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Troublesome Women Preachers

We join a long legacy of prophetic witness to the gospel.

Editor’s Note: This year for Thanksgiving, we want you to know that we’re thankful for you! For all the work you put in, for all the awkward situations you navigate, for all the hard messages you preach. Being a woman in ministry is not always an easy path. But you are doing it. So today we offer this sermon from Rev. Tiffany Thomas to let you know just how thankful we are for all the troublesome women preachers out there.

Rev. Thomas originally preached this sermon at the North Carolina Women’s Preaching Festival. It is the second part of a duo preaching presentation with Rev. Kara Slade. They followed the lectionary text for the day and purposely chose the Pauline Epistle to make the statement that female preachers can and do find liberating and affirming messages in Paul’s writings. First Corinthians 15:1–11 was read from The Message before she began. —Amy Jackson

A woman preacher is a woman in trouble.

There is that troublesome God who plucks us from the simple linear life that we created for ourselves and calls us into ministry.

There are those troublesome insecurities, that voice that rings in our heads: Who am I to stand in front of people and speak. I am nobody.

There is that troublesome glass ceiling that women have been hurling stones at for generations. But that pesky glass is strong and hard to crack.

There are those troublesome stereotypes. The covert and overt messages that say, “If you are going to be a woman preacher you have to look a certain way. Talk a certain way. Stand a certain way. Be a certain way.”

And then. And then. And then.

There are those troublesome voices who say again and again to women preachers: You do not belong in the ...

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Mon, 23 November 2015 08:00:00 CST
Pastor or Director: Does Title Matter?

An honest look at what our titles communicate

Several years ago, I had a breakfast meeting with an elder at my church. When the check came, I reached across the table to pay. But he refused and said, “I have a policy that I always pay for the pastor.” I laughed. “But I am not a pastor,” I said, using air quotes. He responded, “Yes you are. That may not be your title but it is what you do.” In that poignant moment, I felt both affirmed and empowered. As I’ve reflected upon it further, I’ve realized “pastor” makes much more sense as a verb defining a calling, rather than a noun labeling an occupation.

The Greek word for pastor (poimen) is used a number of times in the New Testament in connection with the various duties of a shepherd—to feed, protect, oversee, teach, and love the sheep. That is why, with the exception of Ephesians 4:11, this word is usually translated as “shepherd” in English. It pertains to the work of someone who tends the flock. I doubt “pastor” was originally intended to be a job title in front of someone’s name. Even in the context of Ephesians 4:11, pastor is one of the many spiritual gifts given to build up the body. It’s not meant to elevate one person or one gender over another.

Director, on the other hand, is an organizational word that comes from the corporate business world. It speaks of organizing, coordinating, producing, and conducting. The act of directing is important, even within the church. Yet we live in a Christian culture that differentiates between titles such as pastor and director, often along gender lines rather than job description. Many women function in pastoral roles within their churches, often overseeing large ministries ...

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Thu, 19 November 2015 08:00:00 CST
Leadership Without a Title

We can learn from the influential life of Sarah Edwards.

How would you exercise spiritual leadership if you weren’t allowed to be employed by a church, teach publicly, or attend seminary?

Sarah Edwards (1710–1758), wife of famous colonial pastor Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), lived with all these restrictions, yet they didn’t stop her from becoming one of the most spiritually influential women in her New England town of Northhampton. The key to Sarah’s success in influencing her congregation? A lifestyle of leadership.

Married to the pastor of the town church, Sarah was known for her personal piety and reputable family lineage, but she also had her challenges. She endured bouts of depression throughout her life, raised 11 children, struggled alongside her husband with a town that often undervalued his ministry—at times, they outright resented him.

Sarah was restricted from holding any position of authority in the church because of her sex. Yet, she managed to develop a lifestyle of leadership that accomplished much of what positional leaders strive for: guiding and motivating others to develop into the people God created them to be and pursue his plans for their lives. Whether or not we are leaders with a title, we can learn from the ways Sarah demonstrated a lifestyle of leadership, not depending on a position but on the way she lived her life.

Cultivate Intimacy with the Lord

Sarah’s unswerving commitment to the Lord was built on a foundation of personal intimacy. Her husband Jonathan scribbled this description of Sarah onto a blank page of a book when she was just 13, 4 years before they would marry: “They say there is a young lady in [New Haven] who is beloved of that almighty Being, who made and rules the world, ...

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Mon, 16 November 2015 08:00:00 CST
Communicate to Both Women and Men

Should we change our delivery so well be heard?

In her landmark book, You Just Don’t Understand, linguist and researcher Deborah Tannen, noted that women tend to use communication to connect and emphasize common ground, even from a young age. Men, on the other hand, more often use communication to compete, to assert their authority. Whether these traits are inborn or simply learned at a very young age, the fact is that they exist.

