By Brian Mavis
Colleges are training them. Churches are using them. And Christ is being exalted. Here’s what we learned when we talked to women who preach and the professors who have taught them.
Jodi Hickerson’s journey of becoming a preaching/teaching pastor began at 19 when she joined the teaching team for the high school ministry at Southland Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky. A few years later she was part of the programming team at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, and then at 26 became one of the teaching pastors at Heartland Community Church, Rockford, Illinois. Today she is part of a four-person teaching team at Mission Church Ventura in California. Hickerson represents a small but growing trend in Christian churches—women who preach/teach.
A few more examples would include Jen Oakes, who is another teacher on the Ventura team; Rhesa Storms, who is part of the teaching team at Forefront Church in Manhattan (New York); and Jess Alston, who teaches occasionally at Mosaic in Baltimore, Maryland.
Additionally, Christian church colleges are training more women than ever in homiletics and expository preaching. Five years ago the preaching faculty at Ozark Christian College decided to revamp how they included women interested in preaching. The motivation for this came, in part, from a survey of students. Damien Spikereit, director of the preaching department, said, “When we asked, ‘What do you want more of?’ the female students said, ‘We want what the guys get. We want the preaching classes too.’”
“We then,” said Spikereit, “had to ask ourselves, ‘How do we do that? How do we do this in a way that honors Scripture and our tradition?’”
So What About Scripture and Tradition?
There are two passages, found in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, that the Ozark professors had to address because many Christian churches have applied them in ways that preclude women from preaching or teaching in a church assembly. “The key issue,” Spikereit believes, “is differentiating between the act of preaching and the role of preacher. Preaching has to do with proclamation, edification, and teaching of the gospel. The role of the preacher is more than that. [A preacher is] the teaching elder, the spiritual leader of the church. In contemporary language, [a preacher is] the ‘senior minister.’ The act of proclaiming the gospel and exhorting fellow believers with the Word is not equivalent to authority. If a woman is gifted to preach and teach, [she is] free to do so under the authority of the elders. By the way, men are also to teach in submission to the eldership—it’s no different.”
Daniel Overdorf, dean of the school of congregational ministry and a professor of preaching at Johnson University in Knoxville, Tennessee, agrees.
“I believe the boundary falls within the function of an elder,” Overdorf said. “Because the senior pastor functions like an elder, I’m not comfortable with a female senior minister. I am comfortable, though, with a woman on the preaching team who is under the authority of the eldership.”
For those who still don’t see it that way, Mark Scott, former academic dean at Ozark, makes another point about the validity of training women to teach and preach.
“The work of the kingdom is larger than developing preachers for a church,” Scott said. “The preaching of the Word is much broader than what happens in the assembly. Women can preach and teach in ways and places—in missions, parachurches, and campus ministries—that don’t conflict with even the most restrictive applications. The issue might not be women and preaching but women and the preacher.”
Training Women to Preach and Teach
Hannah Randolph enrolled for the new class—Biblical Communication for Women—that Ozark created as a result of the survey and study. The class was identical in design and content to Homiletics, with the only difference being the gender of the students. Randolph went on to take Expository Preaching and Advanced Biblical Communication, both of which were coed. Today she is on the youth ministry teaching team at Christ’s Church of Oronogo in Missouri.
“I was apprehensive at first,” Randolph confessed. “I had never seen a woman preach or teach. I didn’t have a female role model, so I had trouble picturing myself doing it. But I was looking for something that would grow and use my gifts to teach. The first class, the female-only class, gave me confidence to enroll, and it was a comfortable environment. The next two advanced classes only had three or so girls in them, but the guys were very encouraging and supportive.”
Jodi Hickerson didn’t attend a Christian college or study preaching in a classroom, but she had tremendous training from the churches she attended. “I wish every young communicator—boy or girl—could have had the experiences I had. I was encouraged by all the churches and given opportunities to develop the communication gift God gave me. They gave me a safe place to learn and grow in front of them. I wish more churches would take risks like that. When church leaders see the gift in a person, the church needs to develop the gift, regardless of gender. It would have been nice to have a female role model, but I really didn’t have one. My dad (Mike Breaux) was my biggest role model, and then people like Jon Weece, Rusty George, and Gene Appel, whom I had the privilege of sitting under on a regular basis. It isn’t about men communicators verses women communicators; it is about each of us doing our very best with what God has given us and relying on the Holy Spirit to speak through us.”
What Value Will Churches See by Including Women in Their Teaching Teams?
So if more women become a part of preaching and teaching teams, how will it affect the church?
“Well, women are half of the human race and the other half of the image of God,” said Randolph. “No one would say that men and women think alike. In general, women tend to be more compassionate, and we would probably understand better what a woman needs to hear in terms of application.”
Rhesa Storms said, “It became obvious that a sermon series would benefit from a woman’s perspective. A natural one was a sermon series on marriage. But for a woman to teach, the topic doesn’t have to be just about women’s issues. It’s about what God has to say about human issues.”
Spikereit saw several benefits.
“In the classes I’ve taught, the girls have had different insights into a text. Not different in a peculiar way, but in a fresh way,” he said. “For example, I’ve heard a ton of sermons on Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, but it was a girl in my class who preached on Hagar and what it must have been like to be her. I’ve never heard that. And it wasn’t about novelty. It was a neglected text. Female teachers will bring sensitivity to issues that women relate to. They bring an emotional content that men sometimes miss.
“Another benefit,” Spikereit continued, “is that by seeing a woman use her gift to teach, women in the church are empowered to think, maybe I have something to offer. In most churches, 60 percent of the congregation is women. This can encourage and unleash many gifts that are being held back in the church.”
Storms echoed that thought, “I find it exciting to see women pick up more roles. Honoring how God has created us.”
But It’s Really Not About Women Preaching
I will end this with an editorial note. When I spoke with the three women quoted in this article—Jodi Hickerson, Hannah Randolph, and Rhesa Storms—all three emphasized that the preaching/teaching issue isn’t about the gender of the preacher or teacher. What mattered was that Christ was being exalted—Christ was the cause. I found all three of them humble, sensitive, and thoughtful. Personally, I would love to have the chance to hear them teach the Bible and lift up Jesus as Lord.
Brian Mavis is executive director of the Externally Focused Network. He also serves as community transformation minister at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado.