Editor’s Note: This is a CBE 2023 Writing Contest Winner!
I ask my class the question, “Who was the first woman who preached to you?” Students scrunch their faces, stare out the window, shuffle their feet. “Perhaps someone here at school?” someone finally offers. “Someone on YouTube?” another suggests. “Maybe one of you?” another asks, pointing to other students in the class.
These are just the easy answers, I tell them; think back. Further back. I promise there was someone — a woman you heard preach before seminary. I ask again, “Who was the first woman who preached to you?”
After a long pause, one of my students, who is so smart that he always seems to unearth the question beneath the question, asks, “Well, Professor Gerber, what exactly do you mean by ‘preaching’?”
That’s when the stories begin to flow.
The first woman who preached to me will likely never appear, not even in the thickest volume, in a book on the history of preaching. Her preaching may not even be called “preaching” by some, yet it certainly was preaching to me. Her name was Mrs. Ayling, and, when I was in fourth grade, she preached to me once a week as I sat at my desk in my suburban school.
In Australia, where I grew up, we had a program called “Scripture,” a religious education program for public school kids. Under the Scripture program, volunteers from local churches were permitted to come into the schools for one session a week and teach religion. These volunteers were mostly elderly women and young male youth pastors, who used flannelgraph to retell famous bible stories like “David and Goliath,” “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” and “No Room in the Inn!” Then they’d hand out workbooks — fill-in-the-blanks and coloring sheets and find-a-words — which we’d dutifully complete.
All of that turned upside-down in fourth grade when Mrs. Ayling arrived. Mrs. Ayling was small and wore florescent skirt suits — a kind of Australian Christian Iris Apfel, complete with oversized glasses perched upon her nose. For such a petite woman, she had a big voice, and as a fourth grader it almost felt to me as though, hidden inside of her, was a ginormous megaphone.
The first week Mrs. Ayling arrived, she threw our workbooks in the trash. “We’re not doing those coloring sheets anymore!” she rejoiced. We were mortified. Where was her flannelgraph? “No flannelgraph today!” she exclaimed. We sat stunned. She plonked a great big box on the teacher’s desk and began distributing books one by one to each of the students in the class.
Mrs. Ayling passed one out to me. I looked down, and in my hands was a book, a paperback book with photographs of smiling faces and the word “Celebration” emblazoned on the front. It was my very first copy of the New Testament. Sure, I’d used Bibles at church, but this New Testament was mine.
“Class,” said Mrs. Ayling, “open your Bibles to Acts chapter 1.” The new pages crinkled as they turned. After reading the text for the day, she began to pace back and forth in front of the chalkboard, and as our eyes followed her, she explained the story verse-by-verse, illustrating it with stories of her own wild Christian adventures, applying it to our tiny 9-year-old lives.
Why is it important for me to tell stories like my encounter with Mrs. Ayling and the box of Bibles? Why is it important for you to think and share, also, about the first woman who preached to you? This de-centering, re-orienting, thick history-telling work can benefit the church in several ways. It helps preachers have a more robust understanding of the nature of preaching. It helps teachers of preaching know who needs to be equipped to do this work. It helps validate women who are working unnoticed. Yet the one I want to particularly highlight here is this: it helps keep women preachers preaching.
While mentoring MDiv students in the American Northeast, and over this last couple of years coaching and teaching them in Texas, I’ve found that when young women are preaching from a position of “I’m the only one!” — this attitude only harms their efforts in ministry. Occasionally, such distorted thinking leads to pride. A woman who feels God chose her to make a way for all women is a prime candidate for burnout; how could anyone manage such a mammoth task? Yet, most often, this thinking leads to loneliness or even despair. Such isolated women cry out, “Why me?”
Think of Elijah. After calling down fire from heaven, he hid in a cave, fearing for his life. “I am the only one left!” he told God. Yet God promised Elijah that not only did he have a successor but that there were 7,000 others who had not bowed down to Baal scattered across Israel. After encountering God and hearing this good news, Elijah finally emerged from his cave.
What if, by telling the stories of those women preachers who have impacted our own lives, we could help some isolated women preachers know they are not alone? What if, by telling stories of preachers that are otherwise hidden from view, we could help some weary women preachers emerge from their caves, too?
In my class that day, we heard about all kinds of preachers. We heard about a grandmother who, every Sunday after family lunch, would gather all her grandbabies to the back room of her house, sit down on her big old desk chair, and open her crumbling Bible on her lap. “My grandma would die if she knew I was calling her this — but now I think about it, us sitting down there around her feet? We were her congregation, and she really was preaching to us.”
We heard about youth pastors and children’s pastors. We heard about camp counselors and visiting missionaries. One student shared the story of a woman who ran a Sunday school class just for him, all by himself — he was the only child in the church. “Each week, I can’t believe it now, she prepared a sermon that was only heard by one person — me.” One student said that perhaps Beth Moore was the first woman she heard preach when she was a little girl sitting on the lap of her mother at her huge arena-sized Bible studies. I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps that little girl intuited that Beth Moore was preaching even before Beth Moore did.
As we told these stories to one another that afternoon, writing down name after name, filling every inch of the classroom whiteboard, it seemed as if the voices and wisdom of these hidden preaching women burst from our writing and began to fill the room. I might have even heard them, just for a moment, preaching together in a mighty chorus — a “great cloud of witnesses,” all those women who preached before us — swirling around our buzz of activity, spurring us on.
I wish you could’ve been there. Perhaps you can, in a way — by telling your own story now, too. Us women preachers, we really do need to hear it! So, then, how would you answer the question, “Who was the first woman who preached to you?”