Revived through the Work of Women in the Pulpit
Reviewed by Holly Clark-Porter
The Rev. Holly Clark-Porter, graduate of Schreiner University and Austin Seminary, joyfully serves Fredonia Presbyterian Church and lives in Western New York (go Bills!) with her spouse, the Rev. KC Clark-Porter.
Many of the stories are chilling and on their own could leave a reader enraged. But Tisdale preaches these stories in a greater context and brings readers through a full breadth of emotions.
If the pulpit is supposed to be a place where we model inclusion and creativity for the people of God, why did the pulpit and its office become a space where exclusion and restriction has been practiced?
Especially as debates and conversations about women’s bodies grow ever more substantial and heated in the United States, it is imperative that the church also pays attention, speaks to, and recognizes the significance of women’s bodies of work throughout the church.
How Women Transform Preaching
Leonora Tubbs Tisdale
(Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2021)
Claiming the Call to Preach: Four Female Pioneers of Preaching in Nineteenth-Century America
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2021)
I’ve been feeling less imaginative lately, and I have realized that I gave away a great deal of my creativity to COVID-era videos and parking lot services. As my creativity has dwindled, my exhaustion, impatience, and thirst for fulfillment have grown. Even (and maybe especially) as society has “returned to normal,” the gumption behind my own pastoral identity still feels tasteless lately. However, reading these two books has been like eating lobster mac and cheese with gochujang—comfort food elevated imaginatively with just enough heat to remind me why I come to the Table with a stole on.
Get out your highlighters, preachers! Leonora Tubbs Tisdale’s How Women Transform Preaching is a quick read, but one that preachers will want to return to again and again. Here preachers will find those highlighted nuggets that will not only reinforce sermon writing but will also help a preacher feel the fire of the Holy Spirit. From the dedication to the footnotes, Tisdale leads us through conversations with the Shouter Baptist women of Trinidad and Tobago, to the venerable Rev. Dr. Jana Childers, to the untitled, unknown names of Quakers, through historic figures to present-day women preachers. This conversation made me feel as though the Christian world is small enough to see everyone and yet large enough to make waves in the world.
While this book opens with (disconcerting) statistics about women in ministry, rest assured it is geared towards weary, worn-out preachers, not statisticians. With a kind of mystery-novel gleam, Tisdale delves into the history and statistics associated with women in the pulpit. Twists and turns in this “herstory” leave readers on the edge of our seats, excited to know what happens next. For instance, I was awed to learn that the less educated, more conservative, evangelical women in ministry played a much bigger role in the traction of women preachers than the more educated, Reformed foremothers. Indeed, how will women preachers and the people they inspire bring the church even further into the new thing God is doing?
Tisdale writes with a passion for the vital place of women in preaching and for the gospel at large. While she acknowledges there are those who decry women preachers, this book is not a fight against them, nor is it a one-sided told-you-so. She lets the stories, past and present, speak for themselves and teaches her readers about the unsung and often surprising heroines of the church’s transformations. (Seriously, this queer, female reviewer was caught off guard a few times and humbly encouraged to rethink the history on the margins.)
Many of the stories are chilling and on their own could leave a reader enraged. But Tisdale preaches these stories in a greater context and brings readers through a full breadth of emotions. It takes guts to read some of these stories (especially if one’s own stories resonate), but they are not so far from the parables preached each Sunday. And maybe it helps remind preachers that it should take just as much guts to preach the parables as it does for women to claim the same pulpit those first women at the tomb claimed.
Tisdale speaks to the way women of the past had to forge their own opportunities in order to preach, get creative, and persevere for the sake of their calling. This book is written for everyone who looks for openings for the gospel to be heard in a world uninterested, skeptical, and unmoved by the patterns of church. The church still has untold stories, and always will until kin-dom come, but How Women Transform Preaching gives pastors an opportunity, an opening, within which to delve.
Poetry snaps for Donna Giver-Johnston’s synthesizing work in Claiming the Call to Preach: Four Female Pioneers of Preaching in Nineteenth-Century America. This in-depth exploration of the call stories of women preachers provides a vision for the preaching vocation and should be required reading for seminarians of all genders, for pastor nominating committees, and for ordained and lay people serving the current church.
Whereas Leonora Tubbs Tisdale’s How Women Transform Preaching inspires preachers to uncover the story of the text and speak to it, Donna Giver-Johnston’s book gives preachers sure footing through substance that teaches readers why a preacher speaks and why she/he/they should uncover stories, past and present. This is the book to turn to when the detractors come calling. This is the book that should be stuffed full of bookmarks pointing to biblical and historical tools to shut down a debate partner’s every argument against women preachers or to empower a marginalized sibling’s call.
While Giver-Johnston’s writing is inspiring, this is not a book of one-liners meant to bolster sermons; this book motivates the preacher on Monday morning to a wider, fuller vision of the church. After all, preachers know that the sermon happens on Sunday, but the stuff of the sermon comes from the experience of the week before, the years before, the reformations before, and the testaments before. Sermons would certainly be missing something without Mary, the bearer of God, or without the voices of the women at the tomb.
Giver-Johnston helped me answer questions I’ve been asking recently, questions like, if the pulpit is supposed to be a place where we model inclusion and creativity for the people of God, why did the pulpit and its office become a space where exclusion and restriction has been practiced? In answering this question, Giver-Johnston discusses preachers who proclaimed the gospel when the pulpit and its office provided space for inclusion and creativity. Through the call stories of four preachers—Jarena Lee, Frances Willard, Louisa Woosley, and Florence Spearing Randolph—this book informs current conversations about those who have been and are still restricted from the pulpit.
However, Giver-Johnston does not dive right into the stories of Jarena Lee, Frances Willard, Louisa Woosley, and Florence Spearing Randolph; instead, she begins with narratives about God calling pastors, preachers, and prophets throughout time. It is a life-giving reminder to this pastor of ten years that a calling is as academic as it is spiritual as it is vital as it is a gift, and that each call is connected to our foreparents in faith. Giver-Johnston is able to tell some of her own story and those of contemporary women alongside historical preachers, showing us some of the shoulders upon which all call stories stand, what has changed, and what still needs to change. Read it slowly, weary pastor, and soak it up.
Especially as debates and conversations about women’s bodies grow ever more substantial and heated in the United States, it is imperative that the church also pays attention, speaks to, and recognizes the significance of women’s bodies of work throughout the church. Women’s rights are human rights—this isn’t just a political slogan for protest signs. This should be said over and over in the context of pews and pulpits as well. These two books have charged me to renew my vow to tell the stories of women as if the church depended on it. Because after reading these two books, I believe it does. By telling women’s stories in the church, we tell of change, bravery, courage, and a sure and certain knowledge that when God calls a woman, God means it. From Tisdale’s and Giver-Johnston’s research and retelling, I have a better sense that when the church ignores or excludes whole groups of people, the church misses the gospel. But when people are bold enough to say they are called even against the powers that be, the church gains hope, freedom, ability, and might. A heartfelt thank you to both writers for the power of these stories