If one takes a cursory view of the degree programs at various theological institutions and universities that offer degrees in various areas of theological study and ministry (Bible degrees, Masters of Divinity, Masters in Practical Theology, Doctor of Ministry programs) there seems to be a prevalent assumption that the courses in the standard theological curriculum adequately and equally serves to prepare men and women for ministry. Both men and women take numerous courses that are equally relevant for them (Pastoral Care 1, Pastoral Care II, Homiletics, Hermeneutics, New Testament, Old Testament, Hebrew Exegesis, etc).[1] However, with this complete non-gendered approach to theological curriculum, educational institutions have also made one large assumption: Men and women develop and grow in their call to ministry in the exact same way. Hence, at graduation men and women are assumed to have both been equally trained and prepared for their ministries.

While institutions hold different philosophies of education regarding how and why it is they are educating students, for the institutions who are serious about the formation of men and women as ministers, pastors, chaplains and overseers, they must begin to ascertain the neglected question: Do men and women in fact grow in their call to ministry in the same way? Do they ask the same questions? Are they inspired by the same models? How does their church context and/or structural patterns impact their career decisions differently? Furthermore, if in fact they have some unique differences, how should this inform a permanent revision of our theological curriculum? The purpose of this article is to briefly present some information that sheds light on how women clergy do in fact grow differently in their call to ministry than men. We will do this by examining the results of a study of 75 women clergy representing 18 denominations in the United States who shared how their knowledge of historical women figures positively impacted their journey.

Historical Figures Have a Seven-Dimensional Impact

In my doctoral study that was conducted involving 75 women clergy representing 18 denominations, the primary goal was to discover the primary hindrances women face in fulfilling their call to ministry.[2] While much was discovered regarding the various hindrances women clergy may face, one of the most surprising discoveries was finding that there are multiple ways in which women clergy found themselves motivated, inspired and encouraged by the women of church history. Though the majority of the women did not seem to indicate they had a knowledge of women historical figures, those who did share this knowledge indicated how they had meaningfully impacted their lives as women ministers. Rather than obtaining a static knowledge of those who existed in the past, their acquaintance with them appears to be one that was very dynamic and moving.

The open-ended question (#31) that was asked was: What female figure in church history has impacted you as a woman minister? What have been the personal benefits of this historical connection? (If there is none, simply state that there is no woman that has impacted you). The majority of women (39/ 74) did not provide any historical figures (excluding biblical names). A total of 16 stated no historical woman had impacted them. Many others provided current names of women leaders or women pastors that they already knew or had known growing up. All three of the above categorical responses could indicate a lack of knowledge/teaching on women historical figures. For those who did, the most frequently named women were Catherine Booth (9), Jarena Lee (6), Susannah Wesley (5), and Phoebe Palmer (4). Others that were mentioned were Teresa of Avila, Evangeline Booth, Mother Teresa, Aimee Semple McPherson, Kathryn Kulman and Amy Carmichael.

It quickly became apparent that the knowledge impacted their very lives. According to the thematic descriptions of the responses they were organized according to the following categories: 1) Inspiration (14 respondents), 2) Role models/ Self-Esteem (8 respondents), 3) Resource of Perseverance/Empowerment (6 respondents), 4) Theological Change of Mind (4 respondents), 5) Emotional Healing (1 respondent), 6) Sense of Collective Identity (1 respondent), and 7) Conceptual Freedom to Draw Outside the Lines (1 respondent). Something important seems to have been taking place (besides the imputation of knowledge) that personally made these women become more alive, more confident, more courageous and more comfortable with themselves. Consider these examples:

Jarena Lee has been very inspirational from a historical perspective. Mrs. Lee did not others prevent her from accomplishing the task that God called her to do. This has inspired me to focus on the call that God has place on my life and not allow age, race or the lack of anything prevent me from achieving the destiny that God has for me. It is not about me, it is about God.                    — NEW COVENANT BELIEVER’S CHURCH, Age 61 (Inspiration/ Resource for Resilience)

