In less than a month I begin maternity leave and hit the pause button on my (paid) ministry career. I am expecting lots of things to be different, so I am taking some time to thank God for what this last season has looked like.
I’m especially thankful that I have been given so many opportunities to teach people from the bible, especially as a preacher. There is a broad spectrum of evangelical opinions on women teaching, but I’m thankful that so far, my story of training as a teacher has been filled with very supportive people – even among the institutions and personalities that I least expected, and even among people who may disagree with what I do.
So, a month and bit out from having a kid, with no more scheduled sermons or SRE classes to give, hardly any kids church lessons left to run and only a handful of bible studies left to lead, here is a collection of thoughts on what it has been like to train as a lady preacher.
1. Public Speaking is not a natural gift
I have been a terribly timid public speaker for most of my life – although I discovered in high school that I could speak well when I really cared about the message I was sharing. But I think my disinclination for public speaking has turned out to be a gift from God. I have never been angsty about thwarted opportunities to speak and teach, and I am constantly reminded that it is not my skill on display but God’s work in me.
The view from the ‘pulpit’ – teaching from Hebrews at the 2014 EU annual conference (with the best uni kids ever in the history of the world.)
2. My brothers and sisters got me here
There is no teaching without training. For training in preaching especially, I am so thankful to the people who have specifically trained me or encouraged me to step up:
For Ken, who pushed me out of my comfort zone as we lead the Christian group at Fort Street High School.
For the Youth team at St James Croydon, who took a chance on a fringe church member and trained me to teach at youth group.
For my research colleagues at Anglicare, who encouraged me to give occasional talks at our organisation-wide staff devotion services.
For Archie, a lecturer at Moore College, who encouraged me to practice preaching in class despite my hesitancy and my part time student status.
For Rowan, Caz, Paddy and the whole EU staff team, who trained me not just to preach but to teach a whole series.
For Ed, a minister at a church I volunteered at once, who insisted on getting me into the pulpit for my first ever Sunday sermon, and took the time to give me proper feedback.
For Matt and Andrew, my ministers at CCIW, who take time to advise, share resources, give feedback and encourage me to keep teaching.
For Matt – my Matthew – who has my back in this and in every way. He has been the biggest supporter of my preaching: he reviews my drafts, fields my questions, translates phrases, makes me cups of tea and stays up late with me. And he has been the best trainer: asking me difficult questions, giving me ruthless but helpful feedback and constantly trying to skill me up.
You have to learn how to teach from the Bible when you and your mates run a public school Christian group with zero support from any teachers or external Christian movements!! (Year 12 Christian cohort of 2004 – still can’t believe how big that group was.)
3. Feedback is a little off when you are a lady
“That sermon was amazing”, an elderly man told me, at a church where I guest-preached. “Just amazing. You should be a bishop!”
It’s hard to take feedback seriously as a lady preacher, unless it comes from someone you really know. Lady preaching can be controversial for some people, so you end up being a kind of representative for all lady preachers. It’s ridiculous. I can preach a killer sermon, but people will write it off because I am a lady and they disagree with the fact that I am preaching. Other times I can preach a pretty ordinary sermon, and people will come to me singing my praises because they are so excited with the idea of a lady preaching that I am automatically awesome because I have ovaries.
It’s weird. Also not that helpful.
Does this kind of thing happen to any other kinds of ‘sub-groups’ of preachers? Are there any stories like this from people who preach when English is not their first language, or when they have a disability? Keen to hear if this happens to other people too.
Preaching from an actual pulpit, which counter-intuitively turned out to be one of the easiest places to preach from.
4. PREACHING IS SO MUCH WORK BUT SO MUCH FUN
I can’t stress this enough. Gosh it’s hard work to prepare a sermon and it’s exhausting and it always leaves me working overtime. But I’m so so so so filled with delight as the work draws to a close and I have this incredible experience of grappling with God’s word, and letting his Spirit work in my heart to understand it, and trying to articulate it, and sharing it with my brothers and sisters. There is nothing like it.
An early Sunday morning in 2016: Matthew and I review two sermons on the same passage to preach at two different congregations.
5. It’s all always about the gospel; it’s all always about grace.
Hat tip to Tim Keller: it has been constantly drilled into me, especially over the last two years, that preaching must call us to change. But this call must never be to greater moral uprightness, or working harder at a spiritual discipline. Preaching must call our hearers to change through the power of the gospel alone. Grace needs to be at the core of every message preached. It’s so hard to pull this off, because – thanks to sin and the misguided values of world around us – we automatically think in terms of self improvement, pride and self justification.
But it’s worth the hard work to cut through all this noise. The only means through which anyone can change in a lasting and godly way is through God’s grace. Every opportunity to teach is an opportunity to show people the beauty of God’s good news to us in Jesus. Every sermon needs to drip with grace.
Preaching my second last sermon at St Alban’s, at the end of my second trimester. Preaching while pregnant is hard. I imagine preaching with a small child may be harder still.
I wonder what bible teaching will look like with a growing child in our life? We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, here is a little catalogue of the sermons I have been able to preach since working at St Alban’s. It’s been a great season, thanks be to God.
- The search for Justice
- The stories we tell: Science and Knowledge
- Matthew 7: Hearing and Acting
- John 3: Nicodemus Encounters Jesus
- John 11: Lazarus Encounters Jesus
- 2 Kings 5: Strength in numbers, strength in God
- 1 Peter 2: Power
- 2 Corinthians 4: Grace and Resilience
- Eastertide 2017: We have been raised (Colossians 3)
- Solus Christus: In Christ Alone