Women revolutionize preaching today

March 1st, 2022
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When I asked Christine Smith, the author of the first homiletical treatise that provided a feminist perspective on preaching, how she saw the changes women had brought to the field of preaching, she responded in a way that also summarizes what I’ve been trying to say as a whole:

I do feel that women have revolutionized the church, I do. I have never said that (before). That’s extremely optimistic, but I actually believe it. And I think, from everything from how we run a meeting, to how we preach, to what we do in worship, and the bigger way many of us understand worship, and just how we do pastoral care. I really think that people [parishioners] have been on the receiving end of . . . tons of change, and I don’t even know if you ask people if they recognized key moments. I don’t even know if they’d be able to say, but it just slowly and steadily and persistently, I think . . . has been a revolutionizing of a field, and of the practice of ministry.[1]

I heartily concur. In ways many of us could not even begin to name or identify or even recognize, clergywomen and other women in ministry have been revolutionizing the practice of preaching and other practices of ministry for a number of decades now. Women have revolutionized our understanding of who can speak for God and who has a right to claim the pulpit as sacred space. They have revolutionized the ways in which we understand and experience embodiment in preaching. They have revolutionized our expectations regarding “voice” in the pulpit—and in what tenor and cadences and from what vantage points pulpit speech can occur. Women have revolutionized how we experience and understand authority in the pulpit, moving preaching from a top-down model to that of a “roundtable” model in which authority is shared by all. They have revolutionized the topics and texts that are deemed worthy for preaching, and in the process they have brought into the pulpit topics and texts that were long considered taboo by male preachers. They have shared their stories, their life experiences, their vulnerabilities in the pulpit—and by so doing have made preaching a safer and kinder space for others who have had their own voices and life experiences marginalized or ignored. It is not only women preachers, but also women scholars in preaching who have brought about this transformation: bringing to the fore the herstories of preaching women of prior generations (previously unknown and unheralded) for our edification and inspiration; publishing books related to the specific issues women face in preaching, and thus encouraging and mentoring women in their callings; publishing books of women’s sermons, so that women are heard and recognized and their gifts celebrated by a broader audience; writing books that cover the waterfront of topics and concerns in the preaching field, so that women are no longer marginalized in the world of scholars, but are seen to be key participants in its present and future transformation. These realities give witness to an astonishing amount of change that has taken place in homiletics in the past sixty years. And I would contend that both church and world are better for it.

But I also must add: we still have a long way to go. There remain major challenges before us. Ordained women are still very much in a minority in the worldwide church of Christ. And there are major church bodies right here in our own country who do not yet ordain women or allow them to preach from the pulpits of our land. Those of us who believe deeply in the ordination of women need to offer women who still struggle to live out their own baptismal callings from God all the encouragement, support, and advocacy we can muster. As Minerva Carcaño put it, “We need to become midwives of what newness God is wanting to bring to the life of the institutional church.”[2]

We also need to think creatively with women and other marginalized persons who are currently denied ordination or who prefer to preach from a non-ordained stance, and help them find places where they can live out their own baptismal callings to preach, rather than having to repress them. For when we deny people the right to live into their callings, we not only do irreparable harm to them; we also do irreparable harm to the church—keeping it from living into the fullness God intended for it and from imagining the fullness of the God who created us all—male and female—in God’s image.

In a related way, we also have major work to do in making inclusive language for God and humans the norm in worship. I strongly believe this challenge is related to women’s ordination because as long as we continue to use language that implies that God is male, we will also continue to believe—in some deeply subconscious ways—that women are lesser beings who do not deserve access to the pulpits in our land as fully as males do, and who are not fully created in God’s image. Feminist theologian Mary Daly had it right almost five decades ago when she said, “If God is male, then male is God.”[3] And yet in many of the pulpits and liturgies of our land, we continue to pray to God as if God is male, to talk about God as if God is male, and to use images for God that are primarily masculine in nature. What irreparable harm are we doing to our girls and young women (not to mention our boys) in the process?

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I have long been drawn to theologian Sallie McFague’s notion that the problem with our God language is the problem of idolatry. We have idolized Father language and male language for God and made them the norm, rather than using a diversity of metaphorical language to refer to our amazingly diverse God.[4] And in order to set the balance right, we need to call at least a partial moratorium on male language for God—not because Father language is never appropriate language for God, but because it is not the only appropriate language that can be used in relation to our God who defies the limitations of any one human metaphor.

I have to say that one of my deep sadnesses and frustrations in ministry is that during the forty years of my own ordination to ministry, I often feel that we have gone backward in terms of using inclusive language for God, rather than forward. I also believe the church’s failure to embrace inclusive language is hurting the church’s witness to younger generations—especially younger generations of women. I know women of my daughter’s generation who simply will not worship in churches in which inclusive language and sensitivity to women’s concerns are not the norm, and who consequently have a hard time finding places for worship that are life-giving for them. I hope and pray that as more and more clergywomen (and more sensitized men) take their places in the pulpits of this land, that we will see a reversal of this trend.

I want to end by paying tribute once again to Sr. Joan Delaplane, the first woman member and the first woman president of the North American Academy of Homiletics. When I interviewed Sr. Joan and asked her what final words she would like to say to me at the end of our interview, this is what she said:

Of all times, I think our present day and age needs the preached word as never before. I think we’ve lost our moorings. . . . God is doing a new thing, and structures are coming down that have to come down in our nation and in our church. But in that process, we need to be rooted and grounded, and hear the word of hope and love, and that our evolutionary God is working in the midst of this mess.[5]

That good news is what we preachers of the gospel—whether we are ordained or lay, male or female, cisgender or transgender—are called to preach: a word of hope and love, the promise that our God is still working in the midst of this mess, and the vision of a day when all people of faith who have been called to preach will be able to exercise that charism freely, fully, and without censorship. Let us pray and work for that day together.


[1] Christine Smith interview.

[2] Minerva Carcaño interview.

[3] Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon, 1973).

[4] See Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982).

[5] Joan Delaplane interview, Part I.


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