When Women are Called and the Church Says “No!”

My book, A Woman Called, was released last month. I spent several years creating, writing, rewriting, and getting the book published. There were days that my thoughts exited my fingertips and entered a computer screen, sometimes page by page as fast as I could type, but more often, I typed slowly, word by word or letter by letter as I poured out my prayers about my call to church ministry and preaching.

Sometimes, as I wrote, I naively told myself that when I was finished, I would never again discuss the topic of women in church ministries. I would let the book serve as my definitive declaration on the controversial topic.

The Christian life should be about service to the needy, justice for the poor, and spiritual formation of souls. Before I wrote the book, I had been a missionary in Africa and a campus minister in service to young Christians. I wanted to get the book out and free myself of it so that I could get back to the real work of the gospel.

My publisher arranged a book signing at Pepperdine University, where the book was first released. I really did not want to participate in the signing – I thought it seemed self-promotional, prideful. Or perhaps I was simply worried I would sit in what looked like the kissing booth of my youth (yes, there were once kissing booths which is very weird and I’m glad they seem to be extinct) and no one would come to buy my wares. I imagined awkwardly sitting in the book-signing seat while people walked by, pointed, and jeered at the author whose book no one wanted to buy. Silly me. Do I always have to be so dramatic?

The book signing turned out to be something very different than I could have imagined.

One person after another, men and women alike, came, and my book-singing booth hosted makeshift therapy sessions where I listened to stories of women who have been marginalized for way too long and men who long to hear their sisters’ voices in the congregated body of Christ, men who long for completion of something that is at present, incomplete in too many churches across our world.

One woman over 70, with her gray hair and eyes, said to me,

“You wrote the book I should have written thirty years ago. But, I didn’t want to stir up trouble at my church. I am called to preach, but now it’s too late; I feel like my life is over.”

And an older gentleman with tears in his eyes, was grateful,

“Thank you for writing this book. My own mother was studying to be ordained in the Presbyterian church, but when she married my father, she gave it up to attend our church, where women are not included in ministry. She has passed on, but I long to hear a woman’s voice at church because somehow those voices speak for her and redeem what she sacrificed.”

Or there’s the preacher who told me that his college-age daughter is called to preach, asking me for advice about how he can support her along a path that we both know will be challenging. And an elder at a large church bought ten books for the elders he serves with, saying that they have studied the role of women in church ministries for over ten years and are in agreement that they must move forward. But they are stuck because they don’t know how it will go, and they fear a church split if they change things. And one man asked me to sign a book for his daughter who can’t even read yet, saying

“This issue didn’t matter all that much to me until my baby girl was born.”

The stories went on and on. People waited patiently in line, not for some flowery autograph or for a word of wisdom I was supposed to invent. They just wanted to converse, to commiserate, to connect . . . . to commune.

The conversation about women as full members of the body of Christ, as it turns out, is about the real work of the gospel.  So, I listened, and prayed, and laughed and cried and communed . . . and even kissed a few cheeks . . . at my book-signing booth, thankful that God allowed me to join the conversation.

And I signed each book with my favorite Bible verse, accompanied by a prayer that God’s mighty work through Jesus Christ might show us all what it means in Mark 15:38: The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.


Sara G. Barton holds a B.A. in English from Harding University and a Masters of Spiritual Formation and Leadership from Spring Arbor University. She has taught high school English and Speech, worked as a missionary in Jinja, Uganda, and served as a campus minister at Rochester College. Today, she works with Rochester’s early college program for academically gifted teenagers from urban environments. In addition, Sara has presented at ZOE Conferences, Abilene Christian University, Pepperdine University, the Christian Scholars Conference, and at women’s retreats and conferences all over the United States.

About the Book:

In many churches today, Christians assume that women are excluded from the public role of preaching—yet women like Sara Barton experience a call to preach, forcing congregations and individuals to confront a complicated rethinking of tradition and theology. In this sensitive and moving memoir, A Woman Called: Piecing Together the Ministry Puzzle, author Sara Barton speaks openly and vulnerably about how the conflict  has played out in her life.

Rachel Held Evans has this to say about the book:

“Sara’s passion for encouraging women to teach is matched only by her stubborn commitment to Christian unity, and so it is evident that each sentence of this marvelous book was chosen with great care. It is positively brimming with wisdom and honesty and grace. This book changed me in ways I never expected it would, and I am grateful for it.”

The book has also been endorsed by Shane Claiborne and Mike Cope and includes a foreword by Scot McKnight. For more information about the book, you can visit Leafwood’s website.


To understand why many of us think the Bible gives women the authority to be teachers, preachers, and elders in the church… read my series: Liberating Women for Ministry.

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  • Thank you–great post! This is a topic I am working through…. I have Anabaptist/Mennonite background where, like many other denominations, this is biblically understood to be taboo. In fall 2011 I was asked to do a ‘stand-alone’ Sunday morning service, and I declined even though I do weekend seminars *and* speak on Sunday mornings after them. One of our elders pursued me on it, and really made me think, and ask myself ‘Why did I say no?’…  God bless an elderly gentleman at church who slipped a CD into my mailbox, encouraging women to preach, teach and serve in the church. The message unravelled the ways we have misinterpreted scriptures that speak to this. Next time I’m asked, I plan to say yes. 🙂

  • Very interesting topic and post. My background is very traditional so women were not allowed to preach in my previous church organization and I’ve been a bit puzzled by it, especially with such strong statements from Paul about it. The early church also seemed to take issue with it as well.

