Karoline Lewis on Helping New Preachers Find Their Voice
For beginning preachers, both women and men, finding their authentic voice requires deep self-reflection in a supportive, respectful context.
In this Strengthening Preaching conversation series, preachers from a range of Christian traditions and denominations reflect on their growth as preachers through their involvement in the Strengthening Preaching initiative of Lilly Endowment Inc., which is coordinated by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. At the heart of the initiative are preaching peer groups, sponsored by various seminaries, which engage preachers in reading, discussion, preaching, and feedback—all within a collegial circle of support.
In this edited conversation, Karoline Lewis continues a discussion of her book She: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Women in Ministry, focusing on how the book connects with her work as a professor of preaching.
In this book, you talk about women “finding their voice” in preaching and ministry. What makes it particularly challenging for women to do this? How, as a teacher of preaching, can you help them?
It’s challenging across the board when it comes to preaching—I think we need to start with that, particularly with beginning preachers. They need to learn to trust their voice, and there are so many other voices and so many reasons for them not to trust their own. There is immediately a hesitancy because of the expected competition among their peers and the question of “Is what I said theologically sound?” Much of that hesitancy can be addressed by the kind of space that a professor creates in the classroom, and whether there’s an expectation and encouragement of a diversity of theological voices.
Beginning preachers don’t know their voice, and they don’t yet have a clear sense of their core theological commitments or their biblical hermeneutics—they’re still learning that, and it all contributes to voice. So they tend to default to what they’ve known, to imitation.
My main goal is to move them to a place of authenticity—realizing that there’s no other preacher like them in the whole world and how extraordinarily unique and wonderful that is. Whether the preacher is a man or a woman, that’s one of my primary goals when I teach preaching.
That means a lot of self-reflection, which I build into the class. It means a lot of hard work with regard to your theological commitments and your biases and ideologies, which are shaped by experience, denomination, and tradition, but also by gender, race, and other constructs. I hope that’s what my students take away: that I want them to be themselves and spend the time in that course discovering who that is and trust that.
Because they take that into the parish, and it’s that authenticity that parishioners need to see, and need to hear from the pulpit. Too often there’s a stark difference between the preaching voice and the pastoral voice. People in the congregation need to know that the person who visits them in the hospital is the same person who preaches to them on a Sunday morning. There has to be an integrity and a correlation there.
For women, the main challenge is the way in which we have been socialized systemically to distrust our voice, to apologize for our voice, to not speak out and speak up. These are ways in which women’s voices have been routinely silenced. So again, there’s an added level of complexity for women. And by “voice” I mean not just your physical voice, but the entirety of your being and what you believe and what you hold to be true. That’s what you are, in part, revealing in preaching.
For women, it does end up being a larger challenge predominantly because their voice as a woman has been challenged or silenced in some way in their life. How do you then, in preaching, not only move into this space of preaching God’s Word but also learn to re-trust your voice, to trust that your voice is just as legitimate as someone else’s?
You said you build self-reflection into your preaching courses. Do you intentionally group students with a balance of women and men so everyone can feel comfortable and empowered as they do this work?
In the preaching course, students are divided into preaching labs. A lot of the self-reflective work—the most vulnerable work—gets done in these small groups. That’s where they do their actual preaching; they preach to each other. On the front end, I’m very intentional about what that space needs to be for the sake of growth and being the preacher God wants you to be. It’s a space of regard and respect.
When I put those groups together, I’m very intentional about making sure that women are not outnumbered, because they need to have that sense of support and the reality that they’re all in this together. But I wouldn’t want a group to have just one man either. And as our student body becomes more diverse in all ways, it’s my ongoing intention to pay attention to that when they’re doing that hard, vulnerable work.
You spoke earlier about the concept of power for women as they navigate life in ministry. Can you draw a connection to the role of power in the act of preaching?
Even though we’ve been ordaining women in my branch of Lutheranism in America for forty-five years, the power and authority connected to the pastor is still pretty much male dominated. The sense that men can walk into that space and not really think about it is actually a critical thing for them, because they need to recognize the historic nature of that assumed power. They need to be aware of it, aware of how they might take it for granted or abuse it.
Women aren’t granted that same power and authority, and their power will immediately be questioned, particularly if they offer an interpretation of Scripture or a sermon point that is in any way viewed as outside of the norm. Whereas a man may offer a certain kind of interpretation that hasn’t been heard before and the response is, “Oh, that’s really interesting and fascinating,” a woman will do the same thing and immediately find that her authority is questioned. So again, there’s a double standard.
Things are even more challenging when you consider the reality of intersectionality. These power dynamics are true with regard to gender for women clergy, but if you’re also a member of a minoritized group, whether you’re a person of color or an LGBTQI person, then these realities increase exponentially. So you’re doubly marginalized or doubly having to navigate and prove your power and authority, which will be consistently questioned.
What are some newer ideas you’ve used in teaching preaching that you’ve found to be effective?
For each sermon, I ask students to be intentional about the specific areas they need to work on. It’s not just “I want to be a better preacher.” It’s how and what—what are you going to focus on? And then to be intentional about reflection afterward, to say what worked and what didn’t, and why. The preaching life is a deeply self-reflective life, so I try to give them tools that invite them into places and spaces where they’re stepping back and asking, Am I saying the same thing every week? Or, has my theology changed and should I be dealing with that? Or, when was the last time I preached on the Old Testament?
There’s another thing I’ve done lately for which I’m deeply indebted to Clay Schmit, who taught preaching for a long time at Fuller Seminary and who I taught with once. He made the distinction between being a good preacher and being a faithful preacher. I’ve found it helpful to give students specific characteristics of how to be a faithful preacher—faithful to the biblical text, faithful to the theological diversity of the Bible, faithful to the mind of the listener, the heart of the listener, faithful to the many contexts, and so on. They have control over that.
What they do not have control over is whether or not their sermon is good. That is in God’s hands. That is in the Spirit’s hands. So when somebody says, “That was a great sermon,” that’s because the Spirit showed up.
That’s been really helpful for me in teaching preaching, both for men and for women, because it kind of levels the playing field. It says, these are the seven characteristics that you have some control over and that you can evaluate your preaching on. But what you need to let go of is when somebody says a sermon is good—that’s because it was good for them, and the Spirit made that happen. It’s both an act of evaluation and an acknowledgment of humility.
Explore resources for young female clergy at youngclergywomen.org.
Watch Karoline Lewis discuss the craft of preaching at the 2017 Working Preacher Presents conference.
Subscribe to the Sermon Brainwave podcast to hear weekly conversations on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the coming Sunday.