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Three Lessons for Women in Ministry from Catherine Booth

The co-founder of The Salvation Army lived out her calling and left a lasting legacy.

Catherine Booth was born in a small town in central England in 1829. The Victorian Age wasn’t exactly the golden age for women. Yet Catherine was able to create a lasting legacy that we’re reminded of every time we hear the bell ringers calling us to drop our coins in the red kettles of The Salvation Army.

Two things hugely influenced Catherine’s formative years. She was born to Methodist parents, and her father was a Methodist lay minister. This laid the foundation for her faith.

Then when she was a teenager, Catherine suffered from a curvature of the spine. The only remedy at that time was bed rest, which gave Catherine the opportunity to read voraciously. She loved reading and reportedly had read the Bible through 8 times by the age of 12. During her forced rest, she read a great deal by Charles Finney and John Wesley, which fueled her desire for God to use her in a significant way.

When others condemned her for wanting a public ministry, she resolutely insisted they were wrong. And when she met William Booth in 1851, she found a man who not only shared her values and passions, but also encouraged her to use all the gifts God had given her.

Initially, her ministry was directed toward children, but she soon expanded her influence to adults. She began writing pamphlets about how women should minister alongside men and later spoke publically on the topic. She was very persuasive, proving a great teammate for her influential husband. When they began The Salvation Army in 1865, known then as The Christian Mission, William spoke mostly to those in poverty, while Catherine spoke primarily to the wealthy and influential. Catherine’s speaking brought financial support that fueled their help for the poor. It’s hard to say whether The Salvation Army would be what it is today without the support Catherine gathered during those early years.

Catherine’s life and ministry should inspire those of us in church leadership today. Despite living in a time that held women back, Catherine obeyed God’s call and successfully led a ministry that continues to impact people today. There are three lessons we can all take from her life:

Use the opportunities you’re given.

Catherine faced health issues that would be devastating to most young people. At the time of life when most of us feel energized, she was forced to rest. But instead of spinning into despair, she used that time to expand her education. Though she lived at a time when women had few opportunities, she used every one that was available to her, namely reading. When she was finally well enough to minister, she did not despair that the only arena for women at the time was working with children. Instead, she accepted that ministry, doing it to the best of her ability. She embraced Colossians 3:23: “Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.”

Often, we get in our minds what we’d like to do, yet we overlook the steps we must take to get there—whether that’s learning from others or gaining experience by serving. A woman once approached me saying she felt called to a national speaking ministry. She had no experience, though, because no one had asked her to speak. I suggested she volunteer to speak for a local children’s ministry that was actively looking for help. Uninterested in ministering to children, she passed on this opportunity that could have given her much-needed experience and opened many doors. Needless to say, she has never had a speaking ministry.

Catherine’s example is such a wonderful picture of patience. Do you feel called to some large-scale ministry? Rather than focus on the end goal, lay your hand to the task before you. Say yes to more mundane responsibilities and do them with joy, letting God prepare you for what he has in mind. Remember that “if you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones” (Luke 16:10).

Trust God to grow your ministry.

The time Catherine spent speaking to children was not wasted. Through that endeavor, she gained confidence in her ability to minister. God used that time to hone her oratory abilities and to give her a vision for influencing others.

In those early days of ministry, Catherine had no idea God would give her lasting impact. Her husband’s support provided her more chances to speak and a stronger influence than she would have thought possible. She not only had numerous opportunities to move the hearts of the wealthy in England to help the poor, but she continues to influence today through the legacy she left in The Salvation Army.

Defend women who are called to minister.

Although many in Christendom dismissed Catherine’s obvious gifts because she was a woman, she didn’t let that discourage her. She not only continued using the abilities God gave her, but also defended other women who felt inhibited in serving God as he called them.

One of the ways she did that was through her writing. In Catherine’s time, women were generally not allowed to speak at all in church. They were to be silent and submissive. Only men could discuss things and ask questions. With her husband’s encouragement, however, Catherine wrote Female Ministry: Woman’s Right to Preach the Gospel. In her writings and public speaking, she insisted that women are not naturally or morally inferior to men, and that Paul’s advice to the churches in his epistles was not meant to prohibit women from ministering. This turned out to be a powerful apologetic that influenced many at the time and expanded her ministry—as well as the ministry of many other women.

Whether you believe women should be ordained in the church is beside the point. Whatever your theological framework, help women use their gifts in meaningful ways in your context. Have you noticed a woman that you're certain God has called to speak? Help her seek God’s wisdom for using that gift. Or have you noticed a woman who’s gifted in administration? Challenge her to keep the books at church or for a certain ministry. If you can tell God has gifted a woman with leadership, then encourage her to start a ministry she is passionate about or to lead a committee. The important thing is to defend women who are called to minister and lead, cheering them on as they serve.

Thank you, Catherine Booth, for courageously carrying out the mission that God gave you and paving the way for us to do the same.

JoHannah Reardon constantly seeks ways to use the gifts God has given her. Find her family devotional, Proverbs for Kids, and her many novels at www.johannahreardon.com.

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