Finding Your Voice as a Female Minister
When I was a student at Nazarene Theological Seminary, systematic theology professor Dr. Rob Staples often said to me at the start of his classes: “Dana, you are the petunia in the onion patch.”
Back then it wasn’t unusual for me to be the only woman in my classes, and I fondly remember Dr. Staples's good humor in the midst of that reality. In his own subtle and inimitable way, he seemed to be saying, “You can do this, Dana.”
Thankfully, this scenario has changed significantly in many of our Nazarene seminaries and university religion programs, with the number of women steadily increasing in these programs. However, the increase in numbers has not always resulted in women having positive ministry experiences in our churches. Unfortunately, the petunias have struggled to gain as much ground as the onions.
“What About our Women?”
At a recent gathering of educators, district superintendents, and pastors to discuss how to enhance clergy education, I was disheartened to hear a female colleague say near the end of our time together, “But what about our women?”
We had spent a couple of days together. We had heard many reports regarding clergy development. Great things seemed to be happening in many areas of the church and our schools. And yet, when these mournful words were spoken regarding the place of women, none of us had a ready answer. Later that evening, I sat with a friend who had been a part of the gathering. She had excelled during her seminary days and had received many preaching honors. However, she recounted to me, with tear-filled eyes, her continual struggle to find placement in a Nazarene church.
What about our women clergy, indeed. How do we find our place under such unwelcoming circumstances? Sometimes the mountain seems too steep and rocky to climb, the obstacles too insurmountable.
I have faced my own challenges and obstacles over the years, to be sure. I’ve encountered bias against my gender, especially as a single woman, in the church on more than one occasion. Thankfully, although my story is heartbreaking at times, it also holds many joyful chapters. To my female colleagues, I offer these suggestions out of the well of simple wisdom I have gleaned along the way.
I can’t think of one thing I lack more than confidence. Perhaps I exude it at times, but I rarely feel it or experience it. And I don’t think I am alone. Of course, a lack of confidence is not solely the purview of women or women clergy, but I suspect confidence is harder to come by for most of us compared to our male colleagues and friends, especially in a church culture where women often encounter closed doors and prejudice.
The simple, but sometimes complicated, solution is to find ways to increase your confidence. For me, this has meant identifying friends, parishioners, and colleagues who can help me remember. Most of the Old Testament is a lesson to the Israelites in failed memory. They easily forgot God’s deliverance as well as His gifts and graces extended to them over and over again. As a result, they forgot who they were, and more importantly, whose they were.
Women don't have to preach like men to be accepted as competent and compelling preachers.
Thus, for me, gaining confidence means remembering my gifts, my calling, and the impact I am making for the Kingdom with God’s help and that of others.
One of my strategies is journaling. Keeping track (in writing) of those e-mails, Facebook posts, Scripture verses, and serendipitous moments with others can be immensely fortifying. This is especially true when you are feeling anything but confident. I often keep cards and letters I have received from friends and family. I revisit them from time to time and remember anew how God has worked in and through me to make a difference.
Having coffee with a cherished friend or scheduling a phone call with a mentor or colleague also helps when you feel like you don’t have the strength to persevere. I especially recommend this to the extroverts and verbal processors among us. Having a plan in your back pocket to help you remember during those tough times is the best antidote I know of when confidence is hard to find.
The Art of “Leaning In”
Leaders, such as Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, have spoken about the concept of leaning in, but let me offer my own take on the phrase. We as women clergy must lean into our own style. We must get comfortable in our own skin. This is particularly true when it comes to preaching and leading. Women don’t have to preach like men to be accepted as competent and compelling preachers.
Several men in my last church would tell me how refreshing it was to hear a woman preach. Many of my male parishioners found it refreshing to hear an alternative perspective, including alternative imagery, metaphors, and experiences.
Eventually, that little church became a lab for other aspiring preachers and ministry students. Early on, I began to share the pulpit regularly to enable others to hone their skills and test their calling. This included a healthy mix of both men and women preachers. No one in my congregation ever complained. Most, in fact, rejoiced at the richness and depth of the insights they heard from their fellow parishioners. They appreciated the different voices and lenses through which they could hear and understand the Scriptures.
Leaning into your own style as a woman in ministry also involves leadership. My first ministry assignment was with a beloved and charismatic brother in Christ. We joked that together we made one terrific pastor: our distinct gifts came together in a unique and effective way to serve the church. I had started in a staff role at the church, then served as interim (during the senior pastor’s sabbatical) and, eventually, in a co-pastor role, sharing pulpit and leadership duties equally with my male colleague. It was not always easily. My colleague was from a military background and carried this “top-down” hierarchical approach into board meetings, staff meetings, and more. It soon clashed with my more team-based and communitarian proclivities.
Thankfully, my co-pastor and I were able to work through our differences and grew to understand and appreciate each other’s perspectives and methodology. Yes, we did disagree on many occasions, but we were also able to compromise on many more occasions. This required me to lean in to my own convictions about leadership. It required me to speak up and confront my co-pastor when I saw things differently than he did. I learned that I could do so graciously, but leaning in to my own leadership style meant that I could not be afraid to add my perspective to the mix. I could not be silent if I thought I had a contribution to make when it came to the direction and leadership of the church.
Helping Others Find Their Voice
After serving three beloved churches, albeit with some rocky terrain along the way, and now directing Nazarene Theological Seminary’s Center for Pastoral Leadership, my journey has convinced me that a part of finding my own voice in ministry means helping other clergy women find theirs.
I didn’t have a lot of mentors in over 17 years of parish ministry, so I determined early on to become a mentor. Speaking up for, encouraging, nurturing, and cheering other women colleagues on, as well as mentoring younger colleagues, became my personal passion. Tragically, the most vocal opponents to our women clergy have often been other women in our churches. Thus, those of us women (and men) who have a voice to offer in support, advocacy, and sponsorship of our women clergy must use that voice. I am thankful for friends and colleagues who have and are doing this. I am committed to being a part of that faithful “cloud of witnesses.”