    It leads me to wonder why the early church and Paul “seem” to have such an issue with it.

    I don’t come down on this issue one way or the other but I’m interested in the conversation. I remember in a philosophy class while I was still in college we covered the attributes of God from a feminine perspective which was rather revealing to me. 

  • I’m excited to see this sort of call for change being circulated in my tribe (Church of Christ). It’s time for things to change. 

  • Marbieabe

    Thirty seven years ago, I was answering the call to the ordained ministry. The call came from my congregation, my father, my husband, and my district.  I was in submission to every male over me.  They all saw the gifting of a pastor and preacher in me and called it forth.  Maybe it is time for the men to speak up on behalf of their daughters, wives and sisters in the church.
    And, oh yeah, I am Anabaptist.

  • Thanks, looks like a great book.  I grew up going to a really small church and was kinda sheltered from realities. When I got older and I realized women weren’t allowed to do certain things it kinda blew my mind because I didn’t know that was a belief people had. I had assumed we were all equal, and didn’t put 2 and 2 together that women weren’t doing a whole lot.  I still do believe that we are equal but it took some getting used to finding out that others don’t. Blerg.

  • TheOldPathsRTheBiblicalPaths

    It is very sad that one cannot just humbly read and obey. Pride will send a great deal of people to hell.


  • TheRoadToHeavenIsNarrow

    It is very sad that one cannot just humbly read and obey. Pride will send a great deal of people to hell.


  • I am not ordained but I have had opportunities to preach/lead worship services and have been grateful for them.  Being in an environment where I felt it OK to explore a gift or calling has helped me to continue to become who God wants me to be.  

    Some time ago, in one situation where I had an email discussion with a pastor about the issue of women in leadership (he was against it; I was for it), I felt very stifled.  It was a church that I didn’t feel a big connection too, though, and I didn’t consider it “my” church even though I did attend there for some time.  

    For me, the bottom line comes down to this:  If God calls someone to do something, who are we to say no?

  • Mary Anne

    Another blog I follow posted about a similar topic today.  

  •  I remember as an 8 year old child gathering the other children in the neighborhood and  speaking to them from my little child-sized Bible. I often wonder if that behavior had been nurtured then, how I would have grown.  As it is now, I “minister” in other ways, as a lay counselor, in ‘teaching’ roles, as a prayer warrior.  I also blog and am writing so that my voice will (optimally) make a difference.  It would help to remember that Adam and Eve were at one point – one – equal.  And – I don’t mind at all being subordinate when I know I’m respected.  That’s the kicker.

    • M. R.

      My daughter is 8.  She shares God’s word with her little neighborhood friends, and last week gave away Bibles to two of them.  If God calls her to preach, I will be behind her 100% (and I’m from an Baptist background where it was considered heresy for a woman to “preach,” and women were only allowed to “speak” to groups of other women).


    I am so glad you have written this book. I  plan to get a copy as soon as I can. We need as much information as we can get on this topic.  We need to discuss and debate these issues without fear. THANKS AGAIN. Corky Riley  

  • Christine

    My church just did a sermon series on all the “tough stuff”. It included why they don’t have women elders (Brethren) and why traditionally women don’t teach the Bible. It boiled down to “man is head of wife, so… we’re going to use that model in the church…” 

    I don’t really know what to do about that, if I should stay in the church or not. Great people, but there’s definitely some group-think going on there. I mean, how do I respect their opinions when they still wear doilies on their hair? :

    • Marbieabe

       Christine, one of my continuing questions is that I can find nowhere in the Bible where I am told that any woman has to submit to any man.  I find only that as a wife, I am to submit to my husband’s guidance and leadership.  And should other men interfere with that submission?

