What I Learned about Being an Advocate for Women in Seminary

Karen Gonzalez

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Being an Advocate for Women

Being an Advocate for Women

“The devil is among us here at our seminary: women are being told they can preach.”

Those were the first words of a classmate’s sermon in my preaching class. He went on to berate the class with his interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 for another 20 minutes.

In some seminaries this type of sermon may not have been surprising, but this seminary officially stated that women are affirmed at all levels of church leadership. So, to say the least, I was stunned. But I shouldn’t have been. When it had been my turn to preach this student had been particularly critical of my sermon and delivery, even going as far as to accuse me of not having prepared or done good exegetical work. While other students had been encouraging in their feedback and constructive in their critiques, he had been unkind and unrestrained with his public criticism.

After he concluded his sermon, there was an uncomfortable silence in the room.

Finally, a male classmate spoke up and said gently but firmly, “I don’t agree with your conclusion. I believe the same Bible you do, but I believe that women can and should be pastors. Where is your love for God’s people, for women, and for God’s word in your sermon? You didn’t bring good news to the people of God.”

Another person may have commented, but I honestly don’t remember anyone else saying anything substantive. I do remember that the other two women in the class were absent that day, so my professor, who has a Ph.D. in homiletics and is a preacher herself, and I were the only women there. All the other male classmates looked uncomfortable and sat in silence.

In our next class session, more students were given the chance to provide feedback, and the student who had preached the sermon was told publicly by our professor that the seminary affirms and blesses all women preachers.

Women, he was admonished, are not sharing or testifying; they are preachers and pastors.

Then he was told that he would be unable to offer verbal critique in the future. After class, I spoke to two other male classmates who told me they disagreed with him and that “he was way out of line” with that sermon.

The next time I preached, I received no verbal critique from this student. However, he scribbled a written critique that was just as mean and attacking as he had been verbally. He was reprimanded again and forbidden from giving any further feedback to anyone. Of course, that didn’t stop him from sending me a couple of harassing emails.

I used to believe that the seminary and my classmates handled this situation as well as they could have: the uncooperative student was silenced (somewhat), publicly scolded for his behavior, and reminded of the seminary’s stance. But I don’t think so anymore.  Here are my reasons:

1. The class was supposed to be a safe space for men and women to learn to preach, but it wasn’t safe for women.

It was a hostile environment. The feedback after my first sermon was so harsh that it really undermined my confidence.  I expected that if I ever went into the world to preach there would be hardships because of my gender, but I never expected to find that in my preaching class at a seminary that affirms women in leadership! That student should have been asked to leave the class after he decided to attack me again. The advocate in this case should have been the seminary on behalf of all women, especially those in the class.

Over the years, I’ve been given advice by other women preachers that encouraged me to do some or all of the following:

  • ask the sound specialist to add more bass to the microphone when I preach, so my voice is more appealing to men;
  • dress in feminine clothes when I preach, so it’s not so threatening to men;
  • pull my hair back so I don’t play with it, and it’s not distracting to men;
  • wear a belt and a shirt with a collar so that the microphone (which is made for men and their clothes) will fit me comfortably.

The common thread here is that many women don’t find being a preacher is safe or easy, and feel pressured either to accommodate men, or equipment made for men, to be accepted. Depending on the congregation, these are realities for many of our sisters. Shouldn’t women be free of these stresses as they are learning to preach? And shouldn’t all of us advocate for safe spaces for women leaders in our churches? We all need safe spaces where there’s room to fail, grow, and learn. This is especially important for women, given the 2000 years that we were kept out of the pulpit and told to be quiet.

2. There were men in the class who should have advocated for women.

There are no silent allies. If someone is in quiet disagreement while women are being harassed and silenced, that person is not an ally—that person is, in fact, complicit in the oppression of women. When I think back on that class, I’m sometimes perplexed that only one student stood up to advocate against this bully. How is that possible when nearly everyone in the room disagreed with him? At least a couple of my classmates were happy to tell me they disagreed with him, but it’s not me they should have told!

There’s sometimes a misunderstanding in communities of faith about the difference between making peace and avoiding a necessary conflict. This was an important time for my brothers in the faith to speak up and say that my classmate’s words and actions were inappropriate and hurtful to women and to the community of God. This was a time to create conflict for the sake of justice! I sometimes hear male pastors talk about the fact that their churches rarely even consider hiring female pastors, even in denominations that fully affirm women leaders. Yet no one speaks up against that injustice. We need courageous advocates in our churches, too. I’m thankful for the classmate that did speak on our behalf. I don’t need silent allies and neither do my sisters.

3. The women in the class were also advocates and should have spoken out assertively.

I appreciated the way my professor addressed this student following his sermon, but I wish I had spoken up for myself that day. Honestly, I was afraid to do so assertively, so I only said a few feeble words. Women are often afraid of being thought of as defensive, or as angry, man-hating shrews, or as shrill feminists demanding special rights when all we’re asking for are equal opportunities in church leadership. Often those accusations are unfounded and unfair, so I am happy to say that I’m all done with that fear. I’d rather be thought of as shrill and accused of pulling the gender card than be complicit in my own dehumanization and that of my sisters. I’ll risk all of that to be an advocate for women preachers, and I want to encourage all women to advocate for themselves.

