A Feature Review of
The Preacher’s Wife:
The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities
Reviewed by Bob Cornwall
*** This review originally appeared
on the reviewer’s website.
It is reprinted here with permission.
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Just a word of warning, the title might be a bit misleading. This isn’t a manual for preacher’s wives, just in case you were wondering. The subtitle and the fact that it is published by a university press should be sufficient evidence of that fact.
I approached this book from a certain vantage point. Besides being a preacher who has a wife, my view of this topic begins as a child who grew up in the Episcopal Church before it ordained women. There were pastor’s wives, but no pastors who might be wives. I moved from the Episcopal church as a teen near the time that it first began ordaining women into a church affiliated with a denomination founded by a woman (Aimee Semple McPherson), but which had ambivalence about women in leadership (a lot of talk about the submission of women to their husbands). Over time I ended up in a denomination—the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—that has elected two women as its General Minister. Having spent time among evangelicals my eye was also caught by the book’s subtitle: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities. What might this mean?
Before I get to the book’s contents, I should take note of the author. Kate Bowler is an associate professor of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School. She might be best known for her book Everything Happens for a Reason: And other Lies I’ve Loved, which tells the story of her bout with Stage IV cancer. I confess that I’ve not read that book, but it might be a good entry point into Bowler’s writings. As for me, I began with The Preacher’s Wife, which I found to be fascinating and informative.
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In evangelical circles, women face the challenge of navigating barriers that most women in Mainline circles don’t have to deal with (at least not in the same way). That said, many evangelical women have found ways of exercising influence even though their power might be circumscribed. It’s not an easy life, and it’s easy to criticize from outside. Fortunately, Kate Bowler writes about this topic with a great deal of empathy. A historian, she has a good sense of context, but more importantly, she spends time getting to know many of the persons she features in the book, helping us understand their realities. It’s not always pretty. She also writes from a bit of experience growing up in conservative Mennonite circles where women were taught to submit to male leadership. Added into this work is her own experience of becoming a woman celebrity after the publication of her memoir about her cancer. So she writes: “Celebrity Christian women must live in the ambiguity of competing claims on their lives.” There is the spiritual need to transcend worldly concerns while being “products of institutional and cultural expectations with long-standing customs and prescriptions as well as a marketplace propelled by an exacting pragmatism that presses them toward results-driven metrics and messages.” (xii-xiii).
The title of the book reminds us that in many evangelical circles the pinnacle of power for women likely involves being the wife of the senior pastor. Sometimes she might have a very visible platform—consider Victoria Osteen—or she may be in the background, perhaps serving as producer of the show. Often, she will be the leader of the women’s ministry of the church. In other words, very few women make it to the top on their own.
The focus of the book is on women who are involved in mega-ministries, primarily megachurches (churches over 2000 in membership). The roles women play in these ministries differ from tradition to tradition. So, in Southern Baptist life women are not allowed to serve as pastors, while in prosperity churches, they may have a form of ordination and tend to have a prominent role standing by with their husband as co-pastor (though still focused on women’s ministry). There are a few women who venture out beyond the congregation, but many like Beth Moore speak predominantly to women audiences (Beth Moore has been in the news later because John McArthur told her to go home). Ironically Moore is probably the best known Southern Baptist bible teacher, but she can’t be ordained! So, what we have here, as Bowler notes is an “exploration of the public lives of America’s Christian female celebrities.” (5).
One thing that Bowler brings out is that while evangelical women have circumscribed roles, they have done a better job of marketing themselves. Besides Barbara Brown Taylor, who Bowler notes, has shied away from public life, there are few Mainliners who one could say are celebrities. That is, there are few Mainline Protestant Women who fill arenas like Beth Moore or Joyce Meyer. So, here is their story laid out for all to see.
The chapters being with “The Preacher.” The opening lines introduce us to Beth Moore, the biggest name among evangelicals—at least among women. We encounter Joyce Meyer, a prosperity preacher who draws huge audiences and sells tons of books. This leads to the question, what is the proper role for women in ministry? What kinds of institutional power are allowed? This chapter explores the question of women in leadership, including ordination. She notes that women have been elected to leadership as heads of Protestant mainline churches (Sharon Watkins was the first in 2005). Nevertheless, few mainliners have made it in the marketplace (Nadia Bolz Weber is one of the few).
