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
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? 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.” 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.” 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.”
At all points in the book, Sara uses the “body of Christ” 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. 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. God says to each of us: “I have a unique place for you,” and “in my wisdom, you are not replaceable.”
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.”
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).
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. 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. 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).
 Sara Gaston Barton, A Woman Called: Piecing Together the Ministry Puzzle, 16.
 Gaston-Barton, A Woman Called, 36, 78.
 Ibid, 26-28, 40-45, and 196.
 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.
 Sara Gaston Barton, A Woman Called, 174.