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My Place in the Pulpit

Approaching that giant piece of furniture shook loose all my insecurities, doubts, and fears.

It was Saturday night, the night before I would give my first sermon, my first real sermon behind a real pulpit in front of a real congregation. Following the sermon, the congregation would vote, as dictated by our polity, on whether to hire me as a co-lead pastor alongside my husband, who had been serving as lead pastor solo for three months.

It was late on a balmy May evening, before kids and bedtimes and the perpetual fatigue of parenthood. As was my custom, I walked across the street from our parsonage to the church building around 10 pm to practice the worship songs for the following morning’s service. But on this night I brought over not only my notebook of sheet music and chord charts, but also a 5½-page manuscript of my first sermon.

I made my way to the piano bench and ran through the songs with ease, playing and singing effortlessly and freely. I went over every tricky part and even the not-so-tricky parts more than was necessary. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I realized: I was stalling. I had come over to practice the songs, yes, but really I had come over to preach my sermon to an empty sanctuary, to try out my voice, to work out the kinks. And yet, I couldn’t seem to get up from the piano.

As I sat there evaluating my hesitation, I finally made eye contact with “It.” The pulpit. It wasn’t like I had never stood behind the thing to do announcements, lead songs, or read Scripture. But this was different. It loomed before me like a dark, shadowy someone in any alleyway.

I felt as if I were glued to that wooden piano bench, as if something I could not articulate was holding me captive right there on that seat. Was it feelings of inadequacy? Nerves about speaking? Concerns about the quality of my content? Fears about the response of the congregation to my presence in the pulpit? I sat unmoving for a solid five minutes, wondering why on earth I could not bring myself to stand, wondering what it would take to get me upright and up to the platform.

After a few false starts, I finally managed to pry myself from the bench, and I began to circle “It” like a curious, yet fearful puppy investigating a mysterious and terrifying butterfly. The overwhelming sense I had as I inched my way closer to was that of presumption. Who am I to stand here? Who am I to assume the mantle of authority attached to this strange piece of furniture? Who am I to presume to speak on behalf of God to a group of people made up of individuals who have been Christians much longer than I have been alive?

For all my spunkiness and orneriness, for all my loud and proud declarations about being a female pastor, my encounter with the pulpit that late night was unsettling, like a sudden shaking that broke loose the unspoken insecurities, doubts, and fears. And yes, of course, some of those unpleasant and unexpected feelings arose from my youth (I was the ripe old age of 24 at the time) and from my inexperience in the pulpit. But, deep in my heart, I recognized at the root of it all lay my femaleness.

I grew up in a denomination that has always affirmed women preachers. Well, in word anyway. My dad was (and is) a pastor in this denomination, and when I was 11, he transitioned from being a youth pastor to a senior pastor. I distinctly remember walking into his new fancy office complete with its own bathroom, like a strange clerical master bedroom of sorts, to discover a urinal. My response was classic 11-year-old: “Well, what if he has to, ya know, not pee?”

If only that was the extent of the “bathroom issue.” What I did not realize at the time was that a declaration had been made: this office belongs to a man. And this office, that of preacher and proclaimer of the gospel, belongs to a man. And so was is it any wonder that when my heart began to sense a call to full-time vocational ministry a few years later that I subconsciously eliminated the office of preacher without hesitation? Missionary would be a better fit, right? Because there’s a urinal. And because I had never seen a woman preach, much less preach with authority and power from the pulpit.

A Message for My 14-Year-Old Self

I want to speak a truth to my 14-year-old that I didn’t hear at the time, did not know I needed to hear at the time. And maybe someone else might need to hear it, too—someone else who is called to proclaim the Word with power but has not been given the imagination to see herself behind “It,” that sacred pulpit.

What I want to say is this: you were made for this. I know you heard that Voice, that call. And I know that you silenced it, not out of rebellion or disobedience, but because you’re pretty sure you heard wrong. You didn’t. God is doing a work in you, shaping you into a proclaimer of the Word. Like Moses, overcome by his inadequacies in the presence of the burning bush, you are afraid. Afraid that you don’t have what it takes, don’t have the skill, the experience, the right timbre of voice, the strength to speak with authority. You don’t even have a lady suit. Beloved, there is no need to fear. Moses was afraid, too, but God did not abandon him to his terror. God is good like that. Instead, God called out his fear and dismantled it with the promise of his presence, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say” (Exodus 11–12). Like Moses, God has called you and will go with you, teaching you what you are to speak. Like Moses, you were made for this and you are being made for this—God is continually forming and shaping you to do this all the more faithfully.

And when someone inevitably treats you unjustly, criticizing your tone of voice or your distracting outfit or your too-feminine sermon illustrations, stuff that male preachers rarely have to deal with, don’t let the shame in. Receive what truth may be gleaned, and then let it go, Elsa-style. But do not let that shame sink into your soul and warp it. Instead, you remember the Voice that called you to this blessed vocation, and next week, you walk right up into that pulpit again, knowing you have been called by God and are empowered by the Spirit, with your head held high, and preach the Word with power. You were made for this, and you are being made for this.

And when someone questions your authority, when someone suggests that a Word from God is not valid coming from your lipsticked lips, you boldly approach that pulpit and claim your pastoral authority. Claim it with a firm step and with a bold voice. Not because you have all the answers and not because you are convinced of your own greatness. Not because you have nothing to learn or no room to grow. You walk up there clothed in courageous humility: courageous because God has called you and goes with you, and humble because you are but clay in the hand of the Potter. You walk up there with authority, not out of presumption but out of obedience. Because God called and you answered. You were made for this, and you are being made for this.

It’s easier now for me. There are no more urinals. I serve a blessed congregation that intentionally affirms my gifts. But, even if they didn’t, I would not back down from my calling. Like Peter and John speaking to the Jewish leaders in Acts, I answer, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20). So, too, I cannot keep from proclaiming this Good Word, of Christ come down for us and for our salvation. I was made for this, and I am being made for this. Thanks be to God.

Stephanie Dyrness Lobdell is a Nazarene pastor, wife, mommy of JoJo and Jack, teacher, lover of learning, and friend. She and her husband, Tommy, have served as co-pastors of several churches. Currently, Stephanie serves as co-lead pastor with Tommy as well as the worship pastor at Mountain Home Church of the Nazarene, an extraordinary community of believers in Mountain Home, Idaho.

April06, 2017 at 8:00 AM

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