Quick to Listen/Episode 173 |59min

The Limits of Pentecostal Women Leaders

When the tradition’s unique understanding of calling meets societal norms of leadership.
The Limits of Pentecostal Women Leaders
Image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-B2-1234]

Two weeks ago, the Assemblies of God General Council elected a woman to its executive leadership. After more than 100 years in existence, Ohio minister Donna Barrett now holds the role of Assemblies of God general secretary, the third-highest position in the denomination.

In May, the Foursquare Church’s Tammy Dunahoo ran unsuccessfully for the denomination’s presidency. If Dunahoo would have been elected, she would have been the first female president since the denomination’s founder, Aimee Semple McPherson.

Though women have largely been absent from denominational leadership structures, that women have been allowed to preach from the beginning of the movement makes them unique among Protestant traditions.

Historically, Pentecostals “didn’t prefer the traditional method of leadership identification,” said Leah Payne, the author of Gender and Pentecostal Revivalism: Making a Female Ministry in the Early Twentieth Century. “They did, in fact, reject things like seminary.”

People preferred calling because it existed outside of these types of structures and institutions.

“Plus you could be five years old and receive a calling,” said Payne.

Leah Payne joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss why women have struggled to advance past the pastorate, the unique ways Pentecostals understand church leadership, and why many Pentecostal churches have pastor couples that lead churches together.

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Quick to Listen is produced by Morgan Lee and Matt Lindor

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Highlights from Quick To Listen: Episode 172

Can you explain the proper terminology to refer to these denominations in the movement overall?

Leah Payne: A lot of times if someone is writing about people who speak in tongues or believe in divine healing or mystical experiences with God, they will often call them "Pentecostal-Charismatic."

Part of that has to do with the fact that it's a huge global movement that's really hard to define, but in general we use the word "Pentecostal" to refer to groups of people or denominations that tie their roots back to the Azusa Street Revival, which was a revival in the early 20th century in Los Angeles.

And then we use the word "charismatic" to talk about a group that began a little bit later in the mid-to-late 20th century. The word "charismatic" really refers to the practices—like speaking in tongues or having visions or prayers for divine healing—but that could apply to someone who's Roman Catholic or Episcopalian or any kind of American version of Christianity.

Sometimes these terms get used interchangeably, but in general that's how scholars of the movement differentiate and use them.

In terms of how leadership is defined, what has been unique within the Pentecostal tradition compared to other Christian movements?

Leah Payne: The origins of the Pentecostal movement are outside of the standard "corridors of power" in Protestant mainliner evangelical Christianity.

For example, William Seymour, one of the founders of the movement, was an African American man who did not have traditional ordination or seminary education. And many of the early leaders in the movement were more like that. The movement is known to have leaders who've been identified not by a seminary degree or ordination or any kind of traditional form.

For a long time in the movement's history, people didn't prefer the traditional methods of leadership identification. So they would in fact reject things like seminary. Even when I was first started studying it, they would refer to it as "cemetery" instead of "seminary." So there was the idea that some of the traditional forms of raising up leaders could actually end up ruining a ministry.

So for a long time there was an anti-intellectual bent to the movement and so people preferred "calling" because it existed outside of that. Plus you could be five years old and receive a calling, and Pentecostals also have a history of children preachers.

But in other ways, they're just like any other American Protestant in that they are a form of revivalism—so this idea of reviving a supposedly dead form of American religion, which goes way back in American history. And the way revivalists identify leaders is through what they call "a calling”—this ecstatic experience with God where the woman or man is called into some sort of leadership role.

Pentecostals really rely on that and callings and that’s actually not that different from a lot of other American Protestants, especially evangelicals. So Billy Graham was certainly not a Pentecostal, but he had a calling experience.

Are there particular Bible characters or verses that they use to bolster this understanding or case that they're making as far as calling?

Leah Payne: I would say that Pentecostals tend to be big fans of passages that highlight spiritual authority or a God-given mantle. So passages like the anointing of David, who's this unexpected leader and he's called by God through a prophet. For women leaders in the movement, biblical figures like Deborah, Huldah, Junia—those ones get used a lot as examples for church leadership. But again, I don't know that that would be all that different from a woman who's Baptist and arguing for a calling to the ministry.

Morgan: To what extent has this understanding of calling and church leadership directly contributed to the growth of the Pentecostal movement?

Leah Payne: There is definitely a template or a trope of the "unexpected leader" that I think gets used a lot in Pentecostal writings.

A lot of early Pentecostal leader—women and men—when they would talk about their calling to the ministry, often times they tell a story where they'd say, "I was called by God, but then I said no." Kind of like Jonah or something like that. And then they'd go on to say, "Eventually I said yes and isn't this so unexpected."

If you’re going to have an expansive sense of calling then some of those will be high-risk cases—like Jim and Tammy Faye Baker or Jimmy Swaggart—but then there's also the rewards of finding people like Aimee Semple McPherson, who is not someone that a really traditional Anglican Church would have ordained.

Having that kind of template certainly gives Pentecostals an ability or a high tolerance for experimentation when it comes to leaders. So they'll accept the callings of a lot of different people. There’s the idea that God can call anyone.

This is a common story in the Bible and church history in general. I'm sure the Apostle Paul told the story of his own calling to people, and I often wonder if it's a way to encourage yourself when things are difficult. You can say, "Well, it wasn't just me who wanted this—in fact I didn't want it at all."

