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The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities

Kate Bowler
Published by Princeton University Press in 2019

Reviewed by Timothy Larsen, Biblical and Theological Studies, Wheaton College

To quote Tammy Wynette, “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.” It is especially difficult if the man to whom you are giving all your loving is a megachurch pastor, and even more so if you are pursuing a high-profile evangelical ministry without the help of a well-resourced congregation led by your husband. The path for the men is well marked and straightforward. You begin by going to seminary. After earning a degree from Southern Baptist, Dallas Theological, Trinity Evangelical, or the like, you can be hired immediately by a well-established congregation and soon be in full control. The rise from there might culminate in megachurch stardom.

During the course of her research, Kate Bowler identified in the United States 1,551 megachurches (defined as a congregation which has over 2,000 regular attendees). Of these, only 0.84% were led by a woman. Then there is the precariousness mentioned in the subtitle. Having initially identified 14 women leading megachurches, Bowler found that, by the time she went to write up her research, half of them had already lost their positions. (She lists them in an appendix with their names struck through.) Moreover, this point has been made for her even more forcefully since she submitted her manuscript. The Preacher’s Wife concludes with an upbeat anecdote about Amy Butler, the first female senior pastor of historic Riverside Church in Manhattan. Butler, however, parted ways with Riverside in July 2019. (I wrote this review on the basis of an advance copy; Bowler’s already paltry list had become yet smaller even before the book had made it into print.) This precariousness seems to have sunk down deep into Bowler’s own consciousness; even in the case of women whose ministries are still going strong, she writes about them in the past tense: “Joyce [Meyer] was one of the world’s most famous pentecostals,” and so on (46).

Yet when God closes a church door, he sometimes opens a media window. As I was reading this book, I kept thinking about the extraordinary contribution to art that was made during the Dutch Golden Age. Hitherto the market for paintings had been dominated by church patronage and therefore artists spent their lives making altarpieces and the like. Calvinism, however, discouraged traditional imagery in churches. Forced out of consecrated space, Dutch artists made the world their parish, pioneering breathtaking developments in landscapes, seascapes, still lifes, and more.

Beth Moore is the Rembrandt of evangelical ministry. As women are not allowed to lead a congregation in her denomination (the Southern Baptist Convention), Moore has had to “settle” for being one of the most famous Baptists in ministry, developing numerous other highly successful channels for her gifts. One might even hazard a guess that her ministry reaches more people than all but 0.84% of male Southern Baptist pastors.

Such stories recur throughout The Preacher’s Wife, which has as its theme the way that women in ministry have learned to navigate the twin forces of “complementarianism and capitalism” (37). It is difficult to think of a church that is more known for reserving its ordained ministry positions exclusively for men than the Roman Catholic one, yet the nun Mother Angelica—entirely through her own resourcefulness—found a way to teach the Christian faith on television and ended up being the most famous Catholic in ministry in America. No matter what part of the country they lived in, more people were influenced by her ministry than that of their own diocesan bishop. Today the organization that she founded, the Eternal World Television Network, is the largest religious media network on the planet. Moreover, if it is the special ministry of Catholic priests to make God present through consecrating the Eucharist, in evangelical contexts today the role of evoking God’s tangible presence has often become women’s work, as they lead congregations in worship (Darlene Zschech at Hillsong being a prominent example).

As the mention of Mother Angelica indicates, Bowler sometimes discusses women outside the evangelical movement by way of comparison and contrast. In a fascinatingly counterintuitive finding, she documents the dearth of women with high-profile ministries in mainline churches. Despite being in denominations that officially do not have a stained-glass ceiling, these ordained women somehow get shunted off into sparsely populated congregations and never heard from again. Provocatively, Bowler even argues that the mainline women whose ministries are most successful are often ones who began in theologically conservative contexts and thereby learned how to be effective in the mass ministry world of evangelicalism. One mainliner without an evangelical ascent is Barbara Brown Taylor. That she is not a perfect analogue to the evangelical women is made clear by Bowler’s handle for her: “The Reluctant Celebrity.” Bowler’s own definition of a celebrity includes “the act of continually seeking and nurturing an image” (13), making a reluctant celebrity something of a contradiction in her scheme.

