I want to tell you a story about my friend, colleague, and former boss Rod King. It’s actually a couple of stories, and it goes way back before I ever worked for him for a year, and this story is going to involve a lot more than one year of my teaching job. I am who I am, and I write how I write—this I’m at peace with. Read ahead for more on my developing understanding of women in ministry, grace, and the impact a few well-timed words and actions can have.
I grew up in the Bible Belt, attending pretty standard conservative churches, schools, and camps where women were welcomed but not typically found in leadership roles. I didn’t really think anything of it because it felt normal, like the usual situation.
My parents have three daughters, and as such, my dad has always empowered us (1) to do what God is calling us to do and (2) to do whatever we set our minds to (though as I’ve gotten older my dad has leveled with me more realistically and said, “Look, at this point, you’re not going to be a doctor.” Fair, but I appreciate that as a child he told me I could be anything.)
When I got to college at Wheaton, people would talk about whether they were “complementarian” or “egalitarian,” and I said, “huh?” Everyone had an opinion about the matter but me, it seemed. I probably would have told you that I wasn’t opposed to women in leadership in ministry, but it just wasn’t my preference. I think if you had pressed me to defend my stance it would’ve come down to: “Men are pastors because they just are and that’s all I’ve known, and there are those passages about women in ministry leadership so let’s just keep men in ministry leadership roles.”
When it came down to it, it was more about what I’d grown up around and experienced and not about any theological convictions. I certainly had no ambition to ever be a “woman pastor” or “woman in ministry leadership;” I was preparing to teach, after all. (If you’re a hardline complementarian, resist the urge to roll your eyes and call this heresy; keep reading.)
At my first teaching job, I saw a need at the Christian school where I taught for better spiritual formation—of students, but also of the faculty and staff at Christian schools. After a few years of teaching (interspersed with writing my book), I headed back to Wheaton for grad school. It was there that I started doing research on spiritual formation, and anytime we talked about “pastoral care,” I saw the need for and gap of a type of “pastoral care” found in Christian education.
Many educators at private, Christian schools pursue that route because they love teaching and education, but they also see their vocation as “ministering” to students and helping them see God’s truth in whatever subject they’re exploring. They aren’t “pastors,” but they are doing ministry daily. One of the things my research uncovered is that just because someone has attended church and small groups all of their life does not inherently mean that person knows how to lead a small group or disciple or do ministry; experiencing something does not necessarily mean being able to teach or translate it. Furthermore, just because someone has experienced the integration of faith and learning does not mean that person knows how to integrate faith and learning.
It was in grad school that my heart for spiritual formation and a type of “pastoral care” for Christian educators grew, and it’s what I centered my Master’s thesis equivalent around. I created a curriculum and was so excited to think about being able to facilitate conversations amongst people like my former colleagues at the Christian school which I so loved in Hawaii. I loved my time in grad school—I took incredible ownership of my learning, and I soaked it all in. I felt empowered and ready to go change the world and use my degree in Christian Formation and Ministry: Bible, Theology, and Ministry “for Christ and His Kingdom.”
After graduating from grad school, returning to Hawaii looked like a sure thing, and then suddenly it wasn’t but instead was a very securely closed door. Scrambling in the summer when few teaching jobs are “left,” I found a job in California—a place I never thought I’d ever voluntarily live, but a place that I truly figured was on the way to Hawaii so would make my return to the islands way easier logistically. (I was traumatized by shipping my stuff back and forth from Texas to Hawaii many times, and sometimes God uses dumb reasons like “California is on the way logistically” to get you where you never thought you’d ever choose to go.)
So I ended up accepting a teaching job at a small Christian school in North County San Diego. And it was absolutely where I was supposed to be, and there were incredible moments of deep conversation and “textured” discussions around literature and faith and life with my students—about how life is complex and needs to be lived in the tension and yet God is good.
But there were also moments I wanted to run down the hallway screaming, “I can’t take it anymore!” and effectively tender my resignation. One of the most noteworthy was when a mom interrupted me while I was teaching to yell at me in front of my students saying, “How dare you call my daughter out in front of everyone,” by which she meant I had told her daughter to put her phone away after she walked in late, disrupting class, Starbucks in hand. I have many friends and family members who’ve taught, but none of them have ever heard of a parent interrupting class to publicly yell at a teacher (the irony of her yelling at me in front of my students was not lost on me as she was upset that I’d called her daughter out in front of the class).