  • Greg Gamble

    The first 30 of my 40 yrs in Christ were spend in the only church fellowship Ive ever been part of.  We were close knit and sold out to Jesus, and it was a wild ride at times. A husband and wife unwittingly started the ‘bible study’ in 1972 for their sons’ high school youth group and it just never stopped.
    The husband did though, jealous that 40 kids came to sit at her feet to learn.
    He ultimately tried to kill her, and left to become a Roman Catholic.
    But that’s a side story.
    Anyway, she continues today, now in her 80’s, but bitter and off balance.
    I had to remove my young family 10 yrs ago, but the lesson wasn’t lost on me before I reluctantly and sadly left.
    If men in surrounding churches had openly supported her as they did in secret, she may not have eventually become the paranoid control freak she is today, because she didn’t start that way.
    And on the note of churches, its a double pity that the only standard a female ‘house church pastor’ is compared to is mainline churches run by men.
    I say its a pity because there is so much structurally wrong with institutional churches  that its irrelevant whether its a man or woman leading it, because neither are supposed to lead in the way we have manipulated leadership.
    But I digress again.
    There is a point I want to make here.
    I had to leave to escape the politics and collateral damage that the man vs women issue causes, in and out of leadership and gifting.
    When a leader never sees or loses sight of Jesus as the one to whom we both love and hurt, then walking in the Spirit devolves into walking in the flesh, no matter how noble the cause or right the issue.
    And supporting Christ in women is a noble cause to which I gladly lift up hands rather than take up arms, just as I do with men.
    The tentacles of this age old war that Satan started when he heard that the seed of a woman was going to crush his head have reached into the very identity and self image of our bride status to Christ. 
    And of course, misogyny isn’t confined to any one group, but has written much of the sad annals of history everywhere. 
    But among the redeemed, who should be aware of Satan’s devices, Satan has us running around with one foot nailed to the floor while he freely roams among the bitter and immature, whispering his vitriol, and then watching as it transforms the Red Cross medics of the church into civil warriors who forget their mission to the lost.
    I spent several eye opening years in close friendship with Ray Munson, who dug up and republished ‘Gods Word to Women’ by Katherine Bushnell.
    Very careful to prevent a heated discussion from devolving into a gender battle, he nevertheless powerfully and persuasively brought his foes to silence or agreement.
    Always gracious, bursting out speaking in tongues frequently, praying spontaneously and joyful and humble to a fault, he yet was never offended.
    Until he saw how hurt our woman pastor was, and then, after so many decades of loving service, he succumbed to anger, and it changed him for a season.
    He recovered, but not before he caused some unintended damage.
    I cant comment on many other books I haven’t yet read, including the one re; this post.
    I can however appeal to the wise to take leadership in this messy arena, where liberation thinking has reacted to men of Belial, and thus, been partly co-opted by the very men who should and can be silenced.
    Gods wisdom is not in words only, but deeds, and demonstration of power.
    And that comes by long-suffering, contemplative, consultative prayer and revelation.
    God, who is the Lord of Hosts (the God of battle) will devise a real world strategy to bring Gods people back again to hear the voice of the Spirit, thru men or women.
    I’d like to challenge the many women, together with the men in their lives, who God has clearly gifted to the body of Christ, to reset the tone and tenor of this conversation, for the benefit of the younger generation who are too easily given to taking up offences for others.
    This also speaks to our collective church language paradigm, which has not yet been transformed by the love and unity of a critical mass of published speakers and writers.
    Im sure there are conferences and meetings going on all over related to women used of God, and I hope they are born of God and bear fruit.
    But I also caution women to remember that Godly men who were equally sincere, gifted and well intended made some grievous mistakes in trying to be taken seriously by Gods very phlegmatic people.
    Ultimately, we only work for His smile alone.
    Nothing personal to anyone here, but this has been brewing in me for many years and this is the first time Iv’e poured it out.
    Of course I welcome comment and criticism.
    Blessings and unending thanks to the company of women who have published Jesus with their lives, and which has benefited me more than any will know.
    There are aspects of my manhood which I only recently realized I learned from courageous women who responded to Him as His daughters; among them my wife and two daughters.
    Greg Gamble
    Canada. eh!

    • Marbieabe

       Thanks, Greg, for your thoughts.  The real issue is being totally committed to Jesus and feeling the call very strongly individually, but ALSO affirmed by community.  I find many women ministers seem to link their call to feminism.  It should have little to do with women are as good as men.  It is all about what God has called me to do, and I can’t say no.  I cannot tell you how many times I have offered my ministry to God and told Him to take it away if it was not of Him.  Each time, He has sent me back. Yes, people have been rude and unkind, but why bother to take offense?  I continue to thank God for a husband, who is also a pastor, and not threatened by my being a pastor. In fact, he says, if anyone has a problem with my ministry, come to him.

  • Vaughntrapp

    I’m one of those women who CAN preach, and is used mightily by God when I do. (I never forget WHO equips and called me.) And then the pastor in charge gets anxious because people like my sermons a little TOO much much. I am ready to give up, tear up my MDiv and be a greeter at WalMart. Well, not really, but it IS discouraging.

  • Lesa Engelthaler

    thanks Kurt for posting! so needed. her experience is, unfortunately, quite real. 

  • Evelyn

    Is there going to be a kindle edition at any point (please…)? Thx!

    • Sara Barton

      There has been talk of a kindle edition, but I haven’t heard for certain yet.

  • TheRealPlan

     I find it highly offensive for any person compares their work on earth to Mark 15:38.  The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom by Jesus sacrifice and His sacrifice only.  Such pride from someone who proclaims to be a believer.

    • That’s a strange way to interpret what the post says.    Why do you read it that way?  All it says is that she prays that God would show us what it means that the curtain was torn.   Not that she is comparing her work to that. 

  • I just read all the comments and it seems I’m one of the few, if not only, who comes from a faith tradition that has always ordained women and encourages the using of our gifts. Far from perfect and still politics at play as every large group does, I’m thankful for having this as part of my foundation. Thankful for God’s spirit leading William and Catherine Booth for them to follow his call of service regardless of gender. Also thankful this books was written. Surely God will use to bring unity and healing to those searching.