Book Review: A Woman Called: Piecing Together the Ministry Puzzle

Claire Davidson Frederick is the Children’s and Family Minister at Woodmont Hills Church in Nashville, TN. This review was written Nov. 6, 2012, as part of the fulfillment of the requirements for the course Theology of Ministry at Hazelip School of Theology.

 

A Woman Called: Piecing Together the Ministry Puzzle by Sara Gaston Barton

 Summary

            A Woman Called: Piecing Together the Ministry Puzzle is a memoir, written by Sara Gaston Barton, a lifelong member of the Churches of Christ.   Although the book seeks to articulate a theology for women in ministry in the church, and specifically in Sara’s tradition, what you will not find in Sara Barton’s book is an argument for who should be preaching, teaching, or leading.  Rather what you will find in her book is a story, a life, a narrative of one woman who felt called to a vocation that she had been raised to believe was “off limits” to her gender.

Her use of narrative based theology includes a rich understanding of the biblical story, the history of her faith tradition in Churches of Christ, and her personal story as a girl from Arkansas growing up in the late 60’s and 70’s.  The question she poses is “will we read the Bible as spectators who come and go” or “will we enter this story of stories and assume our roles as the people of God,” participating in the story of God?[1]  The Bible describes a world that we are invited to inhabit, a world that is not static, but dynamic, one which moves along a redemptive trajectory, giving meaning and purpose to our lives.

God’s “big story” involves not only the redemption of a broken creation and reconciliation of damaged relationships between men and women, but also the breaking down of walls and barriers that separate us from God, from each other, and from true community.  When we join our “small story” to God’s “big story” we see that our primary calling as Christians is to live and work for the New Creation that God is accomplishing all around us through Christ Jesus.  God gives us the drama of Scripture as a general outline and then—responding to a unique combination of opportunities, open doors, spiritual gifts, talents and personalities—we are called by the Holy Spirit to improvise our part in the divine play.

Discerning her particular calling as a gospel preacher is where life got complicated for Gaston Barton.  She describes her experience with calling as a “wrestling match,” one that was long, arduous, and full of “cognitive dissonance.”[2]  In a church that only allowed men to fulfill public worship leadership and preaching roles, Sara felt like an anomaly.  Even as she participated in “Lasses to Leader-ettes,” and excelled at giving speeches and leading songs for female audiences only, she experienced grief and disconnect as she interpreted her limited and cloistered experience to mean that “men do not need women when it comes to spiritual matters.”[3]  She prayed that God would make her different, change her into someone else, take away her calling, but in her words, she had little success “trying to install a calling that did not come inside me.”[4]

At all points in the book, Sara uses the “body of Christ”[5] as a focal point for understanding not only the discernment of one’s calling, but also how that calling is to play itself out in the faith community.  Sara received, discerned, and answered her calling to preach in connection with her Christian community as a young person, and yet speaking her calling aloud today in that same community is “laughable” to some and downright “blasphemous” to others.[6]  However, she believes the God we serve—the One who uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise—has a logic that defies our own.[7]  God says to each of us: “I have a unique place for you,” and “in my wisdom, you are not replaceable.”[8]

This is why the body metaphor that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 12 is such an apt one for Sara’s theology, because every part of the body really does matter.  Each follower of Christ really does uniquely contribute to the overall health and functioning of the whole body.  And just as shoving a foot into a shoe that is ill-fitting may ultimately keep one from walking upright, when we try to force a member of the church into a role that he or she is not designed by God to fulfill (whether male or female), we limit the body, hinder the body, and ultimately cripple the body in the long-term.[9]  The challenge for each Christian is to discern where he or she fits, and for Sara the answer to that question is to be found in the source of one’s giftedness rather than in the substance of one’s gender.

She is faithful to note, however, that the greatest spiritual gift she can give to the body of Christ is love and the humble pursuit of unity.  Love for those with whom we disagree is perhaps the “most radical call” of all.[10]   Many have asked Sara why she does not leave Churches of Christ in order to gain even more opportunities to preach. The reason she stays is found in the priority she places on unity.  If everyone who desires gender justice leaves Churches of Christ, no one will be left to exert pressure from within our fellowship to change.  Moreover, God has opened the doors for her to use her teaching and preaching gifts in surprising, necessary, and unconventional ways.

