Monday, December 31, 2012

Remembering Mrs. Alston …

My mom and Mrs. Alston in 2009.

Mrs. Betty Alston was my second grade teacher and our next door neighbor in Searcy. This sweet lady went on to be with the Lord a few weeks ago, and our family will certainly miss having her close by.

I have a couple of very strong memories from Mrs. Alston’s classroom. These were special lessons she shared with a room full of 7 and 8 year-olds … things that “stuck” and changed our lives for the better:

1) Mrs. Alston taught us to always be curious … to always keep our eyes open. Why, you never know what you might find along the way. And, if you look very hard, you might even spot an arrowhead lying on the ground.

I am still looking for arrowheads.

2) Mrs. Alston taught us that, when wishing a sick person to feel better, we should always add the word “soon” to the end of our greeting. For example, instead of saying, “I hope you get well,” you should say, “I hope you get well soon!”

I have been adding “soon” to all of my cards and letters ever since.

Thank you for all you taught us, Mrs. Alston. We look forward to seeing you again …

… soon!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Holidays!

More thoughts about women and the church coming in January ... but until then, have yourself a ...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Woman Called

Sara and her husband, John, have two children, Nate and Brynn.  She currently teaches in the Religion Department at Rochester College, in the Detroit area.

My book, A Woman Called, was released this year. I spent several years creating, writing, rewriting, and getting the book published. There were days that my thoughts exited my fingertips and entered a computer screen, sometimes page by page as fast as I could type, but more often, I typed slowly, word by word or letter by letter as I poured out my prayers about my call to church ministry and preaching.

Sometimes, as I wrote, I naively told myself that when I was finished, I would never again discuss the topic of women in church ministries. I would let the book serve as my definitive declaration on the controversial topic.

The Christian life should be about service to the needy, justice for the poor, and spiritual formation of souls. Before I wrote the book, I had been a missionary in Africa and a campus minister in service to young Christians. I wanted to get the book out and free myself of it so that I could get back to the real work of the gospel.

My publisher arranged a book signing at Pepperdine University, where the book was first released. I really did not want to participate in the signing – I thought it seemed self-promotional, prideful. Or perhaps I was simply worried no one would be interested.  Maybe my book was one no one would want to buy.

The book signing turned out to be something very different than I could have imagined.

One person after another, men and women alike, came, and my book-singing booth hosted makeshift therapy sessions where I listened to stories of women who have been marginalized for way too long and men who long to hear their sisters’ voices in the congregated body of Christ, men who long for completion of something that is at present, incomplete in too many churches across our world.

One woman over 70, with her gray hair and eyes, said to me,
“You wrote the book I should have written thirty years ago. But, I didn’t want to stir up trouble at my church. I am called to preach, but now it’s too late; I feel like my life is over.”

And an older gentleman with tears in his eyes, was grateful,
“Thank you for writing this book. My own mother was studying to be ordained in the Presbyterian church, but when she married my father, she gave it up to attend our church, where women are not included in ministry. She has passed on, but I long to hear a woman’s voice at church because somehow those voices speak for her and redeem what she sacrificed.”

Or there’s the preacher who told me that his college-age daughter is called to preach, asking me for advice about how he can support her along a path that we both know will be challenging.

And an elder at a large church bought ten books for the elders he serves with, saying that they have studied the role of women in church ministries for over ten years and are in agreement that they must move forward. But they are stuck because they don’t know how it will go, and they fear a church split if they change things.

And one man asked me to sign a book for his daughter who can’t even read yet, saying
“This issue didn’t matter all that much to me until my baby girl was born.”

The stories went on and on. People waited patiently in line, not for some flowery autograph or for a word of wisdom I was supposed to invent. They just wanted to converse, to commiserate, to connect . . . . to commune.

The conversation about women as full members of the body of Christ, as it turns out, is about the real work of the gospel. So, I listened, and prayed, and laughed and cried and communed at my book-signing booth, thankful that God allowed me to join the conversation.

And I signed each book with my favorite Bible verse, accompanied by a prayer that God’s mighty work through Jesus Christ might show us all what it means in Mark 15:38: The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.

