The first time I heard a woman preach I was 17. Until then, I’d heard the “sharing of testimonies” by women in my church, but I’d never heard the proclamation of divine word uttered in a female voice.
The woman who shattered that barrier was Brenda Salter McNeil, speaking from a stage in St. Louis at Urbana, a conference for thousands of people that focused on global missions. And oh, snap, did she bring the Word!
Her message was compelling, but more than that, her presence caused a palpable stir, something I could not fully recognize until after the session when our group headed to dinner at a local sandwich shop. Over crusty bread and piping hot soup, opinions stared firing, particularly among the women present.
Dr. McNeil was different than all the men on the stage. She made us women feel different in ways we weren’t quite sure about. She talked about the call of Abraham and the idea of settling. When it comes to following where God leads, Dr. McNeil made sure to remind us that wherever you settle, that is where you die. Life is found in the continued faithfulness to move.
Dr. McNeil’s words provoked a lot of thoughts and emotions that day, which I didn’t think was wrong or bad. However, our lack of comfort regarding Dr. McNeil’s presence and words did make me curious about the “system of church” that has functioned in our world for so long, disconnecting us from the role women play in sharing God’s wisdom.
Ten years later, I’m still struggling with the same system, as I find myself amongst a circle of seminarians who are processing yet another woman of faith speaking with power. Recently, my fellow students and I reviewed individual responses to a local pastor, which were given anonymously and typed up for discussion. There, in cold, hard print, I saw the words written by one of my classmates:
“I continue to struggle with hearing people talk about their call when I see no evidence of that call in Scripture.”
For me, it was the word “people” that felt like the biggest slap. I could feel the blood and shame rushing to my face as if the blow had actually been given. You could call us women, I thought. You’re drawing blood either way.
Eyes locked on the paper, I took a deep breath. In just a moment, I’d have to look up and make eye contact with someone who’d written that—someone who didn’t feel that the call the four women in the room had heard to attend this institution was valid or biblically supported. What felt worse, because this sheet was anonymous, I would have to make eye contact with every person present, not knowing for sure who felt that way.
That all felt like a little much. Too much to keep quiet. So, as I looked up and found the faces of trusted friends, sweet acquaintances, and relative strangers, I also found myself speaking these words:
“I need whoever wrote this to know I’m tired. It’s exhausting to hear your ‘honest struggle’ in ways that communicate hostility and lack of faith in my capacity to discern the Spirit of God’s call in my life.”
I went on from there for a little bit…eyes fiery, face flushed, words passionate. I tried to articulate how heavy I felt inside, knowing someone there doubted that I belonged in this circle.
I wondered aloud if we had something to offer the men in the room, a new experience of the Spirit of God that they hadn’t heard yet.
Mostly, I just ran through all of my emotions until there was nothing left to say. As I watched people’s faces and felt what was happening inside of me, I started to realize why I’d become so passionate. After spending a year in this class with these students, I was really hurt by my classmate’s words. Admitting my hurt felt so vulnerable, but somehow I knew I had to own it with the group:
“When you talk about women in this way, it hurts us.”
I am not sure how long it will take to keep moving from Brenda Salter McNeil to more women finding their way into seminary to a general embrace of God giving women unique authority and calling. I think the way forward is through conversation. We must own that we’re hurting, apologize for causing hurt, and recommit to living in love together.
If we settle for less, we’ll never realize the community that is possible. Women and men both have to be faithful in following God’s unique call. Because, in the words I heard so long ago from Brenda Salter McNeil, where you settle, you die.
Katy Johnson lives, dreams, writes, and edits in a messy, watercolored world. She’s a 28 year old seminary student, discovering her hope, her longings, and the wild spaces in her own heart. Her favorite creative project right now is called Will I Break?, and someday, that manuscript may see the light of day. For now, she shares her thoughts here.