Women and the Pulpit: An Interview with Lenora Tubbs Tisdale

Lenora Tubbs Tisdale

Leonora Tubbs Tisdale retired last year from YDS, where she was Clement-Muehl Professor of Homiletics since arriving in 2006.Her long career as teacher, scholar, preacher, and minister includes service as consulting theologian at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York and faculty positions at Princeton Theological Seminary and Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. She is also a former president of the Academy of Homiletics. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the daughter of a minister, she has written or edited 11 books, including Prophetic Preaching: A Pastoral Approach (Westminster John Knox, 2010) and The Sun Still Rises: Meditations on Faith at Midlife (WJK, 2017). Nora Tisdale will deliver this year’s YDS Beecher Lectures Oct. 16-18 on “Women Preachers in the US and the Transformation of Homiletics.” She spoke recently to Reflections about how preaching has changed in the last generation. 

Regarding the shift from the three-point sermon to lectionary preaching and an incarnational style … 

When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, I heard the preaching of my dad and his generation. And the prevailing model was the three-point sermon: Make three points with insights gleaned from the biblical text, end with a poem or hymn, and use alliteration in the points if you can (as a mnemonic device). 

Then came a shift. Fred Craddock (the late preaching scholar) helped move us from deductive to inductive preaching, which regarded the sermon as a way of taking the congregation on a quest of discovery. Preachers started giving a narrative shape to sermons – not just more storytelling but shaping the sermon like a good story is shaped. 

One result is, today we see far more self-disclosure in preaching. Previously, ministers thought they should never talk about themselves in the pulpit because that would only get in the way of God speaking. Today’s approach is much more incarnational: God speaks to us through our experience. The top-down mode has yielded to a more dialogical approach, an invitation to the congregation to explore the sermon’s themes together. Authority is based on the authenticity and vulnerability of the speaker. Instead of announcing, “This is the Word of the Lord!”, the preacher is willing to say, “This is how I see it – how do you see it?” 

Also, the use of the lectionary in many mainline denominations changed preaching. When I was growing up, there was ordinarily only one biblical text read during a service, and it was chosen by the minister. Ministers tended to preach their favorites and avoid challenging texts. The Revised Common Lectionary (first published in 1983) pushed us to preach on texts we wouldn’t necessarily choose on our own. The creation of The African American Lectionary in 2008 has helped continue that trend. 

On the appearance of women in pulpits and in church history … 

I didn’t even hear a woman preach until I was in seminary. The appearance of women in pulpits was a dramatic change. It challenged the implied notion that God speaks only through men. It expanded our imagery for God, since God imagery and preacher imagery are often closely intertwined. Congregations were suddenly hearing different life experiences from the pulpit – women’s experiences, sermons that now included themes of birthing and motherhood, or discussions of rape or domestic violence, topics that were absolutely verboten before. 

When I was in seminary, there was no research or teaching about the history of women preachers. But in recent decades women scholars have been unearthing all kinds of information about women who preached in the US during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries: Quaker women and others who preached in the colonies before the US became a nation; evangelical preachers like Jarena Lee (born in 1783, the first authorized female preacher in the AME Church), and Phoebe Palmer (born 1807, a founder of the Holiness movement within Methodism) who felt the call to preach long before ordination was a possibility in their churches. Learning about their lives and work is invaluable today. 

Is preaching an outmoded form of communication by now? 

I’ve lived through several iterations of that question, the idea that preaching is going to die. For a while, the argument insisted “the action is in the streets, not the sanctuary,” and therefore people won’t sit for a sermon anymore. The version today says we are a media generation that thinks in soundbites and short bursts of attention and there’s no place for sermons the way they used to be. 

But there’s something about one person speaking giving testimony to a group of other people about the Word of Life; there’s simply no substitute for that. 

Sometimes I look out from the pulpit and marvel at what I see: people sitting in church, busy people who could be anywhere else but have chosen to sit there and be open to whatever is spoken next. The Spirit still moves in miraculous ways in the preaching act. Preaching is still changing people’s lives.