So now, whenever I get the chance, I enter conversations like this one on Mike’s blog, and I tell the stories with which I’ve been entrusted.  There are men and women in Churches of Christ and other Christian groups, who faithfully read the Scriptures as an invitation for both male and female to mutually join the work of God as one in Christ Jesus.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Fascinating Girl

Dawn Zoller Hodges was born and grew up in the Texas Panhandle town of Amarillo. She earned a B.A. from Harding University, a M.Ed. from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and a Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma.  She has worked in higher education for 32 years and currently is Vice President for Academic Affairs at a two-year technical college in Georgia.  She lives with her husband Rick in the Atlanta suburb of Newnan.

When Mike first invited me to write something about women’s role in the church, I told him that I really don’t know how I feel about. I wasn’t sure I had anything to say.  I am very conflicted. But as I thought about it, I remembered that I’m conflicted about many things regarding my upbringing in the Church of Christ, and have been since a young age.  When I was 16, I told my Sunday school teacher that I felt like we were being brainwashed.  I said it in a calm and non-confrontational way; it is just the way I saw things.  Later, when I knew that I could present a more interesting and compelling devotional than any of the young men in our group, I told one of the elders that I didn’t see why I couldn’t do it since I know I could do a better job.  He smiled and told me to “stick to my guns,” although I still wasn’t allowed to lead a devo.  But, I was certainly a leader in our youth group, albeit a silent one.  As a matter of fact, I’m the one who led the effort to get rid of our extremely boring “young people’s class” at 5 pm on Sunday nights and turn it into an after Sunday night service devotional and fun activity (along with sandwiches, chips, and cookies).  I know it is the way they did things for years after that.

I was a “born” leader, if you will.  I’m a baby boomer who was born in the second half of the generation. My older siblings were among the first boomers, and my baby sister and I in the younger group; thus, I became one of the neighborhood and church leaders of the younger kids.  It simply came naturally to me.  I remain a leader; as a well-educated woman who has worked in higher education for 30 years, I have “risen” to the position of a chief academic officer for a college of 5500 students. But, I long ago got over wanting to lead a devo; in adulthood I have had no interest in being a church leader.   Again, I don’t mean that in any resentful or hostile way; the desire just isn’t there.  Perhaps if the Church of Christ had fostered and nurtured young women, I might feel differently.  But, in our Wednesday night classes when the young men were being groomed for leadership in the church, the young women were being taught to remain virgins until married and to be The Fascinating Girl.  Do any of remember that book?  Helen Andelin wrote it in the 1970’s and it guided at least one generation of religious girls on how to land a husband.  The chapters include, “The Domestic Goddess,” “Appreciate Him,” “Admire Him,” and “The Feminine Manner.”   

Even then as we studied and discussed the chapters each Wednesday night, my sister and I made fun of them behind the scenes.  My sister remains unmarried at the age of 53 and I didn’t marry until I was 35.  You can see how we might have viewed ourselves as total misfits if it weren’t for the love and direction of two very strong parents.  While they were immersed themselves in the doctrine and the conservativeness of the Church of Christ, both coming from second-  or third- generation C of C families, they didn’t pass down that dogma so strongly to their children, although we were raised in a very conservative congregation.  For example, we were allowed to “mix bathe,” attend school dances, and even skip Sunday school or services if we didn’t want to go.  Those behaviors were tantamount to sacrilege in an evangelical religion.  I think that balance of having “not so dogmatic” parents made all the difference in our lives.  While I did attend one of our “sister” Church of Christ colleges and received a very fine undergraduate education and had an experience that was extraordinary, I was still questioning women’s roles.  I remember I wrote an op-ed piece for the college newspaper that questioned why women students had to wear dresses to chapel while a male swim coach could show up in a sweat suit and flip-flops.  Ahhh, I was always the rebel!   