Amidst those moments, I thought, “this is a total waste of my M.A. and not at all what I was hoping to do with my degree since I’m essentially doing the same job as before grad school but with worse pay.” When it came time to fill out the “intent to return” form Christian schools dole out each year, I checked “uncertain” or something along those lines, and I filled in the reasoning box. I wrote that I wanted to use my degree in Bible, theology, and ministry to facilitate spiritual formation and not just grade papers forever.
A week or two later, one of the administrators approached me on the football field and asked to hear more about what I meant. I shared my heart for doing “soul care” and some trainings on how to integrate faith and learning amongst the teachers, and the administrator said there might be a way to do that. After many conversations, I was asked to help run high school chapel, teach my 5 English courses, and lead once a month faculty meetings with the curriculum I’d created as part of my master’s capstone. So despite my “run-down-the-hallway-screaming” vibes, I stuck around another year.
And wow. I’m so grateful I did for all that I learned, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to use that curriculum and implement some deeper conversations around spiritual formation and faith and learning. Yet what a year that was for me as a “woman in ministry leadership” and for my education on the topic.
Having not set out to be a “woman pastor,” I never saw myself as that. I facilitated chapel in that I helped us come up with a theme for the year, and then I got speakers to come and share each week, based on that theme in an intentional progression. I was the main chapel speaker exactly one time that year—and I wouldn’t have called myself a “pastor” but just a teacher who already taught male and female students and was just gathering them into a larger room to share with all of them plus a few more and their teachers at one time.
With the curriculum in the monthly faculty meetings, I was never aiming to be a “campus pastor” to the teachers—men or women or both—but someone who had a degree and had done extensive research on spiritual formation in schools and training in discipleship and faith and learning. My role was to facilitate this curriculum which incorporated readings from other biblically sound and well-respected believers, and I crafted it with intent, research, and the aim for spiritual growth, adding in discussion questions along the way. At no point was I standing up in front of my colleagues preaching to them each month. The only time I ever did, it was my week to share in my Friday devotional, something that no one thought twice about women teachers doing and which happened almost every Friday.
Yet the pushback—both overt and covert—I received for leading chapel and those monthly faculty meetings was eye-opening. Again, I’m a Dallas girl who grew up in Bible churches and went to Wheaton twice—no part of me is revolutionary or what I like to call “Ambitious.” I do have ambitions, but you know those “Ambitious” people—they set out to write books and change the world and convert entire countries and turn things on their heels. If I’ve ever done any of that it’s been because I reluctantly obeyed and did the thing, not because I wanted to or had some grand Ambition to do so.
I found out at a meeting with the administrators one day after school about some of the pushback—not from the administrators of the school, but from others tied to the church there, and I was a little blindsided since it wasn’t like I was setting out to be a campus “pastor” or anything. I literally had a degree in Bible, theology, and ministry, and I was using my master’s thesis project in the way it was dreamed up, researched, and intended. No part of that was “setting out to upend tradition” or the Bible or anything else along those lines.
I could go on, but my aim is not to throw others under the bus. That year was wildly formative for me and my faith and my views on women in ministry leadership. Contrary to the hopes of those who opposed my filling that role on campus, their opposition actually forced me to confront what I felt about women in ministry, and I concluded that I just might be more egalitarian than complementarian. Gasp! Shock! Right?!?
Here’s the thing: I can get into the theology of it, but I won’t right here. And I’m not going to die on this hill because I don’t really want to die on many hills anyway, but it comes down to this: I truly felt like God had opened doors for me to serve in the ways I was serving that year. I hadn’t pushed for my position; aside from writing on a half sheet of paper known as the “intent to return” form, I hadn’t pressed for it at all. People approached me, saying, “hmm, you have this interest, we have a need, and you also have the background and credentials to fill this need. Let’s do this.” So I did it. I walked through the open door.
But wow, did I have a lot of heart-to-hearts with God that year—really good conversations amidst feeling like a (small) target was on my back where I would ask Him, “Lord, have I been ‘rebellious’ in pursuing this? Am I overstepping my role and Your Word? The last thing I want to do is go against Your Word; I want to submit to You and be obedient, and yet, I feel like You just placed this in my lap.” I prayed that He would make it abundantly clear if I was being “rebellious” or even sinful in pursuing these “ministry leadership roles.”
I should make clear that I had people in my corner, people who had my back. It was a few people with some weight to their titles adjacent to the school who were opposed to my two roles, but I was shielded from a lot of the full opposition by friends and bosses, and I was fortunate in that.
