My brother has always called me “Little Miss Priss.” While growing up, he would usually play outside in the creek behind our house, collecting buckets full of slimy little creatures, and I would play inside with my perfectly-dressed and accessorized Barbie dolls or paint my nails with sparkly purple nail polish. When he wanted to watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I wanted to watch The Little Mermaid, dreaming that one day I too would become a real-life Disney princess.
Over time, “Little Miss Priss” shortened to “Prissy,” and for some reason, this nickname that I consider to be a term of endearment has stuck with me. Granted, it probably doesn’t hurt that I still love the color purple, that every DVD I own happens to be a chick-flick, and that I have enough dresses in my closet to wear a different one every day of the month. Even at the age of twenty-three, many of my “prissy” tendencies, for better or for worse, are now part of my identity.
Another much more important facet of my core identity is God’s calling on my life to ministry. I experienced this call at Cedarmore Baptist Camp in Bagdad, Kentucky, when I was in sixth grade. And this calling wasn’t just an idea that popped into my head during an invitation time; I truly heard God’s voice and understood that God wanted me to commit my life to serving him.
Thankfully, I had a youth minister who encouraged me in this calling and allowed me to use my gifts to serve in our youth group. I developed a love for studying and teaching God’s Word, and sometimes our youth minister let me speak at our youth-led worship service, although he did teach me that women were not supposed to teach or to have authority over men. For some reason, this principle didn’t apply to the youth group, and I was okay with that.
By this point in my life, had I been a male, everyone would have identified me as a new up-and-coming preacher. After all, that’s exactly what they told the boys who were leaders in the youth group and who taught Bible studies or spoke in worship. I remember wondering why God couldn’t just call me to be a preacher too. I felt like so many of my gifts and interests matched up with those required to serve in this role. However, I had never seen a woman preacher and had always been taught that God did not call women to be preachers. I wasn’t at all bitter or upset by this fact; it was just the way things were.
I do remember asking someone at church why women couldn’t be preachers, and she told me that we were simply too emotional for the job. She just didn’t think women were wired to do the funerals, hospital visits, and counseling sessions that pastors are required to do. The thought of doing a funeral didn’t sound too appealing to me anyway, so I dismissed the idea altogether that God could call me to be a preacher.
I didn’t know of any women whose ministries matched what I felt God was calling me to do until the popular women’s minister Beth Moore came on the scene. The first time I heard her speak at a conference in Atlanta, Georgia, I was mesmerized. When Beth spoke, I heard something I hadn’t heard before: a woman’s voice. I saw a woman dedicated to learning and enthusiastically communicating God’s Word to others. In her, I saw myself. Before long, people began telling me that I was destined to become the next Beth Moore, and I believed them.
Although my church and denomination did not encourage me to be a preacher, I do not want to imply that they did not encourage me as a female in ministry. I served on staff as a ministry intern for several summers and led in various areas of children’s, youth, and music ministries. So much of what I have learned about church ministry, I owe to this incredible faith family, and I am forever grateful for the ways in which they have affirmed and equipped me as a minister.
I am also thankful that I had the support and love of my pastor’s wife, who served as the children’s director at my church. Because of her influence in my life I developed a love for children and a joy to see them learn what it means to follow Jesus, a passion I still have today.
Without the encouragement of my church family, I would not have pursued the call to ministry at all. Although I couldn’t articulate what that call was at the time, I continued to trust in God and looked forward to seeing His calling unfold in my life.
Mary Alice Birdwhistell is a student at George W. Truett Theological Seminary and minister to children at Calvary Baptist Church, Waco, Texas.