You Know ‘Women Can’t Be Preachers!’

by Zelma Mullins Pattillo

Ms. Pattillo contributes a Personal Perspective, is a seminar leader of supervised ministry studies at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 30, 1084, p. 566. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In Christ there is neither male nor female. Therefore, we — both male and female — can serve in any ministry to which God calls us.

I received a negative response the first time I verbalized my call to ministry. Although it was 30 years ago, the memory is still vivid. I was 15 years old. One day, helping my mother put a clean bedspread on the bed, tucking the pillows into place, I looked across at her and said, “Mom, I am going to be a preacher.” She was obviously startled. She came back with, “You know women can’t be preachers!”

I didn’t know what to do with the feeling inside. I was a new Christian. Through the pages of the New Testament and in my experiences, God was calling me to some kind of ministry, to give my life in loving the world for which He had died. The only image I had of serving God was that of a preacher. In those mountains of southwest Virginia, the preacher worked in the coal mines during the week and preached on Sundays or held revivals in the evenings. I had never heard of a minister of education, campus minister or chaplain.

In the past 30 years I have tried to better understand that calling and to live it out in the world. It has been a difficult journey, but a rewarding one. There have been many disappointments that have tempted me to give up the struggle. I have served in many part-time or interim positions at low pay. Just having a job was sometimes a high point; at times I had to hang on with no hope of a job at all.

During one of those long nights of the soul, a friend said to me, “You need a place.” I drove away from her home that day thinking how great it would be to have “a place.” But then I realized that I had no promise of that place in the sense of having a position, a title or a fair salary. Freedom and peace came to me when I realized that my place was in the calling itself -- a call that mandates pilgrimage. As I look at history, I see that I am in pretty good company: Abraham was asked to leave his place and go on a pilgrimage; the Son of Man had “no place” to lay his head.

At least three times in the past ten years, I have thought that a more permanent place of ministry was working out -- but it never did. I once said to a friend, “At the rate I’m going, at my retirement dinner I’ll be saying. Thanks for the best two years of my life.”’ The friend replied, “That would be funny if it weren’t so sad.”

Let me tell you why I haven’t given up. First of all, I love being in the ministry. The joy and fulfillment I have experienced have come in doing what I would have paid to do. I identify with the little boy who was learning to mow lawns. He could hardly wait for the grass to come up that spring; it was to be his first time to cut it all by himself. He made his own lawn look wonderful, then looked across the fence at the tall grass there. The neighbor noticed the little boy’s yearning eyes. He walked to the fence and said, “Would you like to mow my lawn?”

“Oh, yes!’’ said the boy. “How about three dollars?” the man asked. The boy turned and walked away with his head down. The man was puzzled: “What’s wrong?” he said. The little boy replied, “I have only two dollars.”

I love to minister and would pay for the privilege; often have.

When I was a little girl, a fascinating storyteller named Gaines Kilgore often visited us. When I saw him coming toward our house, I could hardly wait until we had had dinner and could gather around the fire for hours of storytelling. Gaines trained racehorses and often told stories about the track. He said that once a horse has been trained to race, it is always ready to run when the bugle sounds. If a horse is injured or for some reason cannot run, it will nevertheless prance in the stall when it hears the bugle.

At the sound of need in ministry, how often I have pranced in the stall -- eager to take my place and run. I have been unable to run in what this world might consider the “big” races, but I have been free to run on the back side of the track as much as I wanted. This journey has taken me to minister in vacation Bible schools in Appalachia, to black migrant camps in South Carolina and to patients suffering in mental hospitals. I have found God there. Out of God’s affirmation in these places of ministry has come the feeling of “place,” and the courage to press on.

When I was serving as a chaplain at University Hospital in Louisville, my assignment was the female surgical ward. More than 40 beds lined each side of a large open room. On arriving one day, I could hear a woman groaning in pain. I followed the sound. At the back corner of the room three doctors were cutting on the woman’s foot, trying to remove an infection. A nurse was holding a pan to catch the blood, which was flowing freely. Obviously the doctors had not been able to get the foot completely numbed. I realized that the woman was probably a diabetic and that they were trying to stop the infection without taking her to surgery.

As I drew closer I could see three pillows stacked on the woman’s stomach to prevent her from seeing what was happening. She was an aging black woman, totally alone with her intense pain. I rested my elbow on the table between us and said, “Would you like a hand?”

She took my hand and gripped it. Finally both hands clasped mine and squeezed as the pain became more intense. For several minutes we didn’t exchange a word. I must have appeared to be straining, bending over the table to be near her. Her eyes scanned my badge, which identified me as a chaplain. She said, “Reverend, I hope that is not hurting your back.” It was the first time I had ever been called “Reverend.” I had been out of seminary 15 years and I was 42 years old. It was worth waiting for.

There, in the midst of ministry, I experienced a kind of ordination. Out there on the back side of the track, God laid hands of affirmation on me through the grip of a suffering black woman.

I have also received my mother’s blessing -- at least in words she can agree with. My mother is now 85 years old. A few months ago we went to see her. My brother-in-law Charles brought up the fact that they were calling a new preacher at his church. My mother, as she often does. quoted Scripture: “How can he preach except he be sent?” Charles noticed the emphasis that she placed on the he, so he asked her, “So you think only a man can be a preacher?”

“Oh yes, only a man,” she insisted. “How about your daughter there?” he said. My mother replied, “Now, there are many gifts. She could be an enlightener.”

My heart leaped within me. I said to myself, “I will take it. I will take it as my blessing!”

The more I thought about it, the more I liked my blessing --  “one who enlightens.” I have endured teachers who made things more confused, and observed ministers who brought no light to the darkness. One who enlightens. I will take it!

In Christ there is neither male nor female. Therefore, we -- both male and female -- can serve in any ministry to which God calls us. And in whatever role we give our lives, I hope we will be enlighteners. For the Christ who loved us, called us and gave himself for us said, “I am the light of the world.”