Martha Stearns Marshall Month, occurring in February, celebrates the voices of women in the pulpit. Marshall lived during the eighteenth century, and along with husband, provided leadership and preaching for Baptist churches in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, and even helped found the first missionary Baptist church in Georgia.
I first participated in Martha Stearns Marshall month in 2010 at Holmeswood Baptist Church, where I have served on staff for two years. This year, I was honored to be the Martha Stearns Marshall preacher at Second Baptist Church in Liberty, Missouri. While I am blessed to be in a church and network of churches that regularly feature women in the pulpit, for many women, this may be the only time they get to preach for the entire year. And for many people in our congregations, this may be the only time they hear a female voice preach God’s word.
I feel that sometimes, women who preach are held to different standards than their male counterparts—perhaps because of the novelty of women in the pulpit, or false stereotypes of women who preach. Do congregations and leadership take them as seriously as their male preachers? Martha Stearns Marshall Month allows for these perceptions to be reconsidered and shaped differently.
The proclamation of Baptist women in the pulpit affects our theology more than we realize. When we hear people from all walks of life proclaim how God works through them and through scripture, we testify to a God who transcends our perceptions and our claims, proclaiming a God bigger than we can imagine. We realize that while God transcends gender, God’s essence embodies both genders. This truth connects with Scripture in creation—God made people in God’s own image. When we allow the Body of Christ to function according to each individual’s gifts, we are challenged, encouraged, and participate more fully in the movement of a Triune God. The celebration of women in the pulpit does not mean that Christianity or the church is feminized—in fact, it means that the body of believers trust God’s working in the lives of fellow Christians—men and women.
To hear a variety of voices that study Scripture, take the context of the community seriously, and pray over their proclamation invites us to be more fully the body of Christ. To pigeonhole women to certain roles and styles of preaching is to limit God’s power to work in our hearts.
Baptists must not perceive Martha Stearns Marshall Month as something obligatory to appease women or a denomination. The potential for hearing different voices can spark the congregation’s imagination and sense of calling, particularly in the lives of young women. Had I not heard the voices of our female pastors in our church from the pulpit, had I not been allowed to preach on Youth Sunday of my senior year of high school, I never would have realized the possibility that I could be a minister or could preach.
As I preached at Martha Stearns Marshall day at Second Baptist, my mentor and supervisor filled in for our Senior Pastor, who was sick. She presided over a baptism, delivered a well-prepared sermon on short notice, and led in the ordaining of two women deacons. I am grateful for both colleagues and a community of faith who embraces the fullness of God’s transcending nature, allowing us all to live out our God-given gifts and call.
Martha Stearns Marshall month testifies to a Bible where women announce the good news of the Resurrection, risk their lives for God’s people, and serve together with males in proclamation of the Gospel. As Paul exclaims in Romans 10, “How beautiful are the feet of those who proclaim the Good News!”
Kate Hanch is the pastor of children and creative communication at Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri.