I had never viewed myself as a trailblazer or a pioneer for change until I met an African American woman at my school. When I shared my name and the name of the church where my husband had pastored, her eyes widened and she said with exuberance, “You are Joycelyn! Oh my I can’t believe that I am standing here talking with you.” She hugged me. “I have heard about you and how you publicly acknowledged your call, left your denomination, and came to seminary. I cannot believe you are standing in front of me.” She then began to tell me about how she felt God was calling her and my impression was that acknowledging my call had somehow inspired or affirmed her calling.
Little did she know my decision to acknowledge my call had come with great struggle. A woman called into the preaching ministry in my faith tradition (Baptist) is not acceptable. I had lived in the cage of struggling with publicly acknowledging my call for fourteen years. It had been a long journey that almost cost me my marriage, my faith, my sanity and my life.
I first became aware of my calling in 1999 when I woke up after having a dream with John 7:1-23 written on the windshield of an orange 1978 Gran Torino car. I was baffled by this; my husband viewed it as no big deal, but I did have a close friend of ours who was a preacher who was willing to actually listen to my experience and suggested that I also pay attention to the fact that verse 24 was not written on the windshield. But he did warn me about sharing what I was experiencing with our pastor, so I refrained from talking with him about it.
A year or so later, I was sitting in a Bible study in which the pastor stated that the word “speak” in 1 Corinthians 14:34 meant “to evangelize” in the Greek. He used 1 Corinthians 14:34 as scripture validation that a woman was forbidden to preach. Being a lover of God’s Word, I had my Hebrew/Greek Study Bible in my hands, and based on my Bible the word speak in the Greek simply meant to “tell.” The pastor was wrong. So I prayed, “Lord, would you reveal the truth to me about women preachers?” Shortly after I prayed that prayer, I began having more dreams with Scripture. I attended a women’s conference where there were African American women preachers and pastors! More than 1000! It was as though another world existed, but had been kept hidden from me and others. God had answered my question. Women could preach and women could pastor.
It seemed that after my question was answered, I was met with opposition in the church I attended. I didn’t share what I had discovered with a lot of people, but perhaps my pastor had found out what I had come to believe. My ideas were no longer acceptable. I was denied the position of Youth Director. It seemed that I had come against the glass ceiling in the church. It felt like I had been placed in a box, limiting my activity and influence in the church. My pastor even told me that I would no longer be allowed to teach Sunday School because I believed that women could preach. I had very few opportunities to exercise any of my gifts related to teaching or speaking in the church. However, I was receiving numerous speaking opportunities outside of my home church. I was preaching and speaking at churches outside of my denomination, at college Sunday morning worship services. And during that time I didn’t even know that I was called, but because I had been given several opportunities to speak on Saturdays and preach on Sunday mornings I thought I should ask the Lord, “Are you calling me to preach?” I was given a dream to read Ezekiel chapter 2-3, and after reading it, I still didn’t have clarity. So I asked the Lord to make it clear. And he led me to Ezekiel 1:1. In the New Living Translation, the book begins with, “On July 31….” God now had my attention. You see, July 31 is my birthday. I took this to be a confirmation of his special calling on my life. I finally owned my call.
In my faith tradition, a person accepting a call from God stands publicly and declares this to the congregation. A man may do this at any time. I finally had the confidence to make the decision to do this public act. Unfortunately, I was met with opposition. The first hurdle I discovered was that our pastor would not allow women to acknowledge their call to preach until they spoke to him. He would “help” the woman find a church where she could use her gift of preaching, and usually it was a local Methodist or African Methodist Episcopal church. The woman was then required to leave quietly without any formal goodbyes so as not to bring attention to her call. Leave my church? Leave my denomination? I was not willing to do that. So, I once again became silent about my call.
Shortly thereafter, my husband was called to pastor a church and I thought this would be my doorway to publicly acknowledge my call. But, he did not feel they would approve and therefore chose not to support me. This created tension in our marriage, because my husband was grappling with his own theological view regarding women’s call into ministry. Occasionally, I brought up the issue again, asking if I could acknowledge my call publicly, but he would say, “They are not ready.” This went on for seven years. So I stayed silent about my call.
Remaining silent was like running out of air. I became resentful, angry, critical, depressed and frustrated. I doubted my faith. I doubted God. I doubted God’s Word. Going to church was grueling. I no longer enjoyed life. For eight years I begged God to either clarify my calling or to release me from it. He clarified with an invitation to travel and minister in Venezuela, with speaking and preaching engagements outside of my church denomination, and with ministering to women in prison.
In December 2011, after reading the story of Jonah, I asked my husband if I could acknowledge my call publicly to an audience of One—God. It was not for the purpose of getting the congregation’s approval but for the purpose saying yes a public yes to God. My husband finally agreed. The first Sunday in January, 2012, I stood and before the congregation and publicly acknowledged my call. I didn’t hear the glass ceiling break. I didn’t even hear it crack. When I said “Yes” before an audience of One, I heard the sound of keys opening the cage I had been in for fourteen years. I felt the fresh air blowing in my face. I could breathe. I could fly. I was free.
You may understand, now, how when the young woman approached me with her experience of being inspired by the public acknowledgement of my call and my attending seminary, I was amazed. In my heart, my “Yes” was for God’s ears alone. However, another woman who will feel the coldness of that glass ceiling may hear my “Yes,” and perhaps, it will inspire her to say “Yes,” too.