I have discussed with Mike that I don’t want to turn back time and have a different upbringing.  I grew up in a congregation full of God-fearing, well-meaning, loving people.  They knew and loved my family just as much as we loved each other.   Some of those folks, including the elder I referred to earlier, knew my parents before any of their children were born.  They all raised their kids together in that very strict, but loving environment.  Over the years we celebrated together, and mourned together.  We had pot lucks, ice cream socials, and wedding and baby showers; we celebrated baptisms, graduations, weddings, and anniversaries; we cried through many a funeral together.  I love those people.  I simply have grown not to believe much of the doctrine.  There are some very distinctive events that caused my total ‘perspective transformation’ during my 30’s, but they really don’t have so much to do with the role of women in the church as some other “less than foundational” issues.  I’ll save that for another day.  But, in the end, I am a “leaver” of the Church of Christ.  But, I remain a believer that God is in control and that it is through His Son that I shall find redemption, salvation, and ever-lasting life.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mama says

Sandy Davis wishes she could send a picture of a 40-year-old thin female, but since she is a 62-year-old fluffy-bodied grandmother of 8, that did not work out. She is grateful that she was born and raised a Tennessean, but really loves the California beach that graces her view each morning. She scores high as a “learner” on all personality tests, and although she has had to learn some things the hard way, she tries to keep those to a minimum these days. She continues to use the lessons that she learned at David Lipscomb College and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. Her experience on staff at Bayside Church left her in awe that God would leave something as precious as His Bride in the hands of us mere mortals.

Although she never left the South until she married a Yankee almost 44 years ago, she has now been in almost all the 50 states and wonders when she is ever going to get to North Dakota. Of the 31 countries that she has visited, she continues to return to Nigeria (12 times now) with great hope that someday she can emulate in her life what she finds in the Christians’ lives there.


My mama tried to teach me a lot of religious lessons when I was growing up. I probably knew before I learned to count that the story of the birth of Jesus never said that there were 3 wise men, only 3 gifts. I knew that God’s great plan of salvation included 5 steps plus an add-on--hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins. The add-on was to continue to be faithful unto death, if you wanted to go to heaven. I seemed to run into trouble with the continuing-to-be faithful part.

Some years ago, I began to take a different path than the one my mama had worked so hard to instill in me. On this path, I could see the grace, mercy and forgiveness that is central to Christianity. These concepts were probably part of the religion of my raising, but I had missed them.

The one “mama taught” religious lesson, however, that I did not miss—but have kept close to my heart and in my mind—is how to view the Bible. I can still hear her say, “If anyone ever tells you to do anything that is contrary to what is in the Bible, do not listen to them. Even if they say that they will kill you if you don’t do what they tell you, pay no attention. And if you are given an opportunity go against the Bible and be able to live, turn it down. Let them kill you. You will be much better off.”

I took my mama’s words to heart then, and I take them to heart now. I believe she knew exactly what she was talking about with those words.

Through the years, as I have been out of the main stream of the church of Christ, I have had to measure many things I have heard with what is in Scripture. And so it was with my role as a woman in the church. As I matured from a very bad rule follower to a striving follower of Jesus, I did so in a church where women were given opportunities to serve the Lord in positions of leadership. I served as a volunteer in different areas of whatever church we were attending, but for whatever reason, never took on any position that was much in conflict with how I grew up in the church of Christ. Eventually, though, I got to the point that I had a little time to give thought to what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. There was a seminary close to where we lived, and I thought it would be fun to take a course. It turned out that it was more than fun. Five years later, I had finished the three-year course and had my MDiv. And during the 5 years of study, my mama’s words came back to serve me well.

All this is to say that, when I was in seminary, several things came together as a perfect storm. I ran into people who affirmed my natural and spiritual gifts. I was being trained for ministry. I learned how to put together a theological statement based on the whole of Scripture. And I was forced to answer the question of “What does the Bible say about the role of women in the church?”

While I felt the tug in my heart and soul towards ministry, I did not want to rely on my feelings. Too often I have gotten my wants, desires and feelings confused with the Lord’s desires for my life. I needed to take a clear look at what Scripture said about the role of women. I had learned my mama’s lesson well. I approached the Bible with as neutral a stance as I could manage--I did not want to manipulate Scripture to fit what I wanted. I wanted my “wants” to be in line with the Bible.

After “doing my theology,”--that is what I called starting with the broadest scripture I could find and then building from there--and doing a lot of studying and asking questions and reading Scripture in light of other Scripture, I came to the conclusion that the traditional role of women that I had gone along with to some degree had some gaping holes in its theological reasoning. While there is a case to be made for the more traditional role of women in the church (and it must be respected), I came to believe that the practice of women taking leadership roles in the church was more in line with what was going on in Scripture.

