Women in the Word
While affirming the call to proclaim the gospel alongside our brothers in ministry, this article offers tips, advice, and even instructions on how to be the best preachers God has endowed us to be at a time when the contributions of women in the world and, slowly, in the Word, are receiving increasing attention and recognition.1
Finding meaningful mentors
First and foremost, I maintain that we need role models. In recent years, the number of women responding to the divine summons to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2) has increased exponentially. While, according to a recent study, “sobering figures point to overall enrollment decline” in North America,2 seminaries across a range of denominations report record high registration of women. For instance, during the 2012–2013 school year, women accounted for approximately 37 percent of Protestant seminary students.3 Many of them are older professional women who have left lucrative careers to prepare to preach and teach the gospel.
Yet, despite the proliferation of books, journal articles, and YouTube sermons by women, there still remains a shortage of role models and mentors in local seminaries and churches. A female role model for women in ministry is vital because, as Carol Norén states, “Seeing another woman in the pulpit has the effect of raising a sort of mirror to the woman preacher. It causes her to compare her own work with this other person who is like her and yet not like her, to reflect on how she has grown and what she may become.”4
Mentors are needed, but they must be real. Women are not looking for those who just pay lip service to the process of mentoring—they require individuals who will bring meaning and faithfulness to the role. Areas in which mature women in ministry can mentor those new to the role include dress, general decorum, pulpit presence, deportment, and speech, such as finding one’s preaching voice and proper posture.
No matter how supportive of women in the pulpit a man may be, he cannot successfully help in such areas with balanced sensitivity and diplomacy. Norén maintains, “A feminine role model can demonstrate what a masculine one can only parody. The way a woman’s laughter, solemnity, tension, and other moods come across over a public address system is something only a woman preacher can show another.”5
Norén’s comments hit the mark, including, her assertion, “When a woman who is a role model testifies to the divine, enabling grace at work in her own life and ministry, her successors learn to claim its sustaining power for themselves.”6
Embracing real role models
Many women have been incredible wordsmiths, prophets who spoke for God, and iconic preachers and teachers who have left indelible legacies across the rocky road that women in ministry tread. Some, like me, had no mentors but paved the way for those who will follow in their footsteps—until Jesus comes.
To these role models from the past I turned, especially during the early years of my ministry, to obtain the guidance I so desperately needed. Although the list is too long to include all those from whom I drew strength, wisdom, understanding, and professional guidance, there are three individuals who have had, and continue to have, a great deal of influence on my life and ministry— though I have never had the privilege of meeting any of them.
Ellen G. White (1827–1915),cofounder, formative leader, and prolific author of my denomination, the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Ellen White “has been largely ignored”7 in the homiletics and religious literature of mainstream Christianity, despite the fact that she is the most translated American author of either gender and the most translated woman writer in the history of literature.8
A strong supporter of women’s role in ministry, as well as the family, Ellen White pointed out for me that there is a singular niche for women in ministry as there are aspects of ministry that men cannot accomplish. She stated, “The Lord has a work for women as well as for men. They may take their places in His work . . . , and He will work through them. . . . The Saviour will reflect upon these self-sacrificing women the light of His countenance, and will give them a power that exceeds that of men. They can do in families a work that men cannot do, a work that reaches the inner life. They can come close to the hearts of those whom men cannot reach. Their labor is needed.”9
Rev. Dr. Ella Pearson Mitchell (1917–2008), first woman dean of Sisters Chapel at Spelman College. While Dr. Mitchell taught at the American Baptist Seminary West and Claremont School of Theology, her greatest influence on my preaching life and ministry came through Those Preachin’ Women, a five-volume collection of black women’s sermons that she edited, as well as Fire in the Well, a joint autobiography with her husband, Henry, the acknowledged father of black, or African American, preaching.
From her I learned to avoid mediocrity at all costs and to embrace a consistent “practice of excellence,” especially “as a means of dealing with those who would despise” or oppose women who respond to God’s call to preach. “Excellence” she insisted, “transcends its detractors, and in the end it will conquer, moving past opposition to be used by God.”10
Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (1936–1996), lawyer, educator, politician, and the first African American congresswoman from the southern states. The daughter of a Baptist minister, Jordan served as a United States congressional representative from Texas. She was the first and, to date, the only African American woman to deliver the keynote speech at a national political convention. From my early teens, I have been a logophile (lover of words), but it was from Barbara Jordan that I learned their full importance, value, influence, and power.