But here we come to my boss, Rod King. After that meeting with administrators that afternoon where it was made clear that those adjacent to the school weren’t okay with me “leading” chapel [finding speakers] and teaching the men teachers [facilitating my curriculum of others’ words], I went home frustrated and a little tense, feeling that target on my back.
It’s hard as a woman in this situation because if you try to defend yourself, people who are totally opposed to women in ministry leadership positions to begin with can say you’re not being submissive in your defense but are just proving their point. It might seem ironic that it helps to have men defend women in these situations since some assume women are trying to prove that “they don’t need anyone defending them,” but that’s a narrow view of what’s going on. Most of the time this isn’t about a 1970s bra burning campaign to be sinful and rebellious “by preaching Jesus to menfolk.” Most of the time, it’s women who feel called and equipped to steward their lives in a way it seems like God is leading. I won’t say that for all women in ministry—some might be scheming and in pursuit of power, but if so, they’re in better company than just women in that regard.
The next day after this meeting was a chapel day, so I was feeling a little exposed after the previous afternoon’s revelations. I was standing up at the front of the chapel, mic in my hand, welcoming students in, when Rod, our high school principal in his first year at the school, came over, and between my announcements on the mic whispered to me, “About yesterday…I’m a ‘grace guy’ and I’m of the mindset that if you have the background, education, and gifting in it—and you clearly do—then why would we just go out and get a man to do the job?” I turned to look at him and smiled, then I lifted the mic back up and said, “Okay, go ahead and take a seat, students!”
It was that quick of a moment, but it was formative. [I’m writing a long missive here about it, after all.] It was formative because it showed me that others had my back, that I was not crazy or being openly rebellious for taking a step forward into what others had approached me about and what I felt like was an open door. And it was formative because I realized then, “Yes! That! That is my view of egalitarianism and complementarianism, of women in ministry.”
Again, we could get more into the theology of everything, and I could tell you about my time studying the oft-quoted passages in the letters to the church of Corinth…from my time studying in Corinth. And I’m still not sure that I want a woman pastoring and shepherding my church community, but I wonder how much of that is because of cultural norms and what I grew up with versus how much is theological (jury’s not back on that because I am still a Bible-belt grown human and have a very high view of scripture at the end of the day, and I can make a case in many ways, but lots of them come out looking very cultural).
But as Rod said, “If we have someone who’s got the background, education, and gifting in [fill in the blank], why would we just go out and get a man to do the job?” That pretty much sums up my view of women in ministry leadership. With caution and wanting to be obedient in God’s eyes, I state that, by the way. It’s not about “men are the worst and women are the future, so women pastors HUZZAH!”
I was in a particular situation where I felt called, I was approached about using something in my background and repertoire, and I felt like God was opening a door. So target on my back or not, I proceeded in a posture of humility before God, seeking Him to stop me if I was out of bounds or being disobedient, and He never did.
Rod King was a father of three daughters, all somewhat close to my age. I have to think that he was, indeed, a “grace guy,” but that his understanding of what women are capable of and called to has probably also been influenced by having three daughters. Honestly, my dad would probably say he’s a complementarian and be opposed to women pastors in theory (and maybe in practice, too), but he has empowered me to pursue where God has been leading and calling me, including “leading chapel” and “teaching menfolk in a spiritual formation curriculum.”
Rod’s words were so simple and quick—and the memory of them makes me smile since they were offered as a whisper up in front of the whole high school student body and faculty and staff between my mic announcements—and yet, they were so empowering. They were like a lightbulb, summing up what I’d been coming to define as my understanding of women in ministry leadership: if God has gifted me, provided an opportunity for me, given me the credibility and credentials for it, and called me to it, why should I stand back and defer to a man who is “qualified” because he is a man to fill the role God has placed before me? (That sounds really cynical—I don’t think all men are falsely called “qualified” simply because they are men, but hopefully you get the point from Rod’s words.)
This whole story is completely self-referential and not universally applicable, I know. But the point of this story is that my understanding of women in ministry leadership roles never really had to be defined until I found myself in a “ministry leadership role” with a small target on my back (I know this isn’t persecution, here. First world problems, for sure). And when it came to a head and I had to reckon with whether I was being disobedient or wrong to step into a ministry role very much laid right before me, Rod King’s words were the encouragement and empowerment I needed, a defusal of the vulnerability I felt up there on the mic “leading chapel” after I’d found out people were upset that I was leading chapel because I was a woman.