If Sara had been granted a pulpit all those years ago, she might not have found herself working as a missionary in Uganda with her husband John where she lived and ministered for eight years in the Busoga Region.  And she is indebted to her Ugandan brothers and sisters for teaching her how to extend and practice hospitality, thus refining her conception of Christian unity even more.  If she had been granted a ministry position inside an American church in her 20’s, she would not have learned what she did about studying the Bible with outsiders, something for which she has an immense talent.  Teaching the Bible to non-English speaking students under mango trees and in smoky cooking huts increased her confidence in her ability to communicate God’s story to those who have little or no exposure to Scripture.

After coming home to America, Sara gained the opportunity to become a campus minister at RochesterCollege in Michigan.  More opportunities to preach to the “un-churched” arose, as many of her incoming freshman students were unfamiliar with God’s story.  In her ministry at Rochester, she was asked to perform baptisms and make chaplain visits when a student was ill or in the hospital.  She provided pre-marital counseling, officiated at weddings, and even conducted a funeral service when one of her students lost his father.  In short, the pastoral roles that accompanied Sara’s position as campus minister and college Bible professor confirmed her call and helped her to grow in appreciation and love for the body of Christ.

But Gaston Barton’s narrative is not so much about preaching the gospel as it is about embodying the gospel, where, in Christ, all are one and God is no respecter of persons.  Her vision for the body of Christ is an embodied theology, where our practices reveal as much about what we believe as do our verbal exchanges.[11]  Do we truly believe in a “priesthood of all believers,” a tenet central to our Restoration Heritage?  Do we truly believe that in Christ, all are included at the table of our Lord, barriers between humankind are broken down, and that there is now no longer “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female” (Gal. 3:28)?   Or do our current ecclesial practices and gender distinctions in ministry belie those convictions?

The Hebrew prophets often addressed certain points in the life of God’s people when they failed to consider the ways in which their practices were or were not forming the faith community to act in ways consistent with the nature and life of God.[12]  Sara’s testimony provides a compelling and convicting prophetic voice at this juncture in the life of God’s people.

Towards the end of her narrative, Sara offers a succinct and well-informed summary of all the egalitarian scholarship that has come before her.  She briefly addresses the passages on gender from 1 Corinthians 11, 1 Corinthians 14, 1 Timothy 2, Ephesians 5, 1 Peter 3, and Acts 2:17-18, and reminds us that God has used women as his mouthpiece throughout history and Scripture.  After including names from both the Old and New Testament such as Huldah, Miriam, Deborah, Anna, Philip’s four daughters, and the women at the tomb, she then spends some time in John 4 recounting the story of the woman at the well, who essentially becomes the first Gentile evangelist in Jesus’ name, bringing her whole town to meet the Messiah.

Her theology for the full inclusion of women in public ministry has at its foundation the reality of who God is and how God has chosen to work throughout the canon.  Our God is a God of reversals; a God of surprises; a God who uses second-born sons, barren women, and outsiders to initiate his redemptive work.  Sara shows us how from the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel, God is overturning the world’s expectations concerning even the Messiah himself with a genealogy that includes a prostitute, an adulteress, and foreigners to the covenant community.  God has never worked through the obvious regarding whom he would call to fulfill God’s purposes.  And the same holds true today.  God can and will work through “the least of these” to accomplish God’s mission in the world.

Sara sees the hierarchy of male over female as a descriptive result of the fall (Gen. 3:16), not a prescriptive practice for the church in all times and places.  In the upside down Kingdom of God where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, the very concept of hierarchy is turned on its head, transformed and redeemed by Jesus Christ.  And to Sara, it just makes sense that the community of the saved should operate according to the redeemed order inherent in New Creation rather than the old orders of the fall.

 

REVIEW & REFLECTION:

Sara’s memoir is like a good sermon preached in a testifying voice to a post-modern audience.  The blurb from Scot McKnight on the front cover provides early indications that her work is not going to be a typical essay on biblical anthropology, ecclesiastical polity, or anything of the sort.  Plain and simple, it is the author’s personal story, mixed with theological reasoning and reflection, illuminating the issue of gender in the church in an inductive and narrative way.  Some academic readers may find her “light” exegesis to be a problem, but Sara’s narrative powerfully expresses facts of a different sort; and if one can accept her subjective, unconventional method of storytelling, one will find this book extremely worthwhile.
There is no chronological or even topological order to Sara’s history.  I found this to be a bit jarring at times, but her approach mirrors the metaphoric “pieces of the ministry puzzle” coming together.  Meaning is not to be found in a logical sequence of events but in the various ways in which God has helped her answer a genuine and specific call to the pastoral side of church ministry.   Her story alternates between frustration, sadness, and fulfillment, and I found her illustrations of women feeling demeaned and undervalued in the church to be genuine, believable, and relevant to my own experience.