The woman at the well has impacted me more than any other woman I can think of. She changed my life. As an abuse victim I often hid from my past, afraid someone would find out. After reading about the woman at the well and Jesus’ response to her, my life was forever changed.            — BAPTIST, Age 55 (Identification/ Emotional Healing)

The first one that comes to mind (and one who impacted me as I explored my call) is Henrietta Mears. Reading of her impact and gifting encouraged me to more forward with my call.                  — FREE METHODIST, Age 50 (Role Model/ Catalyst for Motivation and Possibilities)

Kathryn Kuhlman greatly impacted me. Seeing her power in ministry that includes ministering to men really inspires me.       SOUTHERN BAPTIST, Age 35 (Inspiration/ Role Model of Possibilities)

The female apostle noted in Romans 16:7 whose name was changed to the masculine gender in initial translations and the other women mentioned. Knowing that women were in fact present and instrumental in the development of the early church affirms the validity of my presence in women. And knowing no matter how “man” may attempt to diminish or even white out my presence, God’s truth will always eventually come to light .       — AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL, Age 52 (Resource for Resilience)

Note how they seem to be sources for revitalizing them in their call. In the first quote, Jarena Lee enables this woman minister to persevere and to find resilience when she is faced with opposition. Identification with Henrietta Mears seems to have been a catalyst for motivation and seeing possibilities. Catherine and Evangeline Booth helped another validate the awareness that God indeed calls women, reminding her to move forward with confidence even when she feels like giving up (see below). The testimony of how God used Catherine and Evangeline Booth teaches a theology regarding how God views women. When women reflect on how God has chosen to use women in church history, it has immediate implications for their own ministries regarding how God could use them in similar ways. It gives them permission to dream in new ways. These are several unique ways women ministers (and women in general) can be positively impacted by women historical figures that differs from men.

Previous to this study, while I had suspected that women historical figures could serve as powerful sources of models, inspiration and even a source of resilience, I did not expect to see that these models (historical and biblical combined) would have as many as seven areas of impact. These categories could also be further described and expanded. There were some descriptions that seemed to point to an increase of self-esteem, which could perhaps also be placed with role models since they appear to be related. Furthermore, another discovery of the project was finding that there can be fruitful connections when one contrasts the hindrances of some women with the ways in which others overcame those same hindrances. See Table 18 below for examples of how historical mothers in particular can assist women overcome certain hindrances.[3] Single examples also seemed to frequently contain multiple benefits which means categorization is not always neat and tidy. The biblical and current examples women provided, while not counted in the number of respondents for historical figures, could also fall into some of these categories.

Table 18. Positive Connections Between Difficulties and Historical Figures

Negative Dynamics:

Positive Dynamics:

No Impact, No Inspiration:    “There is none.”
“No woman that comes to mind.”
“No woman impacted me so far. I wish there will be more women preachers and mentors for others.”

Inspiration to Become like Them (Phoebe Palmer): “I have been impacted by the life of Phoebe Palmer. She seemed to be undeterred by social expectations and forged ahead with her calling. I deeply admire her boldness!”

No Modeling: Unable to see outside Male-Defined Boxes: “When I only had male role models who were named as The Pastor and I knew I could not fit or match that model. I was very frustrated and did not see a way for me to have my life (family, marriage, children) and be a pastor . . .” [most critical time]

Conceptual Freedom to Draw outside the Lines (Saint Anne): “There is a picture of St. Anne holding Jesus and Mary in her lap that has spoken to me about the power of the divine feminine.  Once I was able to see/understand God in a broader way than my conservative theological background, I began to find places I ‘fit’ as a minister and have experienced success in my vocation.  These have been outside of a local church (where I am a leader and volunteer).  I think there is greater support and opportunity for clergy women outside of the traditional church which is unfortunate.”

