My first encounter with Baptist Women in Ministry’s Month of Preaching was during my first year of seminary. I was asked to preach in a local congregation — my second sermon ever.
It was Transfiguration Sunday, and as part of my sermon I made them go on a “bear hunt” with me. You know the children’s rhyme: “We’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going to catch a big one, can’t go over it, can’t go under it, we’ll have to go through it!”
God bless them. I am so thankful for this congregation and for the many others who give new and learning preachers a place to find their voices and try new things.
After all, this was the point of what used to be called “Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching,” to give women an opportunity to stand in the pulpit, to share a word from God, to use their gifts, to get invaluable experience, to learn and grow. I have been a BWIM Women’s Month of Preaching preacher many times since, and I am immensely grateful for each and every opportunity. But I must confess that every year this month of celebration also gives rise to a discomfort and tension that lives deep within my soul.
I will always push to have women in the pulpit, every week, but especially during Baptist Women in Ministry’s annual Month of Preaching. I absolutely love seeing all the photos of women in the pulpit flood my social media, and I look forward every year to finding new and creative ways for our congregation to celebrate. I know some churches need this extra push to get women in the pulpit, and I am so grateful for the opportunities and experiences created because of it.
But I can’t help but also be frustrated that we have to make such an effort to give women the opportunity to use their voices. My male colleagues have been preaching in congregations since the first moment they heard God whisper the call, while many of my female colleagues have to wait to be noticed, accepted and invited (often only during Women’s Month of Preaching).
My male peers have had ample opportunities to gain the “experience” so many churches require from a very early age, while my female peers and I were limited to certain times, places and spaces to get the pulpit experience search committees revere. What about other, just as important ministry skills — pastoral care, teaching, leading an institution, planning liturgy? Why are these gifts so often overlooked? And what about the women who lead in volunteer capacities week after week — the teachers and caregivers, the committee leaders, deacons and countless others who lead and serve with love and care but may never step into the pulpit or professional ministry?
“We must find ways to highlight and affirm the roles women already capably fulfill, while claiming and creating space for women in places that have traditionally been reserved for men.”
Ministry is happening everywhere, not just in the preaching on Sunday mornings. As Meredith Stone, executive director of BWIM, has suggested, if we want female pastors to be able to lead from the pulpit and beyond, we’re going to need to attend to the leadership of women at all levels of church life. We must find ways to highlight and affirm the roles women already capably fulfill, while claiming and creating space for women in places that have traditionally been reserved for men.
This is what Baptist Women in Ministry had in mind when it expanded its annual emphasis to Women’s Month of Advocacy. At Second Baptist-Downtown Little Rock we have heard stories and testimonies from female leaders in our congregation, city and beyond. We have lifted up the names of the women who shaped us in a variety of ways. We got to hear from one of our deacons, whose primary ministry is in the public school system. She helped us hear the story of the Good Samaritan with new ears and challenged our understanding of this well-known parable. We sat together in the tension, too, bringing awareness to areas where there’s work still to be done as we publicly shared the stats put forth in BWIM’s State of Women in Baptist Life report.
I’ll always feel some discomfort around a month-long emphasis on something that should be celebrated and valued year-round. But as the State of Women in Baptist Life report reveals, women still face obstacles that keep us from fully living out our callings. We aren’t there yet, so the emphasis remains necessary. We can’t skip ahead or “go over it.” This work takes time. We can’t “go under it.” We can’t ignore the issues women face, assuming if we don’t talk about them, they’ll go away. We have to go “through it.”
And so we will keep celebrating any and every time women step in the pulpit. We will keep amplifying the leadership of women who serve at all levels of church life. We will live faithfully in the tension of celebration and agitation until the voices of all God’s people are valued and heard. May it be so.
Brittany Stillwell serves at Second Baptist-Downtown Little Rock as associate pastor with students and families and is a graduate of Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.
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