Women really do notice when a title such as “Minister of Children” is suddenly changed to “Children’s Educational Coordinator” as a woman takes the position.  Women really are hurt when a 5th grade boy is no longer allowed to be “taught” by them because he was recently baptized and is now considered to be “a man” by the church’s definition.

Her struggle was palpable, but what I appreciated most about her story was her insistence on pursuing unity and staying within Churches of Christ, even as she felt her spiritual gifts were being shunned by them.  She believes, and quite honorably too, that if she is truly called by God to pastor, then she has the duty to do that within her own fellowship.  Many arguments that are given for the ordination of women simply cast the issue in terms of individual rights or empowerment, and this tends to undermine the divine aspect of the calling to pastoral ministry.   Sara’s humility and grace stand in refreshing contrast to those approaches and serve to strengthen her overall message.
When Sara finally exegetes the biblical material concerning the role of women in the church, there is nothing ground-breaking in her treatment of the Pauline texts.  She comes down on the side of redemptive equality and cultural contextualization, which is unsurprising, although she does add some of her own personal reasoning for those positions, giving them a fresh perspective.   Gaston Barton says that she does not intend her book to be the final or conclusive statement on the issue of gender in ministry, probably because her own story is open-ended and still being written by God.  What she intends to do is add yet another voice to the conversation, and in so doing, succeeds admirably.

Though I have never been a missionary in Uganda, a campus minister, or a college professor, Sara’s story resonates with me, not because the details of her life are identical to mine, but because the overriding theme of her life has been the same.  I too have sought a place to minister within the community of God’s people, a place where my gifts would be welcomed, lovingly affirmed, and then put to use, and it has taken me 41 years to find it.   I left Churches of Christ and LipscombUniversity for several years as a young woman in my 20’s, because the overriding message I had received from both had been: “we do not need you, nor do we have a place for your particular set of musical, leadership, and public speaking gifts.”

Sara warns us that if we in Churches of Christ do not change our practices concerning gender and ministry, then we will likely see even more of our young women walking out the door and either seeking to have their gifts used and affirmed in the secular world (as I did) or in denominations more inclusive than our own.  What a loss for a church that does not even know what it is missing!  Her assertion reminds me of a quote heard at the 2009 Christian Scholars Conference in Nashville, Tennessee during a session on gender in ministry:    When women with a calling leave our fellowship, “their voices are not quite missed,” in the words of Rev. Dr. Katie Hays, “because the majority of our voices were never heard anyway.”[13]

I find Gaston Barton’s book to be highly relevant to where I am in my current ministry at Woodmont Hills Church of Christ.  As I write this we, as a ministry staff along with our present shepherds, are undertaking conversations about this very topic: gender roles in public worship. We are seeking to come to a place of unity, but unity is extremely difficult to define, much less obtain.

For some in our fellowship the question of the “woman’s role” is a “salvation issue,” and we must be sensitive to those who believe this way.  For them, the way we worship is directly tied to our obedience and eternal standing before God.  They read the texts against women speaking quite literally, are firmly against cultural contextualization, and feel that if any woman teaches, preaches, or prays in the public assembly, then someone’s eternal soul is in jeopardy.  For women like Sara and myself, the issue of women speaking is indeed a salvation issue, but we have a very different definition of salvation.   Sara defines salvation (and I agree with her) as “living fully into the life to which God has called us here and now,” a life that is embodying and pointing to New Creation, where “everything is being made new” (Rev. 21:5).[14]

For us, the idea of not using our gifts is akin to the man who had but one talent, was afraid of his master, and so buried his talent in the sand (Luke 19:11-27).  When his master returned, the servant was chastised for not putting to use what the master had given him.  At this point in my life, I am unwilling to be that kind of fearful servant to my Master and Savior and to grieve the Holy Spirit who gave me these spiritual gifts.

Whatever the outcome of our discussions at Woodmont Hills, and whatever new public worship practices are opened to women and girls, the biggest gift I have received through it all is simply a seat at the table, a place where my voice is welcomed and heard.  Not all of our elders and ministers will agree on how to proceed, but God is at work in each of us, calling us to listen to one another and discern together where God is taking us as a church.  The communal discernment in which I have participated surrounding this issue, the humble trust of my brothers and sisters in Christ, and the open and honest conversation we have experienced together have been the greatest blessings thus far.