To my sisters in Christ, the best that I can say is that if you come down hard on either side of the debate about women’s role in the church, there are Scriptures that you will have to do a lot of wrestling with … and you will not come up with completely satisfactory answers. I encourage my sisters to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, to learn to be in tune with the Holy Spirit as He directs, to be willing to agree to disagree with respect, and to always allow Scripture to guide and inform all of your choices. If you do, I’m quite sure my mama would be proud.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Using God’s gifts

Lisa is a daughter and wife and a mom to three daughters and two sons. She is a lifelong member of the Church of Christ and grew up in the world of Searcy and Harding. She loves her spiritual heritage and is thankful to the Restoration Plea for teaching her to take God's Word seriously and to not settle for easy answers. One of her greatest joys is seeing her sons use their gifts in public worship, and she hopes she will someday see her daughters be able to do the same thing.

What do you think about women leading in public worship? 

It's interesting that you would use the word, "lead." Over the course of my life, I've learned that some of my gifts are more public in nature. I speak well. I love sharing God's word with believers. I love words and ideas. I sing, and sharing God's love through music has been a joy to me throughout my life. However, I don't view any of this as leadership. These are gifts that God has given me and my heart's desire is to serve him and others through using these gifts. Yes, these are all roles that are more public, but when we use the gifts that God gives us, we are serving him and sharing his truth with others. 

Serving communion is one of the areas that both puzzles me and makes me laugh. From what I know about first century culture, men had very little -- if anything -- to do with food preparation and service. It's hard for me to imagine a first century, middle-eastern man suddenly deciding that he would take on a woman's role and serve food to others simply because it was Sunday. Maybe I'm underestimating the potential for egalitarian attitudes in first century Israel, but I really doubt that those first communion experiences were "led" by men.

Each week, I sit in a room in which the population is over 50% female. Many of the families in attendance are led by single moms or spiritually single mothers whose husbands do not attend church with them. These women -- from early ages into elder years -- will most likely never hear anyone who sounds like them read scripture from the pulpit. There may be gifted teachers and worship leaders who will never be able to use their God-given gifts in God's house.

So what do I think? I think that gender-based "leadership" causes us to miss the opportunity to learn and grow. Women are missing the opportunity to serve; men are missing the opportunity to learn from women's experiences. Children are missing the opportunity to see their moms share their faith and we are all losing a rich heritage of faith.

What do you think about women serving on a church ministry staff? 

I work at one of our brotherhood's institutes of higher ed. Every semester at graduation, I see capable and intelligent young women graduate with degrees in ministry. Youth and Family Ministry, Vocational Ministry, and sometimes, even a pure Bible major. My heart hurts for them. I love their courage at pursuing a degree in a male-dominated (male-exclusive?) field, but I'm very aware of the fact that their chances of being employed with their degrees are very small. Some of them may go on and pursue graduate degrees in counseling and find jobs, but the possibility of being employed as a youth minister or minister of involvement in a local congregation of a church of Christ is minimal. I'm aware of several positions in campus ministries where men and women serve equal roles, yet the men are hired as ministers and the women as "assistants," and are paid what a secretary would be paid rather than what a ministry coordinator would be paid.

If we are going to educate and graduate young women in ministry, we need to employ them in ministry. If we are going to employ them in ministry, we need to call them "ministers," and pay them equally to what we pay men filling the same role. If we cannot do this, we will lose them. They will seek employment in other religious groups. They will work for non-profit organizations like Habitat for Humanity or World Vision. We will lose their servant hearts and hands and we will be poorer for it.

What do you think about women serving as deacons or elders? 

"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae." Romans 16:1-2. It seems that scripture has answered this question for us.

On a practical, less idealistic, note we live in a culture where people are very concerned about gender lines. If our elders continue to only be men, who will women go to with difficult questions regarding their marriages or child-raising—when they need official insight from their church? We are often warned about not discussing deeply personal issues with matters of the opposite sex because of the temptation for the relationship to move beyond the bounds of propriety. How can the spiritually single women receive the spiritual guidance they desire if all of their spiritual leaders are men? Who can they voice their concerns to? What about a woman in an abusive relationship or someone who doesn't trust men for valid reasons? How likely is she to discuss important matters with an all-male group of elders?

If we plan to reach out to the unchurched, we will have more and more of these scenarios and fewer and fewer answers. Women need women to address particularly female issues.