“A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
I came across this quote from Samuel Johnson, 18th century essayist and critic, when I was first learning to preach. After the initial indignation, I had to smile. If I’m honest, learning to preach as woman did leave me feeling like a circus freak, trying to do something in a way that didn’t come naturally to me, before an audience that sometimes saw me as a novelty. What I would add is that, unlike circus dogs on their hind legs, women learning to preach may also be “performing” amidst outright opposition.
So, given those challenges, when everything around her makes her want to perform and protect, can a woman preacher be herself?
Regardless of where we stand politically, it’s fascinating to watch a nation seriously considering the possibility that their next president may be a woman. A Time Magazine article from earlier this year critiques Hillary Clinton because she’s too much of a politician, offering her these suggestions:
Stop being “nutritious but bland.”
Speak in poetry.
Don’t be too professional.
Don’t use “oratorial switchbacks.”
Don’t take carefully nuanced positions.
Have “Jujitsu cool” in the face of hard questions.
Don’t try to please too many people too much of the time.
Don’t raise your voice to make a point.
Don’t be rote. Be free-form and anarchic and silly and devastating.
Be patient, dignified, self-deprecating, utterly factual and brutally honest (about yourself).
Women have to work hard to be taken seriously in their fields, some have said, harder than men. Then, when they have proven themselves professionally, they are told not to take themselves too seriously. Is it asking too much, for someone who is forging a new path, publicly, and under scrutiny, to be told “Let down your guard”?
When others are deprecating—not only your ability but your identity—do you have the luxury of adding to it with your own self-deprecation?
Preparing for Detractors
These are questions I’ve asked as a female pastor, especially as the first female Lead Pastor (I know of) within my Christian Churches/Churches of Christ movement. When I was asked to be the first female Lead Pastor to preach in the chapel of a conservative Christian college, I knew there would be detractors in the audience. I knew that, even for those who wished me well, I was a novelty. Some came to hear what I had to say but some came just to see if a woman could do it.
Given that atmosphere, how does a woman prepare her sermon? Every bit of insecurity and self-preservation in me told me to come out strong, to write that sermon so tight and practice it so hard that I was untouchable. If I’m representing my entire gender, I’d better be darn good!Some came to hear what I had to say but some came just to see if a woman could do it. Click To Tweet
But something about that didn’t feel right. I discovered that the only way to find out if women preachers can really be themselves is to try being myself. And so I began my sermon with a long list of my weaknesses. It was terrifying. But I survived. And I heard it blessed others.
As women who preach, the only way we’ll discover if we can be ourselves is by letting ourselves go there a little at a time. It’s excruciating to press through gender stereotypes, to avoid the temptation to speak in a voice not our own. But there’s courage to be found in the trying, as we do the thing we thought would kill us and we survive.
Recently, I had to preach on the crucifixion, a devastating story to tell. I’ve never been able to tell it without tears. As I prepared I felt my anxiety growing, knowing this sermon would force me, publicly, into an emotional place. Part of my anxiety was self-consciousness but part of it was concern that my emotion would be a distraction, that people would worry about me.
I began the sermon by saying, “I’m learning to be myself publicly. If this story brings me to an emotional place, please don’t feel bad for me. Know that what you’re seeing is a woman receiving grace to be herself. And in that I hope you’ll also find grace to be yourself.”
I’m still a long way off from “free-form and anarchic and silly and devastating” but they’re on my list to try next.
Maybe, as we find ways to be ourselves, women will create new ways of leading, and of preaching. Maybe as we do, we will not only find freedom for ourselves but give it to others.Maybe, as we find ways to be ourselves, women will create new ways of leading, and of preaching. Click To Tweet