Low Self-esteem: Negative Perceptions/ No Affirmation: “Myself – or the internal voices.”[greatest hindrance] “My own feelings of fear, insecurity and inadequacy.” [greatest hindrance]

Increase of Self-esteem and Confidence (Catherine Booth): “Catherine Booth is a role model for me in the ministry of preaching.  Her confidence and boldness are a reminder to me that God will equip for the times I am called to preach.”

Disempowerment: The Repeated Desire to Give up: “Having no support and having to keep pressing while encouraging myself. Frankly myself wants to throw in the towel and pursue something else where I don’t have to struggle so hard.”

Resource for Perseverance (Jarena Lee): “…. Jarena Lee who persevered and continued to do what she knew God had called her to do, despite those who attempted to argue God couldn’t call her to do it, encourages me.”

Theological Confusion: Questions and Vulnerability: “The second was when the pastor of the non- denominational church were I worked shifted his position, and no longer believed that women should lead men. He had been a mentor to me (my youth pastor) and this threw me into a significant time of confusion.”

Change of Theology (Deborah): “It is not quite a historical figure in church history that has impacted me. It is Deborah, from Judges 4 in scripture. The personal benefits from this connection is the fact that I realized that God appreciated women for who they were as a person, not just for the fact that they are either male or female. I came to the conclusion that God knew that there would be women He would call to ministry because they had a unique and important role in impacting the  world for the Kingdom of God.”

Consider one example in which one woman struggled with a cognitive limitation since she had no models whereas another showed how she was able to breakthrough this same hindrance by using a model (i.e. Saint Anne). Note that both of them use the word “fit” to describe what they are trying to convey regarding their self-perception as a woman minister. The first one said, “I could not fit or match that model.” In meaningful contrast, the second description seems to imply that previously she also could not “fit” as a minister until she found the conceptual freedom to draw outside of the lines with the model of Saint Anne.

Similarly, the greatest individual hindrance women expressed for question #33 fell into the descriptive category of “Doubt, Fear, Lack of Confidence” (19 respondents), which contrasts beautifully with the positive impact on the self-esteem that appears to have occurred with various role models. One wrote that her greatest hindrance is: “Myself. My fear. My issues and paradigm needing to be reshaped to believe that God calls women and wants them to use their gifts for his glory . . . ” However, contrasting this quote with the one above (in reference to Deborah) and another one in reference to Catherine Booth is powerful to grasp: “These two women [Catherine and Evangeline Booth] have shown me that being a leader is not dependent on what sex you are, but how God has called you. This has helped me to keep trying even when I feel like giving up.” Do you see the thematic contrast of doubt regarding how God views them and how these models (Catherine Booth, Deborah) played a strategic role in changing the “paradigm” that needed to be reshaped? While theologians may not place this in a systematic theology book, role models (or the absence thereof) are powerful modes of teaching women (and men) an embedded theology regarding the value God places on them. In fact, close to half of the women in the study (48.6%) agreed (on some level) that it was difficult for them to move forward in ministry until they saw other women leaders.

Embracing the Need: “Can God Use a Woman to Preach the Gospel?”

Considering that there are at least seven multiple benefits that women ministers can experience if they are connected to the women of church history, we must ask the question: How many more women would be inspired by Phoebe Palmer? How many more would be encouraged by the perseverance of Jarena Lee? How many more would find a feminine model that enables them to feel as though they “fit” as women ministers? While there are many courses that are relevant for men and women in various degree programs of ministry, this study demonstrates (not fully expanded here) there are some critical differences as it relates to women clergy identity development.[4] These examples as to how historical figures have assisted women overcome various hindrances should have implications for theological institutions and universities, especially considering the need for such courses has already been documented in previous studies.[5]

In this study of 2013-2014, the majority of women (41/75) did not think (on some level) that their challenges were addressed by any professor during their training (#15). Similarly, while the most commonly shared experience among these women was wrestling with Bible verses as it relates to their call, 38.6% of the women disagreed that during their theological education a professor taught them how to theologically defend their call. This percentage of women has been left on their own to find answers outside of the theological institution. Yet, should this not be the very place of study where they find these answers? Should not the theological institution also be the center by which women can be connected with their historical mothers? Instead, many of them (including myself) have had to search for resources primarily on the periphery of the classroom setting.