Sara has challenged me through the writing of her book to forge an equal commitment to unity in our fellowship, with an emphasis on grace and love for those with whom I may disagree.   As “A Woman Called,” it is easy for me to become angry and impatient as I negotiate the “minefield” (her word) of gender relations in the church.[15]  I want to see results and I want to see them now.

But Sara reminds me that our work can be compared to that of cathedral builders.[16]  We are working on a building that will probably not be completed in our lifetimes; and somehow we must be satisfied with that.  The saints of old were “commended for their faith,” yet “none of them received what had been promised” (Heb. 11:39).  They did not get to see the final result of their work in their lifetime.  It is my hope that my daughters and granddaughters may one day experience the freedom in Christ that I have yet to experience in this lifetime.

For Sara Gaston Barton, spiritual growth is what happens in the process of living into God’s story, of stepping out “by faith” into the role to which God has called a person.  Answering that call is simply one step in a much larger pilgrimage.  Spiritual growth is also what happens when we as a community journey together towards New Jerusalem, the city “whose architect and builder is God,” allowing the Spirit to form us into one body, as we seek to conform our lives, attitudes, and practices to that of the Son (Heb. 11:10).



[1] Sara Gaston Barton, A Woman Called: Piecing Together the Ministry Puzzle, 16.

[2] Gaston-Barton, A Woman Called, 36, 78.

[3] Ibid, 33.

[4] Ibid, 32.

[5] Ibid, 26-28, 40-45, and 196.

[6] Ibid, 26.

[7] Ibid, 27.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 75.

[10] Ibid, 42.

[11] Ibid, 96-97.

[12] Penya & Johnson,

[13] Rev. Dr. Katie Hays is the preaching minister for the Northwest Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Texas.  She and husband Lance Pape left Churches of Christ in 2005 after spending 11 years co-ministering together in 2 separate egalitarian congregations:  Cahaba Valley Church of Christ and West Islip Church of Christ.  Katie spoke at the Christian Scholars Conference at Lipscomb University in 2009.  Her career is a pastor/pulpit minister has now spanned almost 20 years.  Other women who have left Churches of Christ and found preaching or pastoral ministries in other denominations include Nadia Bolz Weber, Micki Pulleyking, and Teresa Pecinovsky.

[14] Sara Gaston Barton, A Woman Called, 174.

[15] Ibid, 71.

[16] Ibid, 200-204.

What’s New: Imaging Gender in Churches of Christ (a contest)

It’s summer. It’s time for kicking back, taking it a little easy, having some fun with the kids.

Justice work can be exhausting. It can be depressing. Sometimes victories are few and far between and it can seem like there’s always more to grieve over than celebrate.

So, sometimes, we need to have a little fun with things! Therefore…

Announcing! “Imaging: Gender in Churches of Christ,” our first-ever, highly experimental image contest! Draw, photograph, paint, use ToonDoo if you have no skills, whatever!

Here are the rules:

1) stay on topic: your image should illustrate some aspect of “experiencing gender in Churches of Christ”
2) your image must be your own
3) you may incorporate text, but please, keep it clean!
4) submit by posting on Facebook page , Facebook msg, email or twitter (submissions can be kept anonymous if desired)
5) images will be posted on the gal328 Facebook page
6) votes=likes
7) submit by end of summer; multiple submissions welcome

Winner will receive awesome amounts of personal affirmation!

Voices of Experience: Please Don’t Ask Me to Stay, by Rebecca Kello

Please Don’t Ask Me to Stay

Someone has to stay, someone has to stay to make change or we’ll die. This has been the plea that I have heard expressed to myself and to many other women (and to be fair, men as well) in my first year of seminary. I’m lucky enough to be able to attend a seminary that understands my issues with being a woman who grew up in the churches of Christ, little c or it doesn’t count kind of church of Christ, and in many ways this is one of the reasons I chose this seminary, but it also comes with a dose of desperation to save the denomination.

After a year of hearing this plea, though, I have to finally express my exhaustion with it. It’s important to note the need for change agents to stay, but it’s also important to acknowledge when one’s own health is compromised by staying. Asking me to stay in the churches of Christ is like asking a abused spouse to stay in a marriage because fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. I struggle with identifying and labeling my experience as abusive because it seems severe and I love the people and the church that made me who I am; most days I don’t look back on my experience and feel like I was purposefully subjugated, but purposeful or not, it happened.