Some of my favorite people in the Bible were advocates.

Esther who defended her people from certain genocide; Nathan who stood up to an unjust king, risking his very life; and Moses who stood up to a tyrant and led God’s people out of bondage. These were people who understood that love isn’t sentimental or easy but often requires risk and sacrifice. I’ve heard it said that justice is what love looks like in public, but I think it looks like advocacy, too.

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Where have you encountered advocates for women in church leadership?

Read more:
How I Became an Advocate for Women in Ministry by Jeremiah Gibbs
8 Ways Men can Advocate for Women’s Equality by Kathy Escobar
Women and Church Politics: Living Outside the Bubble by Shawna Songer Gaines

Image Credit: Pexels

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22 Comments

  • I too pray for change…but at my age it is time to pass the torch on to girls and ladies like you…who can see a light at the end of the tunnel…(Human nature being what it is, I fear there will always be men who know they are physically able and desirous of taking power where they can and demanding that others serve them, in the name of Christ) I will keep battling on here in my way and planting seeds of liberty in Christ where I can…and if God gives me a way to do more I will be glad to work for Him in any way that can help. May God deliver us from pagan and patriarchal christianity!

  • Gail…tell me about it! I even phoned into the ministry and talked to the secretary who was completely in agreement with him, and she passed on my message and when I received an answer it was all because I “had the root of bitterness” in me…in fact that is their core message to women who wish to ask them about this…no doubt they think I am in the “bond of iniquity” as well! I daresay that slaves might have had a root of bitterness as well…but perhaps God means the roots of bitterness we plant ourselves…not those branded on us. I cannot imagine any human being with a voice being happy about that voice being constantly silenced or ignored…Wasn’t the Reformation founded on the need to be heard? Was the desire to silence the Reformers a Godly thing? I believe the Church of Rome thought so…just as Slick’s ministry thinks so…Did God give us minds and voices to be crushed for His glory? I think not!

    So there is no recourse…no discussion, just judgment of me without knowing anything about me…and their continued determination to take from women the ministries that some have given them by harassing the ministers who have given them a voice, is stiff-neckedness in the extreme. I am tempted to say he is more than bitter…he is vengeful…dare I say Satan dances in the streets when God’s women are silenced. Reminds me of the greater wisdom in scripture, where the Pharisee was wise enough to say “Refrain from these (men), and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.” Acts 5:38-39 Of course they still beat the disciples before they let them go ☺

  • The preliminary quotation is typical of those who deliberately go out of their way to put women in their place…this is notably belligerent in a college that promotes women in ministry…but fits a pattern of warfare that will not allow women to be heard, even when there are those who are willing to listen.

    carm.org is a website that promotes aggressive attacks against women pastors in this manner: https://carm.org/email-churches-women-pastors…the article begins this way:

    ___________
    “Email this to churches that affirm women pastors and elders

    by Matt Slick

    Here’s something you can do to promote biblical fidelity. If you find a church on the web that affirms women pastors and elders, perhaps you might want to copy the text below the line and send it to them in an email. Check it out and see if it is something you’d like to do. Just copy the text and paste it in an email at [email protected]. If you want, let us know you’ve done this.

    Maybe we’ll post some replies from churches on CARM, too. It should be interesting.”
    ____________

    This isn’t Biblical Fidelity…it is fidelity to 3-5 verses have convinced many who are just learning about the Bible to go no further in their studies about women and God…it is a sad deception…may God show the world that His way is Equal…from the Whole Bible.

    • The frustrating thing about CARM is that there is no opportunity to debate or dialogue. Matt Slick has commented on the Junia Project Facebook page before, as well as the NewLife blog. There is no reasoning with him and he is very snide in his comments. It is really a sad ministry.

  • “You didn’t bring good news to the people of God.” – That’s the standard to evaluate all of this through. Those who could have spoken up but chose not to also did not bring good news. It’s something that comes easier to some than to others, and there’s room for improvement for me to be bringing that good news too.

    • Absolutely–I’m also learning as I go speak up not just on this issue but others. It’s interesting that we talked so much in this class about bringing good news to God’s people; it was the lens I looked and continue to look at the Bible through when sermon prepping. Even a prophetic call should have the good news that God is with us. Remembering this has caused me to reconsider whenever I’m tempted to use the pulpit as a soap box instead of a place from which to announce good news.

  • I love this. Thanks for sharing your story, Karen. I preach at our church, where both men and women pastoral staff share the pulpit. Yet there are still ways that our church can grow in empowering women in leadership. I’ve heard men say disempowering things from up front at our church like, “Behind every great pastor is a great pastor’s wife.” These subtle messages really create a culture of assuming male leadership.

    I work hard to model leadership as a woman. My husband (who is also on staff at the church) is a great advocate for women leaders. I am grateful for the men and women in my former parachurch college ministry who helped shape my own identity and courage as a female leader and preacher.

