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.