It was in a small, cinder-block church classroom, with brightly colored paint that was desperately trying to bring some life to the room, that as a 13-year-old girl, I realized that I could never be enough. It was in this class that I realized that I would have to change who I was to become who God wanted me to be. As a shy child, I was hardly as loud or as opinionated as I am today, but even still, I knew that being the Proverbs 31 woman would be an uphill battle for me and that the gentle quiet spirit did not reside in me in the way it did in the women in the church who I adored. I was devastated.

This devastation leads to self-doubt, which leads to self-esteem issues. Those self-esteem issues were not merely about my appearance or social status as most teenage girls struggle with, but rather they were consumed with the guilt of being a better leader than the boys in my youth group, they were ravaged with what career path to take in college, and on a very personal level, they began to create problems in relationships, subconsciously creating a fear of the rights I would lose if I were to be married. I have switched from career to career; teacher, missionary, teacher again, counselor, etc. Those who don’t know or value my story see that as me being flighty and wasting my 20s, those who do, however, can see how I was trying to make my calling to ministry fit into socially acceptable boxes, dancing around what God has designed me for: ministering to wounded, scarred people.

I was born into a generation and a society that allowed and thought that the education of its young girls should be equal to that of its young boys. While this was the case in my public school, this was far from the case in my conservative church in which women were held to a very specific ideal of Christian womanhood. The two places that were most influential in my young life and personal development, the church and the school, both sent clear, intrinsic messages in their structure and intent. The vast dichotomy between the two, as well as the value and potential that I felt, highlights what has plagued me and many females in my generation: a theological identity crisis.

Growing up in a community and family in which church was vital to everything, this theological identity crisis became so central to who I was, in every aspect of life. The church who I gave my whole life to, consistently, by word or by deed, sent the message that as a woman, I could never be enough. This became my underlying schema and the narrative that ruled my life.

Honestly, sometimes anger creeps in when I think about how my life could be so much further along if I had been instilled with the theological identity God gave me rather than the gender identity the church has boxed me into. It doesn’t plague me all the time, but it’s there and everyday I fight; I fight for the theological identity that God has instilled in me and my church denied me. Everyday, in my religious, personal, and professional life, I fight to undo the wounds caused by growing up in a very conservative church of Christ as a woman.

This is why it’s so hard when people ask me to stay. I have wrestled with God and the church, and for me to be a healthy, life-giving member of the Christian story, I cannot stay. I have met those who have the heart and the support and the hopes to change this denomination into a healthier place for women, but I cannot be one of them. Each day I’m growing in grace towards my past but my gifts fall to better use in another denomination, and the wounds still run too deep, so please don’t ask me to stay.

Naomi Walters, Stamford Church of Christ

An Uncommon Journey: Naomi Walters at Stamford Church of Christ, July 7, 2013

An Uncommon Journey

Naomi Walters

July 7, 2013

Stamford Church of Christ

My call to ministry is less like a Burning Bush or a Damascus Road situation, and more like a matrix of personal skills and life situations that make a particular path a good fit. My path is made up of steps that, only in retrospect, show that God was leading me to ministry, to what turns out to be this moment. Dale has already given you a sketch, but I’d like to share more with you about a few of those formative moments.

I was raised in the Church of Christ. My parents gave me a love of church. We were there Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, Saturday youth group, summer church camp, potlucks (though we called them fellowship meals), small groups, picnics, work days…you name it, we did it. And church wasn’t just somewhere we went, it was what we did and who we were – you can go to a building, that is something you can do, but you can’t go to church ’cause the church is you – you know. My parents’ best friends were from church and my best friends were their kids. We lived in community. Churches of Christ were my people. And these were the people who gave me a love of Scripture: reading it, studying it, memorizing it, Bible Bowling it – even teaching it (to other girls and in children’s church, of course).

When I was deciding where to go for college, I only considered Church of Christ schools; I chose Rochester College (in Michigan). I started out as an English major, then became a Bible major because those were the classes I was most excited to attend. But I was intentionally “just” a Biblical Studies major, decidedly not a ministry major. My intention was to go on to get a PhD and teach college Bible courses. But even Biblical Studies majors have to take a preaching course, which I put off literally as long as I could, until my Senior year. And in that class I discovered that I loved preaching, that I was good at it even. But at this point, I didn’t think it was worth fighting over or fighting for. Upon graduation, I planned to pursue the M.Div., but, again, for the purpose of going on to a PhD and teaching college Bible courses.

