“When are you going to write a book?”
I get this question every once in awhile. That’s the model we all expect, right? A young, idealistic, Evangelical woman starts a blog, publishes a few articles, finds a few friends in the process…then next stop, her very own book!
Everyone who asks me means well. They are telling me they like my words and they acknowledge my eagerness to write them. But not many of my friends really understand the state of Christian publishing right now. In short: there are a LOT of books being written every year by Christian women. There are even more women who WANT to write a book or have a book they want published or have a group of friends around them who believes they should be writing a book. Not every one of us needs to write a book.
“You are going places! God is going to use you in BIG ways!”
I see the hopeful look in the eyes of my little troop of friends and fans. They aren’t many, but they do support me well. In their enthusiasm to support and encourage me, I find many of my friends assume that the next step is a national platform.
The problem is, we don’t really have a category for a profoundly local woman who teaches. I’m not talking about women preaching from the pulpit. I’m talking about local women teaching one another in Bible studies and weekend conferences. Too often, we’ve grown accustomed to importing teachers via DVD or paying book authors to travel to our women’s conference and speak for us.
While there may be a place for such women who travel or publish and have made this their career, I have been beginning to long for something much simpler: a way to grow into teaching locally.
What would have to change in our churches to allow women with teaching gifts to flourish in their local community? First, we would have to be on the lookout for women with teaching gifts. As Jen Wilkin describes, we’d look for women who show up to Bible study overprepared and eager to share. Women who study and read and demonstrate faithfulness. We’d have to imagine ways they could use their gifts in leadership and teaching, and invite them to do so!
I’m grateful for my home church in Platteville that hosted a Women’s Conference for years and encouraged local women to host the workshop portions between the keynote speaker’s address. They usually paid a keynote speaker, but the breakout sessions were all hosted by eager volunteers who shared their research on topics they enjoyed. I got to really hone my teaching skills in these small rooms. I loved researching for my talks and preparing them, I loved interacting with women who were interested in the same topics. I think (I hope!) I got better at crafting my messages each year. Eventually, I was honored to be invited to give the keynote addresses. This was a tremendous honor and remains a personal highlight for me.
Second, we would have to support her. Unless we can pay her, it would be hard to expect a woman to take on a full time weekly hour-long teaching gig. She probably won’t be as funny or glamorous as the woman on the DVD study. She might still be very much “in progress” as a teacher and speaker. We would have to offer her tokens of our appreciation and gestures of encouragement to let her know that we want to see her succeed as a teacher.
I get emotional when I think of all the ways I’ve been supported. I have friends who have offered to watch my kids so I can write. My mother and husband have both created space for me to write and read and prepare. I have received letters of appreciation that I still keep tucked in my Bible. I have been pulled aside by women who want to encourage me and continue to engage with the ideas I’ve shared. I’ve been prayed for. Once I had someone send me an anonymous $20 for my coffee shop budget. All of these gestures help banish the insecurity that comes with putting myself forward.
When you want so passionately to do something and to do it well, it doesn’t really take much to nudge you in that direction. All I needed was an invitation. A little appreciation goes a long way.
Third, we need to imagine a place for her. At first I was a little let down by the false hope of the internet. It seemed women no more qualified than I were scooping up book deals right and left. It seemed women who started behind me had hustled their way into better opportunities, writing for larger outlets and gaining bigger followings.
My biggest frustration has been the way women talk about their success. They all seemed to have a similar storyline: I just started writing, suddenly everyone loved my writing, and then I got a book deal! I couldn’t figure out how you went from having a blog only your mom read to having a book deal? I still don’t know that answer.
What I do know is that my frustration turned me toward an alternative vision of success. I call it being a “village poet” until I find a better term. Rather than building a “platform” (which is a term for having a lot of online followers), I turned my focus toward teaching locally.
I write a few blog posts a year. I review books and pass them along to people I know will appreciate them. I speak probably one or two times a year at women’s events. I just started leading a Bible study in my home with a small handful of women.
Which is how I ended up teaching at a women’s conference last weekend where I heard all those words of encouragement I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I love that the women I taught this past weekend really appreciated the way I turned their eyes to the gospel. But I know that basically all I am is the person in the room who is eager to read the most books and willing to share all she’s learned. I’m not afraid of public speaking. I like writing and organizing my ideas.
If you look around the country, I suspect you’ll find lots of women like me. We probably have a book idea, just in case we get tapped on the shoulder, but would our book really rise above the flood of books published each year? Not likely. We might even have good hair or a sense of humor or a clever way with words (this seems to be the triple threat for Evangelical women bloggers). But do we need to travel the country or speak on the main stage at our favorite conferences? Probably not.
I love that my friends want to read my book. I love the women who tell me I’m going places. I love that they envision God doing “big things” through me. But I’m learning to respond that “I already am.”
People say this to my husband, too. He’s a good preacher of sound doctrine and people assume that the next stop is a wildly growing church and national fame. We forget that God does not count greatness the way we count greatness. God is already doing great things. Not impressive things. Not extraordinary things. Small, slow, local things. We are ministering in a way that allows us to live at a very human pace in the confines of a rather small space. We are plodding along like ants, our greatest achievements invisible to almost everyone else.
What concerns me is that there is a whole generation of Christian women who are increasingly being discipled not by their neighbors or ladies who attend their own church, but by published authors and polished speakers. I know we are creatures designed by God to imitate those whom we spend time admiring or who teach us, and I’m afraid this means a whole generation of Christian women believe that God is calling them to catapult right over the needs of their neighbors into a public ministry. They believe the sign of true maturity is a successful online platform that leads to increased opportunities in publishing and speaking. I know they think this because I am one of them.
I have had to alter many of my expectations and accept correction on many of my assumptions to begin to imagine a space for myself to minister at a local level. One of the first things I had to let go of was the idea that I would get to specialize in doing only that which I was best at. Instead, I was going to have to embrace doing a lot of my second-bests. Ministering locally means I don’t get to master one trade or narrow my calling. It means I have to responsive to the needs of community. Sometimes that means I have to cook (ugh!) rather than type.
I also had to let go of the image of myself as the “ceremonious visitor” (a term Zack Eswine uses in Sensing Jesus) who appears as if from on high with wisdom to dispense and leaves before the audience discovers he or she is a human being with struggles and blind spots and a history of forgetfulness or gossip or jealousy or anger. I had to learn that if I wanted to use my gift with words, it was going to have to be in front of people who could see through me if I tried to project an image that was false. It was also going to be in front of people who loved me for more than just my words.
When I walked up to the podium to speak this past weekend, my last thoughts before I opened my mouth went something like this:
I know these women. There are probably women here who already KNOW in their bones more about finding rest in the gospel than I do and have already lived it out more than I have. I’m teaching what I’ve just learned but these women might be leagues ahead of me.
I know these women. I know their lives are more complicated than mine in many ways. They are asking hard questions about their adult children and widowhood and struggles that have gone on longer than I’ve been alive. I’m not sure my words about finding rest are adequate.
I know these women. I know they invited me because they loved it the last time I spoke and they are anticipating hearing about God’s grace from me. They are predisposed to love me, to welcome my words.
I suddenly realize in a flood that my words are inadequate but they will be received with love. It is humbling work and it is meaningful and it is hope-filled. In my experience, this is how God’s grace moves between people and it is a great thing to be a part of.