeatedly, what I was doing would flourish, only to have male leaders come to me and say something like, “That’s a great ministry you have going there, but a man needs to lead it and make the decisions. You can help, of course.” This crushed me inside, but not wanting to violate Scripture, I’d step back and let a man lead.
Finally, this happened one too many times, and I curled into a ball, sobbing in my room. I was genuinely confused and devastated. I prayed, “God, if I’m not supposed to be doing this, why are you blessing it, and why do I feel so spiritually alive doing it? If I am supposed to be doing this, then why do the leaders keep stopping me? I can’t go through this anymore. Please give me the grace to accept my place . . . or show me your truth.”
I had no idea why I added that last phrase. As far as I knew, male headship—wherein God ordains men as the “head” or leaders, and women to submit to their decisions—was God’s truth. I knew all the Bible passages that taught me women were second place in God’s kingdom. I desperately wanted to follow Scripture, but I needed God to help me accept it. I now know that “or show me your truth” was the Holy Spirit interceding for me with words I did not know how to say (see Romans 8:26). Seven days later, I held the book What Paul REALLY Said About Women by John Temple Bristow in my hands. As I read it, heavy chains fell from my heart.
Discovering How Women Can Lead
Still, I didn’t want to believe something just because I liked it better; it had to be true. So I enrolled in a New Testament Greek class at a nearby college. I had taught Spanish and English and could tell when someone knew just enough to teach a class versus really knowing a language. This professor really knew Greek.
On the last day of class, I asked if he would read Bristow’s book and assess the author’s Greek. At the end of the next semester, I asked what he thought of the book. Gruffly, he told me to follow him to his office. I climbed four flights of stairs, trepidation building with each step.
He handed me the book, saying, “I’m sorry I kept it so long, but it took me this long to digest it. I had never heard any interpretation other than male headship before. But,” he paused, “I couldn’t find anything wrong with his Greek. His interpretation is at least as valid as the traditional view.”
I was stunned. Finally, I felt the release from God to really explore this issue. This was before the internet existed, so I didn’t know anyone who viewed Scripture highly and believed women could teach men. Many of the great books I now recommend* to others had not yet been written.
Meanwhile, I tried several different churches to see where someone with my gifts could fit. I found an egalitarian (Free Methodist) church, and I slowly but surely found myself teaching the Bible to both men and women. It was so liberating to find a place that valued my giftings instead of stopping me from using them. After breathing smoke and toxic fumes my whole life, now I was breathing fresh air! I knew I could never go back.
Still, there was always that nagging question, “But what about preaching?” Nobody had ever asked me to preach, and I was too scared of pushing my own agenda. I prayed that if God wanted me to preach, I would be asked to do so. Finally, when I was fifty-one years old, my pastor asked me if I’d like to preach to our congregation on a Sunday when he would be away. Even though he assigned me Obadiah, I was elated!
Fully Embracing God’s Call for Me
A few years later, I realized I had shoved God’s calling on my life deep down. Sure, I was teaching from the Bible regularly and even preaching occasionally, but I had never acted on making that calling official. I told my pastor about that sense of calling I had at age fifteen and that I now felt it was too late. My kids were approaching college age. Every penny we had needed to go toward their education, not a seminary degree for me.
Feeling like I had failed God, I lamented, “That ship has sailed.”
My pastor looked me in the eye and said, “That ship has not sailed. Let’s see what we can do.”
I was nervous about meeting for lunch with our conference superintendent. But he was warm and welcoming as we talked for two hours about my calling and my life.
And so, forty years after I had first sensed God’s call on my life, I began the process of becoming a consecrated deacon in the Free Methodist Church. A deacon in the FMC is a lot different from the deacons I had grown up with. Southern Baptist deacons are exclusively male, and they have no special training. Depending on the church, they can preach or be limited to serving on the administrative board. To become a deacon in the FMC, I had to take several online classes, then go through a vetting and interview process with both our conference superintendent and the leadership board of our local church. My pastor served as my mentor.
It was amazing and freeing to have male leaders who did not stop me from serving God but instead did all they could to help me fulfill God’s call on my life.
I could have become an ordained elder, since the FMC recognizes God’s call to women and men to all levels of leadership, but I’ve not felt called to pastor a church, only to preach, and I’m not free at this stage in my life to move. Both are requirements for elders. As a consecrated deacon, I am officially recognized in a specific area of ministry, in contrast to the broad spectrum of ministry expected of an elder.
Although COVID delayed my initial consecration service, I was finally consecrated as a deacon on November 8, 2020, by our conference superintendent. The service was livestreamed, and I was grateful that many women who had never seen male leaders fully support and encourage leadership in women got to glimpse what I was experiencing.
The conference superintendent even gave me a deacon’s stole. He put a lot of thought into the design: images of people representing all nationalities to symbolize that I am called by God to teach and preach to whomever God brings across my path.
Since then, I’ve preached more often, and, with the authorization of an elder, I have even administered the elements of Communion, fulfilling another childhood wish.
Forty-three years have passed since that Southern Baptist deacon told me I’d be a great preacher but it was a shame I was a girl. He was right that I’m a good preacher; however, God doesn’t think that my being female is a shame at all!
Photo courtesy of Julie Frady.
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