Kate Bowler is one of the best historians of American evangelicalism working today, and one of the many strengths of The Preacher’s Wife is how effectively it sets today’s ministries in historical contexts. She probes, for example, the shift in the second half of the twentieth century from congregations having a women’s missionary auxiliary to having a women’s ministry. As Bowler insightfully observes, Elisabeth Elliott tacked with the times in her own ministry: starting out as a jungle missionary and then reinventing herself as a voice for femininity and domesticity. In one of the most paradoxical ways that a closed door could lead to an open window, a whole cohort of women made prominent careers out of opposing women having prominent careers (Phyllis Schlafly, Beverly LaHaye, and so on). In another example of useful historical context, Bowler reminds us that women today whose ministries are focused on attending to women’s pain and sorrow are in a lineage from the “agony aunts” and female advice columnists of previous generations. (This book often helpfully toggles between women today like Paula White and figures from the past such as Kathryn Kuhlman.)

The Preacher’s Wife speaks poignantly and empathetically about the toll that being an evangelical celebrity takes on these women. Part of it is indeed a result of the precariousness of their position. A woman might make it all the way to a place where a congregation is willing to call her their “co-pastor.” When, however, her husband gets fired for cheating on and then abandoning her, she suddenly finds that she too is no longer any kind of pastor. “Co-pastor,” it turns out, still really just meant “the preacher’s wife.” On the other hand, when conservative denominations decided to prohibit the use of the term co-pastor, some women ingeniously took up “co-founder” instead—a title which no Bible-boundary enforcer has been able to rule out of court. (Even Kay Warren’s official biographical sketch mentions first her identity as a co-founder, Saddleback’s affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention notwithstanding.)

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching part of this book is devoted to “the industry of disclosure” (192). High-profile evangelical women in ministry need to establish their credibility by recounting their life story. They are credentialed by what they have endured. Cruelly, some of these women end up spending almost every event reliving before a live audience the most painful thing that has ever happened to them. Yet worse, they even start to half-hope for a new trial or tragedy to come their way, so desperately do they feel the need for fresh material with which to satisfy the relentless expectation for a public performance of vulnerability, authenticity, and brokenness.

Bowler is a strong writer whose prose is marbled with sharply observed details. Mainline Protestant publishers refuse to use the color pink to market to women. What do they prefer instead? Oxblood. Here is Bowler on how megachurch pastors appeared on their church’s website: “The men’s profile pictures looked like Christmas cards, perhaps a sea of matching denim as a family perches on a hay bale or staggered up a grand staircase, dressed in red and white, grinning children tilting their faces toward the camera” (112-113). On the other hand, she has been embedded as a participant-observer scholar in this world for so long that one suspects she has become desensitized in some ways. Thus we get references without so much as a raised eyebrow to “the fashion editor of Virtue magazine” and “Victoria Osteen’s Fall Fashion Extravaganza” (216, 224).

If I could have asked Bowler for more, I would have been glad if she had pondered the extent to which some of this material reflects evangelical history more generally. She quotes Susan B. Anthony as saying, “Take the world for your Pastoral Charge” (56), without observing that Anthony was echoing John Wesley. Indeed, Wesley too was “locked out” of his denomination’s churches. He began to speak in the open air and reached many more people than he would have done in a parish church—just like these women who, barred from the pulpit, took to television. Evangelicalism has always been entrepreneurial and populist, rewarding plucky disrupters even when they lacked formal credentials. And, as Kate Bowler so brilliantly shows, a cohort of formidable women have learned how to best men at this game.

Cite this article
Timothy Larsen, “The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:2 , 209-211

Timothy Larsen

Wheaton College
Timothy Larsen, Ph.D, is Carolyn and Fred McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College.