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A Church of Her Own: What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit

A Church of Her Own: What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit

by Sarah Sentilles

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Women have been among the most dynamic and successful ministers in all Protestant denominations; but in divinity school, Sarah Sentilles discovered that some of the best and brightest were having trouble and even leaving the church altogether. What was happening? To find out, she entered the lives of female ministers — women of various ages, races, and


Women have been among the most dynamic and successful ministers in all Protestant denominations; but in divinity school, Sarah Sentilles discovered that some of the best and brightest were having trouble and even leaving the church altogether. What was happening? To find out, she entered the lives of female ministers — women of various ages, races, and denominations — and emerged with the first real portrait of what it’s like to lead as a woman of faith today.

Filled with humor, heartbreak, and triumph, the women’s stories take us from calls to the pulpit through ordinations and service. Despite many churches’ resistance — conscious or not — to re-imagining what it means to be a minister, many of these women are achieving remarkable transformations in their congregations. In their inspiring determination to perform the creative, life-giving work to which they are called, these women illuminate a way that the church can revitalize itself. What’s at stake is nothing less than the future of the church itself.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher


"Sensitively written, provocatively insightful and filled with autobiographical integrity, Sarah Sentilles' brilliance in this book calls all religious institutions to a new consciousness about gender issues." --John Shelby Spong, author of JESUS FOR THE NON-RELIGIOUS

"What does it mean to be a woman with a religious vocation? Sentilles offers a restless collage of realities, romping, ruminating, fulminating, grateful, joyous, unsatisfied -- but for readers deeply satisfying because her frank talk gives permission for the honesty that trembles and makes all things possible. A must read for any woman – anyone -- who cares about women in the church today." --Karen L. King, author of THE GOSPEL OF MARY MAGDALA

Publishers Weekly

Ordained women pose a revolutionary challenge to traditional Christian beliefs about God and male-female relationships. Virulent and ingrained discrimination against these pioneers thrives in many Christian denominations. So argues Sentilles (Taught by America), a former aspirant to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. After interviewing Protestant (and, to a much lesser extent, Catholic) women of diverse denominations, races, ages and ordination status, Sentilles contends that sexism is woven through Christian practice, distorting everything from worship to creeds to human relationships. Fueled by empathy and appreciation for the women whose stories she narrates, deep disillusionment with the established church and a search for meaning in the wreckage of her own vocational discernment process, the volume is alternately sobering, deeply disturbing and hopeful. It is unclear, however, whether the writer bothered to converse with those who might have challenged the inevitably one-sided perspective of the women she portrays as victims. The book is also marred by the author's polemical tone and personal agenda, which often make it read more like a crusade than an analysis. (Apr.)

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Library Journal

Sentilles (Taught by America: A Story of Struggle and Hope in Compton), who has a divinity degree from Harvard University, was a onetime candidate for ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Here, she interviews ordained women as well as women who sought ordination until the process was ended by their own or others' peremptory actions. Through numerous examples, she reveals Christian sexism as pervasive, systemic, and long affecting not only ordination processes and responses to women ministers, but also theology, religious language, and biblical studies. She considers not just church judicatory processes and mentorship but the local church environment; not just inclusive language and appropriate vestments or other clothing but dating difficulties among single straight women, gay women, and transgendered ministers or potential ministers; not just mainstream Protestant women but Roman Catholic women and those of the Womenpriest movement. Finally, she discusses issues of justice and equality that she feels can transform the church so that the word minister, instead of merely implying power and position, comes to mean service. This challenging and thought-provoking book is essential for seminary and large public libraries and is highly recommended for women's studies and prophetic justice collections as well.
—Carolyn M. Craft

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


I once heard the rector of my church in Pasadena quote Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation in a sermon. Vocation, Buechner says, is the place where the world’s greatest need and a person’s greatest joy meet. Although selfless struggle is seductive, doing the work the world needs—fighting poverty, racism, sexism, imperialism, environmental destruction—is only half of the equation. The work that is yours must also bring you joy.

The word "vocation" comes from the Latin verb vocare, which means "to call." Vocation as "calling" has dominated how it is understood in religious contexts. For many who are considering being ordained, the idea of call is something literal: The voice of God speaks, directing the listener to a life of ministry. For others, the idea of call is figurative: It might come as a feeling, a kind of knowing, a crazy idea that won’t leave, a sense that this is the work they are meant to do in the world. Sometimes call is understood as the pattern that emerges in a string of events. Other times the voices calling belong to friends and family or to the words on the pages of a book.

The Bible is filled with stories about people who hear the voice of God calling them to a certain kind of work. The plot of most biblical call stories is fairly standard: Someone hears the voice of God; rejects the idea that he or she is the right person for the job by listing all the ways she or he is not up to the task; tries to avoid God’s call by running away (remember Jonah?); and, eventually, answers the call, doing what God demands that he or she do. Most often, God calls people by saying their names. "Abraham," God says, and Abraham—or Amos or Isaiah or Sarah—answers, "Here I am." The Hebrew word for "Here I am," hineini, can be translated as "ready." God’s prophets answer God’s call by saying ready, even before they know what they will be asked to do.