For my M.Div., I chose another Church of Christ school, Abilene Christian University. This was the first time I had female classmates who wanted to minister in Churches of Christ; at Rochester the only other female Biblical Studies major was also “in it for academics” – at least at the time. So my first passion regarding gender justice in Churches of Christ was advocacy-based. It wasn’t for me; it was for my friends. Again, I put off taking the required preaching course until my last semester. Again, I found that I loved it. And again, it was confirmed that I was good at it. But this time around, I also found that I wanted to do it, that it was worth fighting for. What had started out as advocacy had turned into hope. Abilene is also where I met and married Jamey, who was planning to do a PhD and teach Bible at the college level.

These two factors led me to reconsider my long-held plan of doing a PhD: First, since it is unlikely that Jamey and I would receive tenure-track teaching positions at the same university in the same department. But second, and mostly, because I was ready to admit that my plans to teach were at least partially denial. (I was also able to teach a few undergraduate courses at ACU, and found that to be something that I enjoy and have skill in as well, so this is not to say that teaching is nowhere in my future; just that I was hiding behind it.) I was afraid that being honest, with myself and with others, about my desire to preach would open the floodgates, that it would consume my life and make it impossible for me to both be faithful to who God had made me to be and to continue to love God’s people. It turns out there was good reason for this fear. My initial steps toward speaking out for gender justice in Churches of Christ were met with anger, resentment, condemnation, judgment, disappointment, and confusion – by complete strangers and, more painfully, by some very close to me.

It was in the midst of this that we moved to Princeton for my husband’s PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary. In this time of transition, as we searched for a church home, I thought of leaving Churches of Christ so that I could more easily find work in a church. In fact many people suggested that I do just that – some suggested it to get rid of me, others suggested it out of concern for my spiritual health. I thought of it, but I never really considered it. I could no more leave Churches of Christ as I could leave my family. Just as I will always be my parents’ daughter, I will always be Church of Christ. Even if I stopped attending a Church of Christ and attended another church, Churches of Christ would not stop being my people. They are the tribe that formed me, that instilled in me the very gifts I now want to use for ministry. Although I am certainly not what my church intended or could ever have imagined, the fact remains that it made me who I am.

And, again, there’s the question of advocacy. I have other female friends who want to preach. I have nieces. I have friends with daughters. Maybe someday Jamey and I will have a daughter. There are women, young and old, many of whom I have never met, who have been silenced and ignored. If everyone who wants Churches of Christ to change leaves, what will become of them? I felt – I still feel – that as long as God gives me the strength to stay, in fact even on the days that I’m not so sure I have that strength, Churches of Christ are where I’ll be.

This commitment is what brought us here to Stamford, even though it is a two-hour drive from Princeton. I had heard about Stamford in undergrad at Rochester from my friend and fellow soccer player, Hudney Piquant, who attended here. I had heard about Stamford while at ACU, that it was one of the few Churches of Christ in the country who had welcomed women into its pulpit. I had heard about Stamford from Justin and Kat Burton, who Jamey knew in undergrad. So we visited, and we could tell from just one Sunday that things were different here. This is the type of church that we wanted to attend. In fact, this is type of church that I wanted to work for and work with in embodying the mission of God in the world.

Those are the steps that brought me here. Like Jonah, I ran and hid and denied a little bit along the way; I’ll even admit that I have cursed my share of leafy trees. But it is clear to me looking back on my story so far that God was shaping me – through parents who modeled community life and gave me a love of church, through a community that encouraged in me a love of Scripture, through preaching classes I did not want to take, through professors and mentors, and through a hundred other people, skills, and situations – to minister to God’s people.

And it’s clear to me from Dale’s story that God was shaping you to be the kind of church that would provide space for me to minister – though it may be risky socially for all of us, though it may be costly monetarily for all of us, though it is always difficult to commit to live together in community.

So, as I stand here today, I have many emotions. I am excited. I am grateful. I’m a bit scared. But I’m confident that God will use you in this next year to shape and challenge me in ministry, and I’m hopeful that God can use me to shape and challenge you as well. I’m not exactly sure what that will look like, but I can’t wait to see what the God who clears a path through roaring waters, who reveals a way in the wilderness, who makes a stream in the dessert, and who provides a ministry position in Churches of Christ for a woman (!) will do among us in the next year.

