Sunday, February 10, 2013

Called to leadership

Beth graduated from Rochester College with a Bachelor's Degree in 2002, and a Master's in 2010. She has been married to Brian for 11 years, and they have two kids: Sophie (4) and Sawyer (6 months). She works at Rochester College as a Resident Director and Adjunct Professor of Religion. She also does publications for the Rochester Church of Christ, and is a part of the adult education teaching team. She is passionate about the Bible, her family, U2, LOST, and good coffee (not necessarily in that order!).

Growing up in a typical Church of Christ in the 1980’s, I never thought much about the fact that women did not participate in the public worship by preaching or teaching, leading songs, praying, leading communion thoughts, or reading scripture. I knew nothing different, and that is just the “the way things were.” When I was around 8 years old, I participated in a program at another Church of Christ called Lads to Leaders and Leaderettes. In this program, we were trained to read scripture, lead songs, pray, and give speeches. The highlight of this program was the yearly convention in Nashville in which the participants competed in the categories they had prepared. The boys gave their speeches, led their songs, and read their Scripture in front of a panel of judges and an audience of parents—male and female alike. The girls, however, gave their speeches, led their songs, and read their scripture in front of female only judges and audience members. Moms could hear their sons, but fathers could not hear their daughters. When the participants came back from convention, the boys were invited to share their respective “competition” pieces with the church on a Sunday night—but only the boys. While I never participated in the convention, I always thought it strange that this is how it functioned. 

As I reflect back on those childhood experiences, the messages sent and received become clear: girls have gifts that should be fostered such as “giving speeches,” (public speaking about a Biblical text or theme, i.e. preaching!), leading worship, or praying and reading scripture in public. However, these gifts could be used in settings involving only women in which things like preaching occur (which we all know is an extremely uncommon occurrence). One year at the Nashville convention, one of my best girlfriends won first place in the speech category. She was a gifted speaker, even at the age of 8 or 9. She was not invited to share her speech with the church. All of the boys shared, even the ones who may not have done so well in the competition. Even if a girl was gifted with something “public” like preaching or song leading, those gifts were neither validated nor given opportunity to be used. Even the name, “Leaderette,” seems to carry implications of its own—not quite a leader, at least not in the same way the “Lads” are.

In my head I accepted this as the way things were, but in my heart I always felt torn between what I thought I knew and what I felt God calling me to be. In college I struggled with my major. I felt alive and vibrant in my Bible classes, but what does a woman do with a degree in Bible? I ended up going half way—a major in interdisciplinary studies with concentrations in religion and communication. It has only been in the last few years that I have begun to embrace that which I never felt able to accept growing up. My gifts are public. And that is a struggle—a struggle of identity, calling, and purpose. 

How did I get to that place? I attended a “women in ministry” conference back in 2005, and that really sparked something in me. I felt called in that moment, not to a specific vocation, but to a place of embracing the possibility that my gifts were given to be used. I decided, shortly after, to pursue a Master’s Degree in Biblical Studies which put me on a path to begin wrestling with what it means to be a woman in the church—specifically a woman called to public leadership. One of the biggest pieces of that has been figuring out how to appropriately read scripture. The story I see when I open the Bible is a narrative that begins with creation and ends with new creation. It is a story of a God who intended that creation be whole, equal, and live perfectly in community. Sin happened and what was created to be good and whole became flawed, and the struggle for power and dominance became a big part of the narrative. When Christ entered into the story, he advanced the process already begun of bringing about new creation. When Paul writes, in the letter to the Galatian church, that in Christ we have perfect oneness, I see the possibility for a different story than the one which relies on hierarchy and power. I see a story in which God uses God’s people—regardless of gender or any other “defining” characteristic—to go about bringing forth God’s kingdom. 