For many Christian denominations, believing that you have been called is a central requirement for getting ordained. Whether you believe your call came as the voice of God or as a feeling inside of you, you have to be able to tell your story to others in a way that reveals you have indeed been called to be a minister. The task of the budding minister is to persuade a committee or a priest or a pastor not only that she wants to be ordained but that God intends for her to be ordained.

Call sets ministry apart from all other vocations, constructs being a priest or a pastor as radically different than being a plumber or a teacher or a lawyer. I believe that we are all called to something, that Buechner’s idea of vocation is open to everyone, that we all ought to have the freedom to find that place where our deepest joy and the world’s greatest need meet. But doctors and architects don’t have to prove they have found that place. Ministers do. Even though most of the women I interviewed questioned the category "call," it remained central to the language they used to tell me when they knew they wanted to be ordained. And this language served them more than it got in their way. Claiming your call is an empowering thing to do when other people are telling you that you cannot be a minister because you are gay, or female, or Black, or too political, or too young, or too whatever is outside the dominant version of "minister." Women denied access to ordination—either by their denominations or by individual people in authority—have used their sense of call to sustain them in the struggle. The knowledge that they have been called by God gives them strength to resist oppression, furnishes them with the clarity needed to fight for their vocation and for their rights.

The central idea of Protestantism—that each human being has access to God, unmediated by an institutional hierarchy—has worked in women’s favor. Claims of direct communication grant women authority even when their denominations refuse to. Women have understood themselves as ordained by God, if not by the institutional church, and this knowledge has empowered them. At the same time, women’s assertions have exposed a fundamental inconsistency in Protestantism: the theological conviction that all human beings are equal before God and the simultaneous belief that some human beings (men, Whites, straight, propertied) are better than others (women, people of color, homosexuals, poor). The professed equality of all human beings has not translated into actual equality.

Many of the women I interviewed knew from a very early age that they wanted to be ministers. Although we sometimes like to believe that they don’t, and even hope that they aren’t, children pay attention in church and in Sunday school. Most of the women I interviewed attended church as children. They loved church. Some went to church alone, without their parents or siblings. Some worried that when something bad happened to someone they loved it was because they didn’t pray hard enough or long enough or because they fell asleep before they finished their prayers. Some held secret communion services in their bedrooms and tree houses, pressing Wonder bread flat between their hands and drinking juice. Some cried, not because they didn’t get asked to a dance but because their churches wouldn’t let girls be acolytes. When they were teenagers, some went to church on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. They listened to sermons, fell in love with liturgy, whispered memorized prayers in their rooms, asked important questions a few adults were brave enough to admit they didn’t know the answers to. They craved ritual. They sensed hypocrisy, understood the difference between what happened on Sunday mornings and what happened during the rest of the week, or even what happened in the parking lot right after church. They noticed when they were asked to participate, when they were given responsibility, when someone cared that they were there.

Although many women knew from a young age that they wanted to be ministers, most did not know any female ministers, making it hard for them to imagine themselves as ministers. Because either they did not know any female ministers or they did not know women could be ministers at all, their feeling that they wanted to be ordained sometimes made them feel crazy.

Most of the women I interviewed remember the first time they saw an ordained woman and how this vision opened up their sense of vocation. Jamie Washam, an American Baptist pastor in Milwaukee, grew up Southern Baptist in Texas and didn’t see any female pastors. The women she did see in church, women who were shut out of most leadership positions even though they practically ran the church, didn’t look like her. "Zipper Bibles, elastic pants, big ol’ white sneakers, what would jesus do bracelets," she said. "I mean, that’s not what I look like."

It might at first seem shallow, the idea that somehow you need to see someone who looks like you, even dresses like you, to be able to imagine yourself doing a certain job, but seeing a minister who looked like them or talked like them or had theology like them signaled to these women that there was a place for them in the church. It was a kind of welcome, and it was only when they felt this welcome that they realized how shut out they had been feeling. When you belong to a group that religions hate and ostracize—or just ignore—you have to be able to imagine what you have not yet seen or heard. This is holy work.

And it is work these women did. Called to be something they had never seen, something their families, their denominations, their churches, and their congregations had never seen, they chose ordained ministry. For every single one of the women I interviewed, it was Buechner’s definition that shaped her vocation. I have seen many of them at work. Watching them celebrate weddings, preach sermons, share communion, march in protests, lead congregations in prayer, speak out against injustice, I had no doubt in my mind that they were meant to be ministers. They seemed to glow, as if all the molecules in their bodies had lined up to say yes, this is what I was made to do. This is what brings me alive. This is where the world’s greatest need and my deepest joy meet.

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Sentilles

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Meet the Author

SARAH SENTILLES earned her master of divinity degree from Harvard and is the author of Taught by America: A Story of Struggle and Hope in Compton. She lives in Camarillo, California.

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