As one woman student was coming close to graduating from seminary, she discovered that her pastor did not believe that women should be pastors.[6] Though she was close to finishing her degree, she began to immediately doubt whether or not she had made a huge mistake of committing her life to study theology at seminary.[7] Searching for answers, she asked a professor, “Can God use a woman to preach the Gospel?”[8] It is a sad reality and failure to think that a woman can go through four years of study at a seminary still doubting that God would even desire to use her because she is a woman. Therefore, for those sitting on committees of theological curriculum reviews (seminary presidents, bible college presidents, department chairs, directors of programs, etc.), there needs to be a movement from theory and conversation to praxis and implementation. Furthermore, if one’s philosophy of education is indeed to form and develop women ministers (equally to men ministers) these seven multiple benefits will not be set aside, but instead will be placed on the table as a valid reason for implementing a permanent revision of the standard theological curriculum. If these seven multiple benefits are only passively noted without implementation, at the next graduation when you see a woman student walking across the stage at your school, instead of clapping . . . let these sad words remain in your mind: “Can God use a woman to preach the Gospel?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Disclaimer: While many church history classes include women, I am referring to the engagement of an entire field of study of women clergy that has not been represented as such in most standard theological curriculums. Rather than the insertion of various women figures, I am referring to the story of women in church history provided by historians, the women clergy studies conducted by sociologists, and the work of theologians who have engaged the multiple dimensions of the theological debate.

[2] Caldwell, Kristen Nicole, Discovering the Primary Hindrances Women Face in Fulfilling their Call to Ministry (D.Min. diss. Ashland Theological Seminary, 2014). The list of denominations represented (excluding the non-denominational category) include: the Free Methodist Church, the Wesleyan Church, the Salvation Army, the Church of the Nazarene, the World Council of Independent Christian Churches, Church of God, African Methodist Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), United Methodist Church, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Churches of Christ in Christian Union, Seventh-Day Adventist Church, American Baptist Churches, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Southern Baptist Convention, and the Roman Catholic Church.

[3] Caldwell, Kristen Nicole, Discovering the Primary Hindrances, 157. See also Table 19 “Evidences of Transformational Change in Overcoming Hindrances” on page 159.

[4] Exploring the seven-dimensional impact of the historical mothers is only one component among many different possible needs an aspiring woman minister may have. Relevant for theological curriculum in particular, the #1 most common experience shared among this sampling of women clergy was wrestling with Bible verses at it relates to their call (#27).  See Caldwell, Kristen Nicole, Discovering the Primary Hindrances, 146-148 (cf. 62-65). Unlike men who share no cognitive barriers to the validity of their call related to scripture, women sometimes can find themselves in a theological web of confusion that needs disentangled with an exposition of various passages.

[5] Zikmund, Barbara Brown, Adair T. Lummis, and Patricia Mei Yin Chang, Clergy women: An uphill calling (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998). In 1997, less than one-fifth of 2,485 women clergy across denominations said they “took any courses dealing primarily with the roles, problems, or experiences of women in ministry” (137, 103). Their conclusion: “For the clergy in our study, seminary was a mixed blessing. It provided some important tools and experiences, but it did not prepare the clergy women, especially, for the difficulties they encountered after graduation” (103). See also the African American women clergy study which expressed the sentiment of seminary courses in Not without a struggle: Leadership development for African American women in ministry by Bishop Vashti McKenzie on page 93.

[6] Crabtree, Daniel, Let them preach: a class on women in ministry (D.Min. diss. Ashland Theological Seminary, 2006), 15.

[7] Ibid., 15.

[8] Ibid., 15.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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