What are some of the other complications that can arise when you're using this idea of leadership?

Leah Payne: One of the complications for leaders in the Pentecostal movement, particularly people who are from minoritized communities, is that in order to lead from a sense of calling, you need followers.

So you need people who are going to recognize God's call on your life to be a leader. And so what happens in the case of women as ministry leaders, for example, they may feel a sense of calling but unfortunately the community doesn't have the imagination to recognize that calling.

And so that's where something like a seminary education or an ordaining body can help bolster your case to be recognized as a pastor. If you just have the calling, you're sort of dependent on—something that can work for you or against you—the congregation members themselves.

How far back can you find women preachers or teachers in the Pentecostal movement?

Leah Payne: Women like Jarena Lee, Phoebe Palmer and many other kinds of "holiness preachers" are actually thought of as forerunners to the Pentecostal movement, which started around the early 20th century.

From the outset, the Pentecostal movement included women in high-profile roles like Maria Woodworth-Etter and Jennie Seymour, and lots of other women contributing to the movement.

I think one contributing factor to this is theological. This idea that the Holy Spirit can move where the Spirit wills and calls who the Spirit calls.

There's some disagreement in scholarly circles about when the movement actually started, but a lot of people think the Azusa Street Revival is as good a place as any to identify as the origin of the movement. And that was characterized as interracial, inter-ethnic, and as a movement that also had women and men.

So it was already doing something that was very radical in the early 20th century—this idea that that people from different ethnicities, and women and men, were all worshiping and preaching and doing other kinds of Pentecostal practices together. That was very strange. And there was always this idea that the Spirit can create and accomplished something like that—that's how at least early Pentecostals talked about it.

They also had a really heightened sense of eschatology, the idea that Jesus is going to return soon, and it was tied directly to their experiences. So if they were experiencing speaking in tongues, then surely Jesus must be coming back soon. And if Jesus is coming back soon, we all need to get to work. So it doesn't matter if you're a woman, you should be about the work of God.

So there was a real sense of urgency that also drove that diversity.

One of the most famous Pentecostal women is Aimee Semple McPherson. Can you sharemore about her life and work?

Leah Payne: Aimee Semple McPherson is one of the most fun people to talk about in the Pentecostal movement. She was just a really entertaining person.

She was Canadian-born and ended up migrating to Los Angeles. Her ministry really got going right as the American film business was beginning and celebrity culture was really kicking into high gear. She had a particular talent to attract media and all forms of attention, and she did that as a way of ministering.

She had one of the first major megachurches, she created a denomination that is now known as Foursquare Church, she had a radio station, and her worship services were this celebrity-infused, vaudeville-inspired show.

The church that she founded, Angeles Temple, is actually still alive and running; it's now called The Dream Center, and I encourage anyone if you're ever in Los Angeles to go and visit. You will experience something that is the showiest form of American Christianity, which I think that she would like. And I don't say that in a bad way at all.

Legend has it that her friend Charlie Chaplin helped her design Angeles Temple—and we’ve all heard of him. It's designed as a theater really. There was an orchestra pit and she would often wear a white dress looking very bridal and carry a big bouquet of roses and talk about meeting Jesus in the air. So that was one of her go-to moments.

It's really a smart idea when you think about it as a woman who's preaching because the idea of the church as the bride and Jesus as the bridegroom is a really popular biblical metaphor. So it's a way of allowing a woman to enact many of the things that we associate with womanliness and also be preaching. So in addition to being a good show and kind of flamboyant, it was smart too.

We know that as the Pentecostal movement grew, it developed different denominations. In the case of Aimee Semple McPherson, she was the founder of a denomination. While women played a big role at the beginning, do you think the movement turning into institutions is what led to it now having very few women serving in top denominational leadership positions?

Leah Payne: I think that the case of Foursquare is interesting to most people because there's a female founder and after her there hasn't been a female leader. But really this is a question we could ask of many different Christian denominations that say that they fully endorse women in any role of leadership, but then their practice doesn't match that.

You can have a group that says we believe in women in ministry leadership, but it's really difficult to resist what is going on in the culture overall if you're not vigilant about it. So for example, if you're an American denomination in the early to mid-20th century, there's just not a lot of women in leadership roles in society overall. And so to have a woman in a top level of executive leadership, that's just really different than the world that is around you.

We are seeing Pentecostalism move in major ways around the world, especially in South America and Africa. Are we also seeing women pastors and women leaders in those places? And do you think there's a relationship between its model of leadership and Pentecostalism’s surging popularity?

Leah Payne: You know, the thing about Pentecostalism is it's so different from Roman Catholicism or the Presbyterian church or the Baptist because it doesn't have a centralized leadership or an agreed upon set of theologies or even practices. So it's so hard to say in one sentence what's happening in global Pentecostalism.

I would guess that you'll find pockets where women have tremendous amounts of leadership and then you'll find areas within the Pentecostal movement where women have uber-traditional roles with traditional hierarchies. It's just too big to be able to make a generalized statement about it.

But I'll say this to your second question: I think that big expansive sense of identity is one of the keys to the movement's success. It is so large and so varied and so adaptable and adaptive that I think that's why it has gone from zero to one of the largest forms of Christianity in a pretty short period of time.

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