I began preaching at the age of 15. For much of my life, I was affectionately called “girl preacher,” girl to signify how odd it was for a preacher to be female and to be young. Thanks to the painful and arduous labor of the first generation female ministers who paved the way for me, my call to ministry was affirmed and celebrated from the moment I stood behind a microphone and shouted “he rose!” I was formed and shaped by one such female ministry pioneer, my mentor Rev. Portia Lee, senior Pastor of Trinity Tabernacle Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. I’m pretty sure she is the one who gave me the name “girl preacher.” And she taught me how to lead, to serve , to preach, all while allowing me to retain my “girlish” (read young and female) ways. Sometimes I sat in the pulpit in a skirt that was entirely too short. Pastor Portia would smile and say, “well, she’s got nice legs.” Sometimes, I would show up to preach with a hickey on my neck and she would shake her head and say, “I see ministry hasn’t robbed your life of fun.” She allowed me to explore and cultivate all of the things that makes a pastor a pastor and all of the things that makes a person a person- my professional identity, my femininity, my sexuality, my voice, my vision, my ministry. I am blessed to have her in my life. I was trained to be a female pastor by a female pastor. I was formed and shaped in a community where female Christian leadership was normative.
Lately, I’ve matured from “girl preacher” to “woman pastor” and I have a girl preacher of my own, Racquel Gill, to form and shape and teach about the intersection of pastor-hood and person-hood. I am blessed to have Rockie in my life. This little upstart can preach circles around me. I have to constantly tell her “look here, youngin’, this church is not looking for a new pastor. Quit preaching like this pulpit is vacant!” She’s got it all, all the gifts that a person needs to lead a church. She once texted me from a young ministers conference where she was the keynote speaker. She texted me to tell me that she walked out of a session for women in ministry because of a conversation that centered around the belief that women are not called to pastor. She said,
” I walked out because you told me to stop arguing with people.” I was so thrilled that she actually listens to me that I didn’t force her to go back and take part in the conversation. It seems astonishing for women who regularly preach to say that women are not called to pastor but there are so many scriptures to contend with:
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak… it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church. – I Corinthians 14:34
Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man, she must be quiet – I Timothy 2:11
Wives submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church. -Ephesians 5:22-23
And on and on it goes in the Pauline Epistles about women, submission, and silence. Any person who takes the Bible seriously must also take these texts seriously, girl preachers included. I was a minister for 12 years and a senior pastor for two years before I ever really seriously considered these texts.
It’s not as though I didn’t know that these texts were in the Bible. I had an excellent theological education, studying religion in very prestigious undergraduate and graduate institutions. I was taught to know the Bible like the Back of my hand. But I went to an all girls liberal arts college, emphasis on liberal. We were encouraged, required even, to look upon with suspicion any Biblical text that was demeaning, unjust, or offensive to women. We were taught to declare with boldness, “it may be in the Bible but that is not of God!” We all but cut these texts out of the Bible with scissors. In my graduate school, in an effort to get along with each other, we almost entirely avoided issues of racism and sexism in the church and in the Bible. The theological pathos was that of proper southerners at a white-glove tea party, “shhh. That’s impolite. Stick to your health and the weather.” And that’s exactly what we did.
It is not as though no one had ever told me I should’t be a pastor because I am female. I had a boyfriend once who told me that in order to be with him I had to promise never to be a pastor. He was going to be the pastor and I was to be his first lady because “women are not called to pastor that is out of God’s divine order.” But I didn’t respond by giving him a great apology for women in ministry. I said something really unprofound and unpoetic, something like “kiss my ass. We’re done.”
I even had an incident recently at the church in which a woman told me how out of line I was for being a female pastor. She had been stalking one of my members, claiming to all who would listen that he had married her in secret but would not claim her publicly. It had become quite a spectacle and threatened on becoming violent so I intervened and asked her to leave. She responded by getting in my face and screaming at the top of her lungs, “YOU AREN’T EVEN SUPPOSED TO BE A PASTOR! YOU ARE SINFUL! WOMEN ARE SUPPOSED TO SUBMIT TO MEN!” Again missing my moment to be the champion for women in ministry, I said, ” women are supposed to submit to men, huh? How’s that working out for you? Get off my property before I call the police.”
No, it was not my education or anything that anyone ever said to me that made me question being female and being a pastor, it was in pastoring itself that the question finally rose to my consciousness, “Am I out of God’s order?”
The question arose within me when I found myself preaching and teaching patriarchy. Patriarchy is a bad word in the ivory towers of the academy, but in broken black communities it has a different meaning entirely. I was the pastor in a community where men were almost altogether absent. I mean they were there but they weren’t there. Out of my window from the pastor’s study, I could see the neighborhood hangout spot where most of the men in my community sat from morning until evening drinking, joking and smoking cigarettes. They were there but they weren’t there. I was pastor to a community where the concept of family was acutely underdeveloped. Nearly every household was a single-parent household (By single parent, I mean single mother). There were men, there were women, and there were children but there were very few families. The concept of marriage was as fantastical as Santa Clause. I found myself teaching the dire need for strong black male leadership in black communities. I began to proclaim that they had to show up and be there! I began teaching about what family should look like, how men should provide and protect their mates and offspring. I began encouraging and teaching about marriage and devotion and family planning. I preached flat-footed that God calls men to step up for their households, for their communities, that they have the responsibility to be the head- not to oppress women and children but to care for women and children. And I was using as my Biblical authority, the very same scriptures that were supposed to keep me silent in the back. Imagine my personal and pastoral dissonance. “If this is true,” I said to myself, “then maybe I shouldn’t be a pastor. Maybe I am out of order.”
There are all sorts of arguments for the justification of women in pastoral ministry:
Mary Magdalene was the first person to shout “I have seen the Lord!” making her the first Christian preacher (John 20: 18).
If God can use an ass to declare God’s word, surely God can use a woman (Numbers 22:28)
We live in a world where it is conceivable for women to be CEOs, doctors, lawyers, and presidents, why not pastors too?
There are many books written that expound on the topic at length, some great some not so great. But you know what I think?
I think it is out of order for a woman to be a pastor.
There. I said it. It is entirely out of order for a woman to head the institution of the church. It goes against everything that we believe and affirm about the ideal distribution of power. As a female pastor, I am out of order.
But you know what? I worship a God who is out of order. We worship a God who constantly disrupts our boundaries of what is normal, correct, ideal.
A God who constantly confused all by favoring the younger son over the elder son. That’s out of order God, that’s disrupts everything that we understand about power.
A God who calls out that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. That’s out of order God, That disrupts everything that we understand about place.
A God who used a woman to birth a child though she was a virgin. That’s out of order God, that disrupts everything that we understand about life.
A God who rose from the grave. That’s out of order God, that disrupts everything that we understand about death.
We worship and celebrate a God of disorder.
so yea, I’m a girl preacher turned woman pastor. Truthfully, I’ve still retained a few of my girlish (read young and female) ways. Sometimes you will still find me in the pulpit with a skirt that is entirely too short. I’m really working on that… but, hey… I still have nice legs (I work at that too). And on occasion, if you look close enough you will see that I am wearing a lot of foundation on my neck (note to my boyfriend… STOP DOING THAT!). Come to the corner of South Tryon and Remount road and you will find a girl, I mean a woman, standing in her feminine identity,
you will find a woman standing in her sexual identity.
you will find a woman standing in her ministerial identity.
You will find a woman, a woman pastor. Not sitting silently in the back but shouting about Jesus in the front. And being completely, 100 percent, out of order.
And my God, my disorderly God, couldn’t be more pleased.