    • I’m thankful for you and your husband and the work you’re doing to advocate for women! Keep it up 🙂

  • It is truly heartbreaking that so many men have a bitter spirit full of bile and anger towards women…this is not a Biblical rejection of women but a personal and emotional attack…and to be expected from some men who have been given the 5 verses and sent out to ‘save’ the world…with no heart and no compassion.

    My reaction to this is to ignore the man. He will go on until either God intervenes in his life or he dies an embittered vengeful person…who has failed to absorb the message of redemption for women…and who evidently feels women need human mediators contrary to 1 Tim 2:5…as I have been taught by men of the same view…Complementarianism feeds this bitterness and anger and fuels the divide between men and women…and drives many women from the institutional church…so many who have left for good, still following Christ but confirmed that they will no longer attend MEN’S MEETINGS and call them church services…

    • It is heartbreaking to see the rejection of women in leadership, but I was always encouraged by all the women I saw attending seminary. It gives me hope for the next generation of women leaders and advocates 🙂 I would have left the church myself had I thought complementarianism was the only way to be faithful to the Bible–I’m glad for those who came before me and showed me a different way. Now I want to advocate for those coming after me, and I think that’s something we can all do together.

  • It makes me so so angry to hear stories like this. I hate that even in today’s world, people are still working so hard to keep women from being considered full human beings and full Christians, saved fully by God. Also, I would love to know what seminaries officially affirm men and women in all areas of leadership because there aren’t many seminaries in my neck of the woods that do. Fyi, my neck of the woods is the one where a prominent seminary actually pushed out all its female theology professors because women shouldn’t teach theology to men. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary did not grant tenure to female theology professors literally because of their gender; and they’re not shy about it. They actually state that as the reason, and they claim that it’s biblical. Yes, that actually happened not even ten years ago. Disgraceful.

    • That is awful! I’ve had friends attend seminaries where any class taught by a woman had to also be taught by a man in case male students were uncomfortable being taught by a woman–I couldn’t believe it! I know that most of the ones affiliated with mainline denominations like the ELCA, Episcopal Church, United Methodist, Wesleyan, and Presbyterian Church USA are definitely inclusive of women, but with evangelical ones, you have to find out individually. I’m thankful for advocates out there who’ve done the work this far–now we have to forge ahead and keep advocating 🙂

  • I wasn’t as fortunate to have my seminary support women in a teaching or pastoring role. I signed up for “Sermon Prep” and was told I could not take that class because I was a woman. I was stunned, because speaking is what I do, and I went to seminary to become a more effective teacher and speaker. My adviser went to bat for me, and they decided to let me take the class. But they changed the name from Sermon Prep to “Message Prep”. I guess they were more comfortable letting women give “messages.” I am now a member of the teaching team at my church and preach regularly on Sunday morning.

    The Church has incorrectly interpreted 1 Timothy 2 for so long, it’s been used to support a culture which really no longer exists in society, except in churches. It’s certainly not good exegesis (context??). So frustrating.

    • I’m glad your advisor was such an awesome advocate for you, even if the seminary had to play word gymnastics to let you take the class. I too was part of my church’s teaching team, and it has been a joy to use my gifts to serve the church.

  • Great post. Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Thank you for reading. It was a tough class, but I’m glad to have a chance to process it here and encourage others to be good advocates for women.

  • Yes, women need to speak up. It is past due. And you are also absolutely correct that men need to stand up to other men who would seek to silence women. It is not easy. But it does get easier though never “easy”. In time the pain becomes other things: pity for the deceived and arrogant, anger for the abusiveness of it all, determination to stand for what is Truth, and finally patience and wisdom to choose which battle you will use your energy to stand with God in fighting.

    Hang in there sister in Christ. Draw close to the Lord and He will do wonderful things in your life. It is His promise to us.

  • Thank you so much for this significant narrative from your past. I could tell it still holds emotion and feeling for you, Karen. I affirm you wholly and without reservation, both as a believer and a preacher. An expositor of God’s Word.

    I realized I loved to preach from the moment that I enrolled in Homiletics at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. (a UMC seminary, which fully affirms all people in leadership gifting) I was taught by Rev. Dr. Frank Thomas, who is a marvelous teacher of preachers. His specialty is Preaching as Celebration (in the African American tradition). I took this class in 2003.

    I love preaching. I am a lectionary preacher. I pray over the texts, asking God where the message is that I ought to bring to the congregation. I exegete the text and study the biblical passage(s), prepare the manuscript, and then–as icing on the cake–get the deliver the sermon. I love all aspects of sermon preparation, even when the sermon doesn’t form as quickly. As a chaplain for almost ten years, and now at the church I pastor, I have always striven to deliver messages from God’s Word.

    YES, I realize this wrongful two-tiered division of believers into “male” (read: dominant) and “female” (read: secondary/submssive/second-class) is still prevalent in some traditions. I respectfully disagree. Jesus treated ALL people as His equals, and as fully people. NO second-class humans, as far as Jesus is concerned.

    • Thank you for your encouragement and for sharing your own story as a preacher. There is so much joy in living out our calling as preachers and teachers–we need to advocate for all our sisters to have this freedom.

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