It was hard for many to imagine this day would come. But, to the one who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be the glory in the church – in this church, in you, and in me – to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen!

Good news!: Naomi Walters named Minister in Residence at Stamford Church of Christ

Reflections on Announcement

July 7, 2013

By Dale Pauls

At the Stamford Church of Christ ​

 

This is a big Sunday here at the Stamford Church of Christ.  This is a landmark summer, and this is a big Sunday when we formally announce our one-year Ministry in Residence with Naomi Walters starting in September.  And so I decided to break from our series on Philippians and share with you more personally my own thoughts on this auspicious occasion.

I begin by thinking back to how I became a minister.  To many people it seemed fore-ordained.  I was a minister’s kid, more precisely, a minister’s son; so when I was in my very early teens I was already preaching sermons in small country congregations near where we lived.  I am glad that this was long before the days of audio-visual record and that there remains no evidence of those sermons, but it just seemed natural that I would be a minister.

Well, natural to everyone but me.  So I  took a detour on the way to ministry, studied pre-med, then psychology, then sociology, and only when I was already in graduate school in sociology at the University of Michigan did I feel drawn back to studying religion.  And that’s what I was drawn to, studying religion not necessarily ministry.  I was fascinated by Jesus and by things spiritual, but about ministry I was reluctant.

Still when three years later I graduated from Harding Graduate School of Religion, I already had a job waiting for me with a mission church in East Brunswick, New Jersey sponsored by the Madison Church of Christ in Tennessee.  A year later I had a job waiting for me at Michigan Christian College, now Rochester College.  Two years after that I was here.

Naomi’s path was a bit different.  No one expected her to be a minister.  To no one – except perhaps God – was it fore-ordained.  Many people otherwise close to her did not want her to be a minister.  Still she graduated from Rochester College in Michigan with a major in Biblical Studies and a minor in Counseling.  She then went on to Abilene Christian University where she excelled academically and received her M.Div.  There was no job waiting for Naomi.  It was well-known in ACU circles and circles that spread out from there that Naomi Walters was exceptionally skilled at preaching.  I heard her name, and I heard she was the best, long before I ever met her.  But no one was lined up to offer her a job.  For one reason only – she was a woman.

Other women in her position, and there are others, in increasing numbers all the time, are simply leaving the Churches of Christ, but Naomi choose a different track and determined to do her very best to stay within our fellowship.  Almost two years ago, she and Jamey began driving up here from Princeton, New Jersey passing East Brunswick (where I began) on the way.  This past Christmas Day they brought into our lives dear little Simon.  This summer Naomi begins an on-line D. Min. program at David Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.  The D. Min. program is a practical program that supposes you already have a ministry position and ministerial experience.  The wise people who run David Lipscomb’s D. Min. program made an exception for Naomi.  But no one else did.  No churches did.  No churches offered her an opportunity to gain ministerial experience.

That is, until Naomi summoned up her courage and approached us wondering if we might be able to find a way to give her at least part-time ministerial experience.  So conversations began and then on Sunday, May 16th, she met for an extensive interview with our elders and ministers.  We were all blown away.  E-mails flew back and forth – the morning-after gist of which were, “Wow!  Could you believe that interview?”  Most of us had been part of many interviews; few of us had ever seen a person who interviewed as well as Naomi, who came across with her poise, wisdom and spiritual insight.

So we proposed a part-time year-long Ministry in Residence position for Naomi to all of you, and the response was strongly supportive.  As the current minister here, the support seemed maybe too strongly supportive.  My favorite response was in an email from Kelly Beel, “What about you, Dale?  You won’t be giving the sermon?”  Thank you, Kelly.  But that seemed to trouble no one else, and in fact wasn’t the case anyway.  I will be giving sermons.  Lots of them.  And they will likely be listened to with the same measure of interest and indifference as usual.  The larger point is this proposal was strongly supported.  So we sent Naomi an offer letter which she signed.  And that brings us to this day, Sunday, July 7th, 2013.

Still I am struck by the difference between my story and Naomi’s.  All because of gender.

And I am deeply disappointed that Churches of Christ have made such slow progress on all this.  Too many ministers who know better, who agree with what we are doing here, are simply, for the sake of survival, I guess, staying silent.  Too many churches are being held back by the traditional views of just one or two of elders (even when most elders are open to progress).  Too many people in the pews who have nothing to lose are sitting this out; in the process they risk losing much.