This conversation leads to the role of women as “homemaker.” In this chapter, we are introduced to women who have found a platform to affirm the traditional role. This is the dutiful wife who stands by her husband’s side. In this chapter, we read of Dorothy Patterson, wife of Paige Patterson, who has a Ph.D. in theology, but who has used her influence in SBC circles to reinforce the image of homemaker, going so far as to wear hats as a sign of her submission to her husband. This chapter explores the reaction to feminism in western culture, how traditional roles were reinforced and how women like Phyllis Schafly and Beverly LaHaye led the effort to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. At the same time, in evangelical circles, we see the rise of “women’s ministry,” which emerged as women’s mission societies disappeared. Whereas women once organized to evangelize the world, new ministries emerged that were focused on the home, on domesticity. It is here that the role of co-pastor often arises. In some circles, the preacher’s wife was given the title co-pastor with the responsibility of organizing the women’s ministries. Her role was in a sense sanctified by her husband’s leadership (some circles call this “covering.”)
Chapter three focuses on “The Talent.” This is where celebrity really comes into play. We encounter people like Tammy Faye Baker and Jan Crouch, who play significant roles in the TV empires that they founded with their husbands. These women moved from being behind the scenes to the mainstage. It’s a generational thing in many ways. Besides these TV personalities, we are introduced to gospel stars, such as Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin, along with CeCe Winans and my many more, who were known for their music. While the earliest stars were African American women, later the “pop princesses” emerged, women like Amy Grant (whose own story of rise and fall is intriguing) and Rebecca St. James. These women were talented and beautiful (beauty is a key element in this story). Music and stardom and sometimes beauty created avenues for women to break through to the main stage.
I found Chapter four— “The Counselor” —to be rather fascinating. Bowler notes that there is a strong appetite among evangelical women for stories of vulnerability. Women speakers, most without any credentials, tell their stories of emerging out of bad situations, often abuse or addiction, which serves as encouragement to women who may suffer from similar situations. It’s not the credentials that matter, it’s the story. Bowler writes “by the 1990s, the most famous Christian women in ministry were famous not for what they had accomplished, but for what they had endured” (p. 155). They gather crowds and sell books, but at what cost? This is a rather sad chapter, but an important one. Self-disclosure has its role, but when does it go too far?
I mentioned beauty a bit earlier, and it is an important feature of the story. Focus is placed in many circles on physical attractiveness. Thus, women must navigate difficult pathways, where they combine modesty (no cleavage or short skirts) with attractiveness. This chapter reminded me of my high school days when in our church the young women were being taught how to use makeup to beautify themselves while at the same time not causing us guys to stumble. It’s a difficult road to walk. Concern for weight is also part of this story, for Christian women are told to be “slim for him.” In other words, if your man wanders, you are at fault because you let yourself go. Thus, it’s not surprising that among the women celebrities were the winners of beauty pageants, including Miss America. In these circles it is difficult to be single because the question will be raised: why can’t you get a man? You must also stay “forever young,” which is a difficult thing to maintain for all of us!
Women have found ways of being present and even “succeeding” but is it sustainable? Men continue to dominate, and women have few opportunities to move beyond standing her by her man. Some have risen to the top, but as Amy Butler discovered, even in the most progressive of churches, it can be difficult to be a woman in leadership. She resigned before the book went to press, but Bowler concludes the book with the story of Butler putting on Harry Emerson Fosdick’s robes and declaring that they fit. Unfortunately, they may not have fit as perfectly as she had thought. So, even in progressive circles women struggle to find their way. As a Boomer male pastor, I take that to heart as I watch younger women enter the ranks of the clergy.
I found the book intriguing. In part that is due to my fascination with the story of Aimee Semple McPherson, who pioneered celebrity in the 1920s and used it to found a denomination. Because of my background in circles like the ones described, I know many of these stories, or at least their foundations. Then, there is my role as a male pastor: what is my responsibility to encourage women to break through the glass ceiling?
Overall, I loved The Preacher’s Wife, though I found parts of the story to be sad and disturbing. But then that should be expected from a book like this. Bowler writes well—after all she wrote a best-selling memoir. Although this is an academic book, it is also is accessible to most readers. There are a few points I might quibble with. One has to do with the classification of Cynthia Hale. She is listed here as pastor of a “pentecostalized historic black church” rather than as a mainline pastor. I understand that she may have a charismatic bent, but she is an ordained Disciples of Christ pastor and her church is one of the largest in my denomination. So, I wondered about that. In her timeline in one of the appendixes, she lists important points along the way for women in ministry but neglects to list Sharon Watkins’s election in 2005 as General Minister of the Disciples, the first woman to lead a mainline Protestant denomination. This oversight may be linked to the smallness of my denomination, which may explain the classification of Cynthia Hale. These are small things, but for me they are important. Nevertheless, this is a most worthy book to be explored. Part of its success is Bowler’s ability to write critically when necessary, but also with empathy for the women who populate this story.
Robert D. Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, MI, and editor of Sharing the Practice (Academy of Parish Clergy). He blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com