Women’s Preaching: What’s the difference?

By Gwen Groff, bethanym@vermontel.net
Pastor at Bethany Mennonite Church, VT

I have never liked descriptions of the differences between women and men, mainly because such generalizations tend to alienate people who don’t find themselves fitting the general description of one gender or the other. So when asked to write an article about the differences between male and female preachers I decided to ask several women pastors in Franconia Conference what they believe is different about their preaching from the preaching of their male colleagues and the men they grew up hearing.

Several women grew up listening primarily to their fathers’ preaching. Sandy Drescher-Lehman’s (Souderton congregation) father was her first mentor and she wanted to grow up to be a pastor like him. However, she believed that wasn’t possible because she was a woman. Like Drescher-Lehman, Dawn Ruth Nelson’s (Methacton congregation) first role model was also her father. A difference they have both observed is that men’s preaching is louder. Nelson noted that some male preachers have a “special preaching cadence” that she has never acquired. Lehman is glad the church has developed in the past 20 years to allow “softly spoken women to have a voice in the pulpit and be valid preachers.”

One difference I have noticed in my own preaching is that I use far more stories from personal experience than most male preachers I’ve heard. This carries its own risks. Until I was in a seminary preaching class I did not learn how this vulnerability might shape the content of men’s and women’s sermons differently. One preaching exercise in particular asked us to take an event from the last 24 hours of our lives and use it as an illustration of a given text. The incident that I used was finding a note from an old friend stuck under the wiper blade of my car. Discovering the note from someone who knew me well made me realize I was lonely in this new community in where I was not known. When my sermon was discussed in class our professor highlighted how well my illustration fit the text. However, he also noted that I could never use it in an actual sermon noting that if a female minister ever admits loneliness to her congregation she will have more unwanted attention from parishioners than she can handle.

Despite the risk of vulnerability Dresher-Lehman and Nelson use personal stories in their preaching. “I think there are certainly some men who tell personal stories in their preaching”, notes Drescher-Lehman, “but overall, women have an easier time doing that because we are more vulnerable and open with our girlfriends and thus know the power of our stories for each other’s healing.” She believes women in the congregation “like hearing the Word preached from something closer to how they experience words and stories and life.”

Nelson clearly articulates her reason for often using personal stories: “I have found three interlocking stories to be the stuff of sermons: God’s story (the scripture), our story (the congregation’s), and my story. When the personal story is left out, I wonder where the preacher, himself or herself, ‘is’ in the story and what impact this story has had on him or her.”

One of my own biases is that if we truly believe in the priesthood of all believers, one of the priestly roles that must be shared is preaching. The sermon ought to be more of a cooperative conversation than a monologue. Ambler Mennonite pastor Sharon Wyse Miller said, “I see my sermons as part of a conversation and am delighted if I receive comments or questions. This happens so seldom, however. If we had Sunday School after worship I’d suggest a sermon discussion class.”

Nelson encourages responses during the sermon, “I raise a lot of questions in my preaching, and sometimes I stop and let them give answers. This always is fascinating but it often then makes me wonder why I need to continue the sermon. They have such good thoughts!”

Most of these women find they use scripture differently than the way it was used in the sermons they heard from men. Miller said, “I pray with scriptures, live into the scriptures, and encourage my listeners to do the same.”

Nelson expressed the difference as “reading scripture for formation rather than information.” She has also found that, “Women notice different stories in scripture and interpret them differently. They see the women in scripture more clearly and with more interest. They are less likely to have a woman-as-temptress reading of the Bible.”

One clear difference is the way women embody the pastoral role. One pastor said she longs for the day when people will notice what she says rather than the difference in her voice when they no longer see her more as a woman than as a preacher. Yet there is a positive side to being seen as a woman.

Each of these women pastors said she was aware of mentoring young girls and other women in the congregation simply by being a woman in the pastoral role. Nelson said, “One time a young woman in our congregation went up in the pulpit after our service was over sort of like she was trying it out. I notice that all ages of women are stepping up into more leadership roles since I came. Not just preaching but also leading various other ministries, starting new ministries, and chairing groups.”

“Showing [young women] that they can at least be open to God’s possible calling was one of my main reasons for coming to Souderton, and one of the things that keeps me here,” said DrescherLehman. “There’s no other way to show them that women’s gifts are as important as men’s and can be used as freely. I don’t think they can just be told, expected to believe it, and be free to hear God.”

Gwen Groff is pastor of Bethany Mennonite Church in Bridgewater Corners, Vermont. She and her husband, Robert, are parents of two young children.