I observed how she articulated and gave life to each expression so that her words not only left a lasting impression but, like cherished servants, always fulfilled their mission. Watching her forever changed my attitude toward the use of words, the coining of phrases, and the elocution of a speech or sermon. Her demeanor was authoritative; her emotions, tempered; her timing, impeccable; and her voice like a bell that jarred the nation awake from an uneasy slumber. A voice in the wilderness crying out for justice, she spoke with authority in a manner that all, great and small, could hear and understand. From that day I dared to dream of speaking like Barbara Jordan.
Finding one’s voice
A question that holds great significance for preachers is how to find one’s voice. First, let it be known that women already have a voice that we are now empowered to seek, find, and use to the best of our God-given ability. Women have a unique voice as they excel in discovering or drawing fresh insights from Scripture. The reason is that we do not stand outside a text and analyze it. We step into its world, see, taste, and smell its texture before concluding exactly what it means. This kind of hermeneutic is experiential.
Finding one’s voice must also take place in a literal sense. The human voice is the vehicle for the message and the best indicator of who the presenter is. “Without a dynamic, natural voice, it is difficult to obtain and maintain the attention of the listener.”11 Yet, among preachers, it is the least-understood and worst-protected or cared-for instrument for communicating the gospel.
“Normally, without any special effort, the voice is easily manipulated up and down the pitch range, altering between loud and quiet, fast-paced and leisurely, and modulating quality to add variety. This control over the many dimensions of sound should be treasured.”12 Preachers can distinguish between their natural or habitual voice, and discover their natural voice by two methods:
1. Practicing breathing exercises.Breathing exercises emphasize the use of the diaphragm instead of the throat for vocalization. “Breathingfor speech differs from ordinary breathing employed during sleep or other nonvocal activities. Speech utilizes expiratory air, which vibrates the vocal folds and produces sound. . . . Common breathing problems of the minister include: (1) speaking too long without a pause for breath, (2) pausing long enough for a short gasp only, and (3) placing too much attention on breathing by using shoulder and neck muscles rather than the efficient abdominals, resulting in strained, unnatural voice.”13
2. Controlling pitch. Before she learns how to manage it, pitch can be the bane of a woman’s voice when amplified. The pitch is “determined by the length, mass, and balance of tension in the vocal folds. For example, a small woman would have smaller vocal folds and therefore produce a higher pitch than a large man. But other factors such as stress or stage fright add tension to the vocal folds and can result in an elevated, strained voice.”14
Being prepared to change
When I became senior pastor of one of our largest congregations in North America, the men who had been used to often hearing the amplified monotone of their male senior pastor complained vociferously that I screamed when I preached. It was an insight from the Holy Spirit that enlightened me to realize that it offended their eardrums when I raised my voice during moments of exuberance, because they were unaccustomed to hearing the amplified sound of a woman preacher.
Now, as a role model for women in the Word, I share tips with other women on how to strengthen their voices so that it does not sound screechy or nagging when amplified. For example, I once read that Ellen White developed her voice during the days before microphones by going into the woods to practice projecting her voice. Since I view her as one of my role models, I, too, went into the woods near our church and preached loudly to the trees.
The result was, and is, that my vocal cords developed a strength and resonance that has engaged listeners and, according to their own admission, changed the minds of many who objected to women preachers. Today, I highly recommend tools found in the video accompanying the book Performance in Preaching: Bringing the Sermon to Life.15 And I still claim that there is a forest of converted trees in Maryland where I preached and projected with such passion that it often brought sweat, if not blood.
Adopting feminine phrases
Women preachers should feel free to use feminine phrases or jargon such as “weaving, sewing, patterns, pregnant, and birthing” in sermons. Today, even men use such language in the pulpit as they talk about being impregnated by the Holy Spirit and speak of the inspiration of birthing a sermon.
Introducing new rituals
I once read an article, “Finding Comfort After a Miscarriage,” in which the author wrote, “Jewish women who find that the tradition does not provide rituals to sacralize the events of their lives have turned back to the tradition for the tools to create new rituals.”16 I had just received a phone call a few days prior from a young mother whose first child had died in her seventh month of pregnancy.
