Race and Gender: What Being a Woman Preacher Has to do With Racial (In)Justice

Screen Shot 2016-10-02 at 1.51.03 PMBy Mallory Wyckoff (DMin, MTS). She lives in Nashville, TN with her husband Tim and daughter Olive. Mallory spent 5 years working with young women who have survived various forms of sexual trauma, and now teaches Bible and theology courses at Lipscomb University. Mallory also serves as a spiritual director in Nashville. Her fundamental convictions are that human dignity is the answer to every question, and that never again will there be a band as brilliant as NSYNC. Connect with her at mallorywyckoff.com.

I am a woman.

I am a woman who preaches.

Though we are not many, one of the greatest gifts of knowing other women called to preach is when we are able to sit together, share a meal or a drink, and talk about the complex and difficult realities of being a woman in a world/field/church wherein men have ruled for centuries.

When I’m alone, it’s too easy to question the anger that surfaces when men consistently cut me off or (consciously or otherwise) insist their voices have a louder hearing. When it’s just me in the room, I too quickly reject the painful emotions of not feeling heard or seen, or I suppress the frustration of having to jump through yet another hoop in order to secure a seat at the table. But when I’m with my sisters, when I’m surrounded by other women whose reality mirrors mine, I am free. I can shed the felt-need to hold it together or represent all women or not show too much emotion, and I can simply feel all that I feel and name all that I experience and find it/myself validated.

There is nothing like it.

The reason I desperately need community with fellow women preachers is because they see through a similar lens. They encounter similar experiences. They hear what I hear, and none of us has to convince the other that any of it is real. This is not the case outside such a circle. As a woman who preaches, I hear and see and experience life in a particular way. I notice and observe certain realities—both subtle and over—that others simply don’t. This is not a critique; it is simply true.

We are called “speakers” instead of “preachers.” Our “sermons” are sometimes labeled “lessons” or “presentations.” We are allowed to speak, but only if a man remains on the platform with us. We’re asked to sit as we teach in order to show deference to male authority. We are given the title “coordinator” when men performing the same tasks are referred to as “pastor.” We are allowed to teach on certain topics but not others, irrespective of our training and education.

And on, and on, and on.

The intent here is neither to drum up sympathy for myself nor to lay blame at the feet of others. My sole intent is to say that I experience reality in a particular way because of who I am (i.e. a woman preacher), a reality largely missed or ignored by others who do not claim this identifier. But for those of us who spend countless hours pouring into a sermon, only for it to be called a “lesson,” for those of us who have spent years of our lives studying and earning degrees in preparation for ministry only to find our presence must still be validated by male authority, you damn well better believe we notice.

We cannot help but notice.

It affects us.

It shapes how we think and feel about ourselves. And quietly but powerfully, it ensures that unjust power structures and church practices are able to remain in tact all the while pretending to be more equitable.

And ultimately, here is my point: just because you do not see or hear or experience something does not mean it doesn’t exist. Because I have known this to be so undeniably true for me, I have become convinced it is true for my black and brown brothers and sisters who claim experiences that I have not had. They decry a reality that is not readily visible to me in my white-skinned existence. The stories they tell are not the stories I tell. And far too easily, I can dismiss them because it does not comport with my own reality. I can reject their cries as an attempt to stir up discord and disrupt order, and entirely miss the fact that what I perceive as order is in fact utter chaos for those who live it in different skin.

I know what it feels like to champion gender justice in religious communities, only to encounter those who claim our cause as seeking to divide our churches, those who insist we are making a big issue out of what is not, those who witness our anger and hurt and passion and label it dangerous, disruptive.

And because I know what this feels like, I will continue to insist that we open our ears to hear what our black and brown brothers and sisters are saying. I will insist that when they describe their interactions with persons in authority, or lament the subtle ways they are dismissed and marginalized, or articulate the realities of embodied existence as persons of color in a world that claims to be post-racial but is in fact anything but, I will insist that we listen. I will insist that we stop talking, that we reject the felt-need to counter their story or share our own opinion, and just listen. I want so desperately to have a posture of humility, to place myself as a listener at the table where others share their stories, because I so desperately need others to do that for me and for the women with whom I am called to preach.

And when we do finally listen and seek to understand, when we stop outright rejecting another’s claim because it does not immediately mirror our own experience, when we ask questions instead of demanding our opinion be heard, we begin to discover a reality that was true all the while but escaped us entirely until we had eyes to see it.

This is true for gender justice, and it is true for racial justice.

I am a woman. I am a woman called to preach. And while at times my sermon might be labeled something else or my power attempted to be restrained by men in authority, I will use all of my energy and my abilities and my voice to speak what is true, to peel back the curtain and cast light on reality, to pursue God’s intended shalom in every corner of this world—for women, for black and brown bodies, for the kingdom of God.

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.