For women in leadership, acknowledging the way they communicate, relate to others, and even think can help them be more effective leaders. Understanding the unique styles of men and women can help us communicate more clearly and work together in ways that build up the body of Christ. Our differences don’t have to divide us.

Tannen, one of the leading voices on gender differences over the last two decades, wrote that women engage in “rapport-talk” while men tend to prefer “report-talk” in which they share facts and stories. “The men’s style is more literally focused on the message level of talk, while the women’s is focused on the relationship or meta-message level,” she writes. Her book debunks the idea that women talk more than men. They just use talking differently, and in different settings. Men talk more in public settings, often as a way of establishing authority, while women talk more in private settings, as a way of building relationships.

The church as a whole needs the voices of both men and women—and their differing perspectives—to accomplish its mission of reaching lost people. But often, women express feeling dismissed and misunderstood. How can women leaders share their wisdom so they are heard and understood? The more we know about how we communicate, ...

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Thu, 12 November 2015 08:00:00 CST
My Burnout Led to a Breakthrough

A difficult family situation led me to my true calling.

My brother’s car sped off down the street. The police officer jumped into his vehicle in pursuit. What started off as a suicide intervention had quickly turned into a high speed car chase. As I sat in shock in the first squad car chasing my brother, our speeds increasing to 80 miles an hour, all I could do was pray. Miraculously, the chase ended without any physical injuries. I didn’t know, though, that this traumatic event would trigger a season of burnout in my life and ministry.

Up until this point, my life had been fairly uneventful. I had just returned home from a year-long ministry internship in England with an increasing sense that I was called to work in the church. Now I was stepping up to help fill in the gap when my young adult pastor relocated to another church. I was also praying about the possibility of entering seminary to be further equipped.

My brother’s depression and suicide attempts disrupted my plans for the year. I assumed that one trip to the hospital and an adjustment of medication would quickly fix his problems. I was wrong. The next six months were a nightmare as I felt powerless to help him deal with his depression.

Within weeks of the first suicide attempt I took on the unhealthy responsibility of being a pastoral support to my parents during this crisis. Meanwhile, I continued to serve as a high school small-group leader and a Bible-study leader for young adults. I worked full-time, and I rarely took time off. In fact, I only took one day off to recover after the car chase. My life was full and busy.

Asking for Help

Then one night I found myself unable to sleep. One night. Two nights. Three. The moment I would lie down, anxiety would flare up. The clock was my enemy, ...

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Mon, 9 November 2015 08:00:00 CST
The Cost of Caring

How to avoid compassion fatigue as you care for others

Fatigued from a sleepless night of worry, I sat frozen, staring at a list of unanswered emails. I had been coming alongside a woman in my ministry, and her email subject lines had increased in intensity over the week from “Can you help?” to “I’m hurting!” Suddenly, her one word text—CRISIS—dinged on my phone, and I burst into tears.

I was leading a support and recovery ministry at the time and felt genuine compassion for the suffering and struggles of the people in my ministry. But this particular morning, my tears were salted with frustration and exhaustion as my body and soul crumpled, overwhelmed by the weight of empathy. In shame, I shut down my computer, turned off my phone, and crawled into bed.

There is a cost to caring.

This is a difficult truth to own. Like many women called to ministry, I believe God has given me a capacity for compassion and empathy. Compassion and empathy go beyond offering condolences, advice, or rescue. They’re about joining a person in grief, injustice, and loss. They mean holding sorrow and carrying burdens together.

In a mixture of naiveté and pride, I assumed that compassion and empathy were gifts that I could keep on giving without any cost. I thought if I was doing it right, caring for others always would be rewarding and sustaining. Even with appropriate boundaries and good support, however, compassion takes its toll. Empathy exacts a price from our heart and body.

Dan Allender, a Christian therapist, author, and professor who specializes in recovery from abuse and trauma says this: “You cannot be involved at the depths of human heartache, engaging in the realities of people’s lives without consequences. ...

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Thu, 5 November 2015 08:00:00 CST
My Difficult Past Makes Me a Better Leader

The very things I saw as weaknesses, I now see as strengths.

I once saw my past as a liability. I thought I had the wrong upbringing, the wrong ethnicity, and even the wrong sex. But God had a different plan.

Starting at the age of 8, I walked a mile with my little sister and brother to our little country church, tip-toeing past the house with the two menacing German shepherds on the porch. Although my parents never took us to church, I somehow managed to convince my siblings to go with me.

Even at that young age, I loved telling people about Jesus. I was a sort of modern-day combination of Philip the Evangelist and John the Baptist—talking to whomever I met along the road of life and calling people to repent. I never jammed Jesus down people’s throats, but I wasn’t afraid to initiate spiritual conversations.

By the time I was a teenager, I knew the Bible like the back of my hand. I read the Bible at least two hours a day after I finished my chores. I thought about God all of the time and continually sensed his presence. It’s what Amy Julia Becker refers to as a “thin place,” based off the Celtic belief “that physical locations existed in which God's presence was more accessible than elsewhere, places where heaven and earth seemed to touch, where the line between holy and human met for a moment.”