She and her husband were distraught and wanted me to do a funeral for the baby, whom they had lovingly named. As we laid that tiny child to rest in the cemetery in a specially designed box, the parents’ grief was palpable. Watching them cling to each other in their loss, I remembered the above quote and decided at the graveside that I would introduce a new ritual into the life of my congregation.
Within a few weeks, we held our first service for parents who had lost infants. The invitation included others outside our regular church members and, to our surprise, the service was packed that morning. Members made a small cradle and placed it at the foot of the cross, on our platform. I preached a sermon about Christ’s love for little children, followed by a litany I composed that allowed parents to express their grief and mourn their loss.
During the service, I urged those present to name their prematurely deceased child or children. Near the end of the service, we suggested that participants write the name of their lost child or children on a card prepared for the occasion. We instructed them to place the card in the cradle at a specific time during the program. Then we prayed about all of those children, calling out their names before God and our congregants as we joined in the families’ grief. By the end of the service, there was not a dry eye among the worshipers. Many expressed then, and for weeks afterward, how cathartic and healing an experience it had been for them.
As pastors, we encounter many painful occasions and transitions. These provide opportunities to introduce rituals to relieve the distress some may have carried for years. As Susan Grossman says, “There are no traditional prayers to recite over a miscarriage. There is no funeral or mourning ritual to follow. After suffering a miscarriage, a woman does not even routinely recite the prayer said after coming safely through a dangerous experience, . . . something all women can do after giving birth.”17
We must exercise our privilege to create rites for these and other important passages in the lives of all members of the body of Christ, whom we serve. For this, too—among the diverse opportunities to preach and teach—we have been called and sent by our Savior.
Preaching to save souls
I was blessed to be the first black female pastor, the first female senior pastor, and the first female professor of preaching in my denomination. I have proudly embraced the fact that “it was Mary who first preached a risen Jesus; and the refining, softening influence of Christian women is needed in the great work of preaching the truth now. If there were twenty women where now there is one who would make the saving of souls their cherished work, we should see many more converted to the truth. Zealous and continued diligence in the cause of God would be wholly successful, and would astonish them with its results.”18 This singular honor has, at times, also been a misfortune, in that I did not have female role models to help me understand and work through some of the challenges and opportunities I encountered as I matured as a minister through various positions. But I have been ever thankful for the presence and providence of God that has consistently ordered my steps and unfailingly guided my life as I have matriculated through this ministry called preaching.
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1 See Hyveth Williams, Nothing but the Best: A Guide to Preaching Powerful Sermons (Bloomington, IN:Xlibris, 2018).
2 Barbara G. Wheeler and Anthony T. Ruger, “Sobering Figures Point to Overall Enrollment Decline,” In Trust, (Spring 2013): 5, intrust.org/Portals/39/docs /IT413wheeler.pdf.
3 Wheeler and Ruger, “Sobering Figures.”
4 Carol Norén, The Woman in the Pulpit (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1992), 30.
5 Norén, Woman in the Pulpit, 30.
6 Norén, Woman in the Pulpit, 30.
7 William H. Willimon and Richard Lischer, eds., Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching (Louisville, KY:Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 502.
8 Arthur L. White, “Ellen G. White®: A Brief Biography,” The Ellen G. White® Estate, Inc., whiteestate.org/about/egwbio.asp.
9 Ellen G. White, Daughters of God (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1998), 19; emphasis added.
10 Ella Pearson Mitchell, ed., Those Preaching Women: More Sermons by Black Women Preachers, vol. 2(Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1988), 14.
11 Willimon and Lischer, Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, 495.
12 Willimon and Lischer, Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, 495.
13 Willimon and Lischer, Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, 495; emphasis in original.
14 Willimon and Lischer, Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, 496.
15 Jana Childers and Clayton J. Schmit, eds., Performance in Preaching: Bringing the Sermon to Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008).
16 Susan Grossman, “Finding Comfort After a Miscarriage” quoted by Ann Braude, “Women and Religious Practice in American Judaism,” in In Our Own Voices: Four Centuries of American Women’s Religious Writing, ed.Rosemary Skinner Keller and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 150.
17 Susan Grossman, quoted in Braude, “Women and Religious Practice,” 150.
18 Ellen G. White, Daughters of God (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1998), 18.