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Karoline Lewis on the Power of Women in Ministry

Women navigating life in ministry face unique challenges. Naming these realities is the first step to helping women and men recognize them and respond proactively.


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 discusses her book She: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Women in Ministry, a resource she developed for a course at Luther Seminary. 

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What led you to write this book?

The primary reason is that when I was division chair at Luther Seminary a few years ago, the person who regularly taught the Women in Ministry course was leaving. Rather than see the course go away, I volunteered to teach it. In my teaching and conversations with students and in my own experiences with the lingering, ongoing challenges for women in ministry, it was clear that we needed it.

But I didn’t have a book that incorporated all of what I thought was essential for the course, so I ended up writing a book that would be the foundational textbook for my course but then would also be a resource for women and men outside of the course.

Why do you believe seminaries need a course on Women in Ministry?

Primarily because it signals an intention on the part of the seminary and its curriculum to address these challenges and realities. I think it’s critical for an institution to be intentional about offering courses that address these kinds of issues—I would say the same thing about racism and a queer interpretation of Scripture—and not just assume they’ll be covered at some point in other courses.

Power is an important concept in your book. Can you say why it’s so important?

The concept of power, particularly in ministry, is a really critical one—how you use that power, how you assume it, how you define it, how you embody it and act it out, and particularly the ways in which power in ministry, or power in positions of authority, has been abused. So the use of that word was deliberate.

It’s particularly important for women because that power often has to be earned, or somehow lived into or proven, much more so than for men. Men have a sort of assumed place of power. So what difference does it make for women to have to think, How do I assume this power?

How are you going to embody it immediately? How might you think about power differently—not over against your male colleagues—but is there a fundamental or inherent difference in how you might assume power?

I think it’s a critical issue for anybody in a leadership role, but particularly for women in how they navigate life in ministry: What kind of power do they want to have, what kind of power do they want to model, and do they or don’t they want to differentiate that kind of power?

Your chapter on vulnerability, bodies, and sexuality talks about the deep challenges that women in ministry face, challenges that many people probably have not even thought about. Could you say a few words about that?

That chapter is grounded in the first chapter, which reflects on how we talk about biblical authority and how we think about theology. I’m definitely an incarnational theologian, and that’s how I teach preaching and think about ministry. The foundation for all of it is the Word becoming flesh and whether we take that seriously—and that God is a vulnerable God, that God chose to become human and, even prior to that, chose to enter into relationships, which is a vulnerable place to be.

This is an inherent characteristic of God that is not necessarily a popular one. The dominant theologies, I would say, are more about God’s power, God’s might, God’s rule, which is all fine and true. But when do we talk about the vulnerable, incarnational aspects of God? And when you take that into ministry, you need to recognize that preaching is an exceedingly vulnerable act, that ministry is inherently vulnerable, and life is too. Naming that truth is important.

Particularly for women, it’s important to recognize the way in which vulnerability is almost immediately construed as weakness or a lack of strength, and that’s inaccurate. So how do women, with regard to bodies, navigate that, knowing that our bodies are socially and systemically objectified, creating yet another level of vulnerability.

And when you preach, you are exposing your theology, so there are levels of vulnerability in preaching and in ministry that we don’t often name. When you add your gender to that, you’re adding more levels of vulnerability.

So it became a topic that was essential for helping women navigate that reality of life, of ministry, and of preaching. And then recognizing that their own physical bodies and appearance will also make them vulnerable to comments and questions and assumptions.

Many women who preach find that people too often comment on how nicely they’re dressed instead of commenting on their sermon. Others get tired of having to deal with attaching a microphone to their clothing. So, for some women, the answer is to wear a robe when they preach. But your book challenges that thinking, doesn’t it?

There are a lot of women who wear a robe for this very reason—because the robe hides at least some of the things people comment on. Yet there are other women on the opposite side of the spectrum who ask, Should we have to cover up what our body looks like? And part of what we’re saying with a robe is that it’s more comfortable for others to pretend that the body underneath it is not a female body. And is that really right?

Again, it goes back to that foundational claim of the incarnation. So while the robe can be comfortable for some, for others it’s just another way in which you are abdicating to the discomfort of others to hide your own body, your own sexuality, the reality of your body, just for the sake of perhaps limiting the comments. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t stop the comments. You’d have to be completely covered from head to toe—and then it would be your voice they’d comment on.

It’s hard when you preach what you think is a pretty darn good sermon and the majority of comments have nothing to do with the content of your sermon and are more about your appearance.

So the relationship with the robe is varied. It’s individualized from woman to woman. But it’s far more complicated than just, “Wear the robe and it eliminates all of that.”

On the topic of sexist language and behavior, including mansplaining and manterrupting, could you share some things that have worked in trying to educate people in this regard? How do you get people to see this behavior?

Interestingly, it’s not just men who don’t always recognize this, so it’s also: How do you talk to women about this—people who for most of their lives thought this behavior was just normal? For some women these realities, the daily microaggressions, are so ingrained that they haven’t even noticed them.

The first strategy I would recommend is learning how to come alongside each other and name those things when they happen. This naming piece really works, both individually and when you’re in a group. Now, whether or not you call that person out is another thing, but the naming is critical—name it for what it is and move on. That in itself is an extraordinarily powerful feeling.

In deciding whether to call it out, a second strategy is to assess the future of that relationship. If it’s someone you’re going to have an ongoing relationship with, how do you name that behavior for that person and say, “You know, your comment really wasn’t helpful”? How do you name that in such a way that the relationship can continue?

For me, it’s about setting the table for conversation, opening up a true dialogue so they can see what’s going on. It’s hard, because a lot of men don’t see that they’re saying anything wrong, but at the same time it’s representative of a benevolent sexism that is just assumed to be OK.

The main thing for women is that you get to decide how you want to handle it and not just let it happen to you. There may even be situations where somebody says something and you realize that this is not a relationship that can continue anymore.  

A third strategy is to have a proactive response to these things rather than being passive or reactive. If you anticipate that these situations will occur, how might you imagine responding? I think some sort of practice in that and talking about that is critical.

What’s been the most gratifying response you’ve received to your book?

The immediate response to this book from most women is: “I finally feel like I’m not alone in my experiences, that I’m not just making stuff up, and that you’ve given voice to things that I’ve thought about or felt and I didn’t know how to talk about them.” That’s very gratifying.

Read a continuation of this conversation. 


Read Sarah Weisiger’s review of She: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Women in Ministry by Karoline Lewis.

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.