But in reality, I was a child at risk. We had close to nothing including Christmases without gifts, days when the refrigerator was empty, and winter days without heat. As a poor Hispanic-Latina family, we had no wealthy relatives or networks to rely on. I was the kind of child for which statistics give little hope.

Our difficult circumstances drove me to God. I was in constant need and therefore constantly dependent on God for ...

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Mon, 2 November 2015 08:00:00 CST
The Power of Leading by Influence

What Im learning as Executive Pastor of Willow Creek

This week, in conjunction with the most recent issue of Leadership Journal, which explores the state of the pastorate, we're featuring two articles by pastors answering one question: what is the current state of your pastorate? Click here to see all the articles in this series.

What’s the state of your pastorate? Let us know online through tweets, blogs, drawings, or smoke signals. Include the hashtag #mypastorate, and we’ll feature our favorites in a post next week.

Two years ago, Heather Larson stepped into the executive pastor role at Willow Creek—what Bill Hybels describes as the number two position in the church. But the truth is she’d been leading and building the church alongside Hybels long before she ever got the matching title. As executive pastor, Larson leads the executive team and leadership team of the church that draws more than 24,000 people to their 6 sites each weekend. Lest you think that she stays behind the scenes, though, Larson was front and center as she hosted the 2015 Global Leadership Summit.

To find out more about her unique role, I connected with Heather over the phone. She’s not new to leading in the church, and I’m thankful for the hard-earned wisdom she shared.

Amy Jackson: How did you move into your role as executive pastor?

Heather Larson: I’ve been here 17 years. I started off working with Axis, our next-gen ministry at the time. I oversaw the group life for that age group. Then I moved into our global department here as the director of new outreach into Africa and then moved into the global director position. In total, I was focused on global ministry for about five years. After that I stepped into a role on our executive team ...

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Mon, 26 October 2015 10:00:00 CST
Technology Has Changed My Role as Pastor

In 13 years, our church plant has transformed.

This week, in conjunction with the most recent issue of Leadership Journal, which explores the state of the pastorate, we're featuring two articles by pastors answering one question: what is the current state of your pastorate? Click here to see all the articles in this series.

What’s the state of your pastorate? Let us know online through tweets, blogs, drawings, or smoke signals. Include the hashtag #mypastorate, and we’ll feature our favorites in a post next week.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Those words from Ecclesiastes 1:2 (NKJV) have been rolling through my head for the last few weeks.

Our church just spent over $6,000 on new lights, cameras, and video equipment to use in our Sunday services. With the video camera we already had, there are now four cameras pointing directly at me while I deliver the Sunday message. This allows the team to project me onto a screen during the service. Plus, for the first time this week, we put the video of our service online for the whole world to see.

It’s been a humbling experience. On the lighter side, it’s one more opportunity for me to surrender my worldly self to Christ. Vanity, vanity, let’s just get rid of all the vanity!

Thank God for the Holy Spirit who comforts us and gives us wisdom. Because of his help, I’ve been able to surrender my apprehensions. I’ve come to embrace and even celebrate this brand-new chapter in our church’s life. Those cameras that stare at me as I speak have added an amazing new dimension to our worship services and our people absolutely love it. On top of that, I know it’s a big deal that sharing our services online gives us the opportunity to reach many more ...

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Mon, 26 October 2015 09:55:00 CST
Three Reasons Women Go to Seminary

I asked women across the country: Why are you here?

A little over a year ago, I sat down with women at three evangelical seminaries across the country, and posed this question: Why are you here? I quickly learned I wasn’t the first to ask.

Over half the women I interviewed said they’d been asked, “Why are you here?”—more or less verbatim—by at least one of their male classmates. Some women believed the question was posed in earnest, while others felt alienated by it. The subtext was not always “where is God calling you?” but instead “you don’t seem to belong here.”

It’s troubling that women would be so dogged by this particular question, but it’s also strangely fitting. “Why are you here?” encapsulates the challenges facing evangelical women called to ministry today. Where do they belong? Where should they seek training—if at all? Is the cost of seminary worth the investment if a paying job is not guaranteed?

It’s because of these questions and many others, that few evangelical women attend seminary. According to the Association of Theological Schools, women make up approximately 20 percent of Master of Divinity (MDiv) students at evangelical seminaries, and at some seminaries that percentage is much lower.

There is a lot to learn about why the percentage is small, but I was curious about the opposite: despite the obstacles, why do some women still go? Especially when so few of their peers do the same.

What I discovered was a strand of three cords: a sense of calling, supportive community, and experience in ministry:


All of the women I interviewed described some sense of calling—whether to seminary or ministry. Some women were confident, others ...

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Thu, 22 October 2015 08:00:00 CST
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