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Courage in the Ring

What was I afraid of as I planned to preach my first sermon?

Published on:
January 27, 2020
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4 min.
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It took me a year to say yes. And when that week arrived, I was afraid. 

Will a lightning bolt come through the roof of the church and strike me down for doing this? 

Walking up to the pulpit on a Thursday afternoon, in the heat of a southern Arizona October, each step felt surreal. “I’m just practicing,” I said to myself. The light was pouring through the stained glass windows, blinding me as I figured out where I would set my Bible and my notes on the pulpit. A pulpit that was definitely built for someone taller than five-foot-three inches. 

I began to pray, walking out to the middle of the platform. That felt less scary than being behind the pulpit. I actually looked up, waiting for that lighting bolt.

Lord, I am thirty-five years old and I was raised thinking that women can't stand up here. What are you doing to me?

It took me a year to say yes. And when that week arrived, I was afraid.

There is an old Chinese proverb that says the one who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones. At the time I began my journey away from the belief that, as a woman, I could not and should not preach, I didn’t see it as a mountain. It felt more like a small stone and I had no intention of moving any mountain. I just wanted to know more.

It also never felt like a mountain because it never occurred to me that, on the other side, it would be me standing behind a pulpit.

Where Is It Written?

My education in seminary always drove me to the word of God. As my current denomination encourages us to ask, “Where is it written?” Beyond simply what is written is the understanding that, though, the Bible wasn’t written to me, it was written for me. I worked to wrap my mind around cultural and historical contexts, and it was unraveling for me as I studied at one of the most conservative seminaries in the United States. “Context is king!” one professor would proclaim. It drove me deeper into my research tendencies, especially when working to understand a text that puzzled me.

My education in seminary always drove me to the word of God. As my current denomination encourages us to ask, “Where is it written?”

But until I understood that context is king, verses like 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34 weren’t puzzling to me.

As a little girl, I grew up living across the road from a little country church. The doors were always open, so it was my playground. I would run through the halls, investigate each classroom, check out the Narnia series from the library about every three months, and sometimes even stand behind a pulpit and pray prayers. But I was just playing.

Because on Sunday I knew that was where the men stood. Leading the songs, saying the prayers, preaching from the Word. Never once do I recall seeing a woman stand up there for any reason, even to give an announcement or read a scripture passage. The message was clear: the pulpit was a place for men. Honestly, It never bothered me.

The message was clear: the pulpit was a place for men.

Then one day, as an adult, it did. I walked into my questions with the full weight of my seminary training. “Where is it written?” “Context is king!” I have a bookshelf filled with two rows of books about the issue. Well over a dozen books on both sides of the subject where each author would argue what they believed to be true. I spent years pouring over the research, weighing the merit of each argument. People talk about wrestling with scripture, but I had those two verses in a full-on chokehold. I was determined to pin them down, throw them against the ropes and wail on them until the ref called the winner.

Step into the Ring

Then the senior pastor explained he wanted to include me in the sermon series process, not just have me fill in because he was on vacation. He believed that both of our perspectives were needed. I kept dodging his question, so he kept asking. Something compelled me to finally say, “Yes, I’ll do it.” I wish I could say that whatever that was didn’t have any element of self in it. But if I’m honest, I’m not sure. I was always willing to try hard and try different things as a kid and I carried it with me to adulthood. 

I kept dodging his question, so he kept asking. Something compelled me to finally say, “Yes, I’ll do it.”

I wrote in my seminary thesis that courage is not the absence of fear, but the determination and judgment that something else was more important than the fear itself. What was I afraid of as I planned to preach my first sermon?

It wasn’t the lightening bolt. It was my fear of dishonoring God. Which is no small thing.

What was more important than my fear? Was God really calling me to preach his word? What would honor him the most?

My years of research had sunk into the depth of my mind, but they had not touched my soul. My soul had been in the ring for a while—I think it joined somewhere around year two in my research. But it cowered in the corner most days and, when it did enter the ring, it wouldn’t take long for it to get beat up and have to go back to the cutman for a patch-up.

When I would sit with the cutman, I found myself staring into his eyes as he loomed over me to stitch me back up, pleading pleading for him to make it clear to me what he was doing in calling me to be in ministry. As a woman. As a leader. As a…pastor.

What was more important than my fear?

I still can’t say it without trepidation. But I need to tremble with the word because it’s such a responsibility. 

Many assume that women go into the ministry lightly—with some agenda to change the church into a liberal, man-hating, twisting-scripture-to-say-what-I-want kind of place. That isn’t me. My highest calling is to be his disciple and that meant setting aside my fear and obeying. I didn’t want to screw it up. Sometimes, that meant I had to enter the ring.

I’ve never been a fan of wrestling or boxing. Wrestling is so over-the-top that I can’t take it seriously. I can’t even watch Rocky without getting squeamish. 

But I am living inside that ring in my own life; it’s not something I can turn my eyes from. Trusting in God’s call on my life, though it was the last call I expected him to make for me, meant I had to be brave enough to fight for it. I was required to be in the ring.

Stephanie Nelson
Stephanie Nelson is speaker, writer, Kate Spade bag addict, and coffee snob currently serving as the Pastor of Children and Family Ministries at Alert Evangelical Covenant Church. She is a graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary, and recently relocated to the gorgeous Flint Hills of Kansas. Learn more about her at stephaniejnelson.com or connect with her on Twitter.

Cover image by Arisa Chattasa

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