So many others had my back and were supportive of me that year—some in administrative roles, too. And I’m grateful to Rod for so many more things than just that moment between mic announcements that no one else probably even noticed.
When it was time to decide what I was going to do—to return or not after my second year at the school—I was in a big state of indecision. That fantasy of running through the hallway screaming was a daily dream of mine in my second year at the school, and yet stepping out into the unknown was terrifying. A known terrible entity is sometimes more alluring than an unknown future for someone who’s an Enneagram 6 like me.
Other administrators needed an answer—and I got it because I wanted them to have time to hire my replacement if needed—and they offered all kinds of advice. One told me to look for where there’s peace, and that’s probably good advice for others, but back to my being an Enneagram 6…. I realized there wasn’t peace either way. If I stayed, I had no peace because I would be returning to the land of a target on my back and countless hours of mental anguish over grading papers and a job that was draining me. If I left, stepping out to start what would become Still Waters, there was no peace because I had to pay my bills, and it’s a terrifying thing to quit your job at the age of 30 when you’re single and don’t have another income to fall back on as you step out in faith.
Rod offered a different strategy. He came into my classroom and sat on a stool and asked me what I was thinking and how I was processing. I shared with him about my indecision, my heart for the cancer community, and more. Rod had battled pancreatic cancer for a long time, and while I think then a lot of the school assumed cancer was in his past, he explained to me that he was still undergoing treatment. I don’t think he shared with everyone, but cancer is that community you never want to be a part of but once you’re in, you’re in.
He also said, “I wish I could tell you what to do because I’ve been in your shoes, and I know exactly what you’re struggling with—to stay or to go. But I can’t tell you what you should do because I’ve been in your shoes. But I will pray for you.” He knew that I needed to be obedient to the Lord at the end of the day, and I’m so grateful he didn’t try to sway me, indecisive and fueled by duty and obligation as I was (and am). He was my boss and modeled professionalism plus honesty and grace in a way many others didn’t or haven’t. That conversation gave me great freedom in my decision because I knew that I wasn’t “letting anyone down” if I left; I needed to truly seek and then follow where God was leading. (Spoiler alert: I did end up leaving and starting Still Waters, and I’m grateful to Rod’s encouragement in that, too.)
I found out last night that Rod passed away from his long walk with cancer on Sunday. The way I’ve just shared, you might think that I worked for him for 10 years. I worked for Rod King for exactly 1 school year. And I hope this isn’t one of those, “I knew him well!” stories which make me think of high school when people even slightly acquainted with someone want to be “famous-adjacent” when something happens with that person.
I didn’t know Rod super well. I worked for him for just one year. But it was a year in which I found my voice in some ways, where things that I’d long been learning and my understanding of God’s calling and equipping started cementing into place. Others were part of that year and my subsequent learning, too, and I don’t want to overstate how well I knew Rod and how he “forever changed my life!” in some insincere way.
But amidst the running-down-the-hallway-screaming dream I held in that contentious and incredibly exhausting year, Rod King was a gift to us at the school. He was a gift to me in letting me know he had my back, in helping me crystallize what I’d been learning about my role and calling “despite being a woman in the church,” and in giving me the freedom to decide where God was leading me.
Men, we need more leaders like Rod in ministry and in the church and parachurch organizations (schools included). We need more people who are “grace guys,” who can empower those feeling targeted or like they’re in tenuous positions despite God’s calling and opening of doors and opportunities. We need more leaders who aren’t just looking out for themselves and the best interests of their institutions but would rather look out for the person and God’s hand on their lives.
I’m grateful for Rod King, and I’m so saddened by his loss. Complex as life is, I’m also so grateful he’s no longer in pain and no longer waging war with cancer. Cancer can suck it. I’m grieved for his daughters and for his wife. I’m grieved for the school because he was a voice of reason and being a “grace guy” made him a gift to that school. Rod was a great man and leader—not perfect since no one is, but a grace guy of a leader.
I think of that moment at the front of the chapel a lot—of the impact one person can have with one sentence whispered between public mic announcements in a well-timed and well-executed encouraging moment. We as the church have some issues, for sure, but there are daily miracles like that moment which transform, crystallize, and empower, and God is mightily at work in those whispers-between-the-mic moments. If you can give those moments, do. If you receive them, thank whoever gives them to you and make sure they know the impact a simple [compound] sentence can make.