All this does not auger well for Churches of Christ.  I am by academic training a historian, so I find it natural to think historically, to catch a sense of the flow of history and to from that map out where the future will be taking us.  One day almost all churches will be gender egalitarian.  Outside of Catholicism, most in the West already are.  One day Catholicism will be.  And those movements that prove resistant to this will be in serious decline. Again, for most the decline has already begun.

I do not doubt that many people who resist change on this are acting in good faith.  But they are not studying the Bible.  They are not doing their homework.  They do not seek the original intent of Scripture nor do they seek to understand Scripture in its historical context.  So they do not understand that those passages that restrict women’s participation in public worship – 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:9-15 – address specific circumstances in the particular cultural context of their original first-century audiences.  They do not understand that Paul is calling his readers to live gracefully as disciples of Christ within thestrongly patriarchal patterns of their day.  They do not understand that he is guiding Christians in the setting in which they live; he is not advocating their patriarchal, even misogynistic, setting for all time. So they do not distinguish between what the New Testament says about the new life in Christ and the degree to which it was possible to implement this in first-century culture.  As a result, although they would no longer use the teaching, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters” (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-4:1; Titus 2:9-10) to defend slavery in our time, they will still use 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 or 1 Timothy 2:9-15 to silence women’s voices in our public assemblies in our time.

This is a big Sunday.  This is landmark summer, and this is a big Sunday.  By giving Naomi this ministerial experience we are fulfilling the vision of Peter in Acts 2:17-21 that God has poured out his Spirit on all people, both men and women; our sons and our daughters will prophesy.  By insisting in this place that the use of God-given gifts will not be restricted on the basis of gender, we are being true to the spirit of Christ, true to the goodness in the gospel, true to the freedom we have in Christ, and true to the original intent and the historical context of the texts in question. We help end patterns of prejudice and discrimination that bring shame to churches in our time.  We save our sons and daughters, and we play our part in seeing that women everywhere are treated with the same respect that men just naturally are by virtue of their being male.

In hiring Naomi to this part-time Ministry in Residence we are of course stepping out in faith in many ways, including our absorbing her $20,000 in salary.  We did not budget for this.  And so we ask those of you who can to give toward offsetting her salary.  And we will be asking people across the country who support what we are doing, who see the significance, even the necessity, of churches providing ministerial experience to women like Naomi, to help us in this. ​

TOGETHER we will build a future in which people will no longer be held back or held down simply by how they were born, where all people will be respected, honored and empowered not for how they were physically born but for how they are spiritual reborn.  The gospel will again be heard as gospel that is for all the people.  And the world will know that we all live in a world lit by resurrection and open to the Spirit of God, a world of amazing possibilities, a world where grace reigns, a world where in all things God works for our good, a world where we are all called to befilled to the measure of all the fullness of God, and that this is as true for women as it is for men.

It is now our privilege to hear Naomi Walters.

What’s New: a memorial page for those called elsewhere

On the menu bar you will see a new tab, labeled “Memorial.” When you click on it, it will take you to a new page. This page is an interactive wiki, and it is open for anyone to edit.

That may be a risky move, I know.

The idea behind it is simply this: women called to ministry in ways that question what we’ve been accustomed to call traditional “women’s roles in the church” have to face a choice–do we ignore the claim of God on our lives, or do we follow it…even if it takes us right out of the church we love and long to serve? Or to put it another way, do we serve God, or men?

Many women have, courageously, followed the example of countless biblical heroes and followed the call of God out of the familiar and into the unknown. They leave. Because they have to. Because the Churches of Christ give them no way to stay, even if they really want to.

And worse, when they leave, no one mourns their absence. No one mourns the loss of their voices, their gifts, their wisdom, their leadership, their presence. How can we miss voices that were never allowed to speak? How can we miss gifts that were forbidden use? How can we miss leadership that was never allowed expression?

This problem, of absence being unremarked because there was always an absence-in-presence to begin with, is what this wiki project is about. It is time to name our losses. It is time to grieve them. It is time to repent of the sin that caused them.

If you are a woman who has left the Churches of Christ because there was no place for you, please add your name to the Memorial. If you know of someone who has left to follow her call elsewhere, please add her name (with permission) to the wiki.

It is time we honored these women.