Within the context of twenty-first century churches of Christ, there is no other issue as emotionally driven and controversial as the role of women in ministry and worship. On one side, there are those who believe scripture teaches that women are not able to take on certain leadership roles in the church’s ministry and worship settings. On the other, there are women who are frustrated, hurt, and tired because they are not “permitted” to use their God-given gifts because those gifts are ones traditionally designated as “male-only” roles. In the middle, there are people who are not emotionally or cognitively ready to change hundreds of years of male-only leadership tradition.

I think about my daughter, Sophie, and I dream a dream for her in which she feels open and available to use her God-given gifts in service to Him—whether those gifts are leading the body of Christ in songs of praise, teaching a cradle-roll class, baking pies for a homeless outreach in inner-city Detroit, or preaching the word of God in the public worship assembly. I pray that her identity will be wrapped up completely in Christ, and that as a result she will be open to his call upon her life. I pray that as she grows up and observes “the way things are,” she will observe a church in which service to God is delineated based upon one’s giftings rather than one’s gender. Galatians 3:28 is a legitimate guiding hermeneutic, not only for a discussion regarding women, but as a hermeneutic of our radical unity in Christ. Elizabeth Tetlow, in her book Women and Ministry in the New Testament, says the following so eloquently:

Long ago, in a letter to the Christians in Galatia, Paul proclaimed that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. In spite of this theology of Paul, all three dichotomies have existed within the history of the church. The first was overcome in the first century, with the aid of Paul himself. The second was not overcome until the 19th century. In both cases the process of moral insight and change involved controversy, pain and division. It is time now for the church to repudiate the third dichotomy and to suffer the pain that may entail.  Pain and division are not inherently evil, but very much a part of biblical tradition. And suffering, as the New Testament affirms, leads to the birth of new life.

I pray that we are nearing the place where this ideal vision of radical unity will become a reality in churches of Christ. It is a painful process for many, but the outcome of such pain could be the dawning of new day, a day in which we come one step closer to achieving unity in the body of Christ. Galatians 3:28 proclaims a vision for the body of Christ: A day when a believer will be evaluated as a legitimate church leader not by her gender, but by how she seeks to glorify the Lord by using her gifts, given by him, to further his kingdom.


  1. very well said, Beth. My daughter senses a call to preach as well, and we are wrestling with the passages ourselves. Praying for many more open doors for both her and Sophie in the coming decades. Sharing your story is a positive step...I only wish more church leaders were willing to have the conversation.

  2. Beth,
    You have always had a way with words.
    Thank you!

  3. I came to the realization my sisters in Christ are on equal footing with my brothers in Christ in the teaching and preaching ministry of the royal priesthood about 4 years ago.

    It was not my original objective to defend or oppose any position, but merely to understand more fully. My turnabout was prompt and swift. It was not a struggle. I understood.

    The blog article which resulted from that is one I have shared with women, church leaders, elders and others without any comment from anyone.

    The struggle continues. Press on, Beth.

  4. Beth, I'm proud of you. While I've heard you say all of the above in different venues and different ways, I'm proud of how you present this information. I love you.

    -brian bowers

  5. Beth,
    I am the father of two daughters. Both are incredible women who love the Lord. My oldest also has two daughters. She participates on the praise team at church, has lead public prayers and joins her husband (a newly appointed elder) up front for ministering to people that may respond at the conclusion of the sermon. Both their girls also participate where they can and feel little inhibition for serving as a female.
    My youngest is married to a preacher but is also the worship leader at their church. As a five year old she told me one day she wanted to be a preacher. I smiled at her then but it won't surprise me if she does.
    I struggled with the same questions myself growing up in the C of C even though I am a man. Something just didn't seem right. I still wrestle with some of the scriptures but as I understand more and more the nature of God I am much more at ease with women in leadership positions.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.
    Tollie Corder

  6. I find it really strange that men (especially preachers and elders) never seem interested in observing women's Bible classes, special event presentations, etc. If they have the responsibility to make sure that teachers are teaching the truth and students are mastering the material, the leaders at your church should've been demanding to hear the girls' presentations. Since I really doubt any of the boys were actually "teaching" anything to the adults, it's rather puzzling to me why girls participating would be branded as such.