I thoroughly enjoyed Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved – indeed, I raved about it in the pages of the Christian Century. Still, I wasn’t on the edge of my seat to read her follow-up, a return to her academic work. Titled The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities, the weighty tome just didn’t seem especially relevant to my life, personally or professionally. I was evangelical for about ten minutes in the ‘90s. I am mainline Christian to the core – ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), associate minister of a congregation affiliated with the United Church of Christ, and board member of the aforementioned flagship mainline publication.
Dear reader, I was wrong. Dead wrong. The Preacher’s Wife is so relentlessly relevant to my life I can hardly bear it. In its pages, Kate Bowler has managed to solve the great mystery at the center of the past ten years of my life.
The decade began at the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota, where I traveled to attend a writing workshop for pastors with Eugene Peterson. It was one of the most remarkable weeks of my life. I arrived with a frayed sense of vocation, and left with a restored calling to go forth and live my best life, as both a writer and pastor. Rev. Peterson deserves much of the credit for this transformation; sitting at the feet of that dearly departed master was a gift for which I’ll always be grateful.
Within the year I accepted a new role as an associate minister of a large suburban congregation, and signed my first book contract, for a memoir about motherhood, marriage, and ministry. Any Day a Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family was released in 2012; to my profound delight, the Christian Century published an excerpt from the book, as well as a brief if glowing review. I felt like I had arrived.
The book didn’t sell for squat. For an author to sell books these days, she is in want of one of two things: enough of a marketing budget to buy buzz, or a platform. (If she has both – well, she’s golden.) My small publisher did not have a sizeable marketing budget, and I sure as heck didn’t have a platform of note. I’d been blogging for years, but had never managed to establish a following. I upped my hustle, joined Twitter, started an email newsletter. All the while, I checked my stats on Amazon at an alarming frequency. I clung to a handful of heartfelt letters from grateful readers, trying to give these more weight than the ever-disappointing numbers.
Second book, same story. Except the second time around, the book launch did me in. I found the experience of jumping up and down to try and get attention profoundly draining, and ended up spending an inordinate amount of time in spiritual direction trying to sort myself out. My second book, Very Married, sold incrementally better, but at what cost to my soul?
Before I turn back to Kate Bowler, let me say one thing: I didn’t write books to get famous, but I did want my books to be read. Yes, I got caught up in an unhealthy pattern of tying my value as a writer (and perhaps as a person) to the sales figures for my books. And yes, I developed a toxic tendency of feeling resentment and envy toward writers who did achieve a wider readership.
Still, is ambition such a sin? In a word: yes.
I did not realize how radically different the rules are for evangelical and mainline women.
“In the world of mainline Protestantism and its culture of gentility,” Bowler writes, “bald marketing was gauche.” This is one of many lines in the chapter called “The Preacher” that blew my everloving mind. I knew the writing ministries of my evangelical counterparts were gangbusters compared to mine, but I did not realize how radically different the rules are for evangelical and mainline women. Bowler explores these discrepancies at length, considering the diverse theological and cultural dimensions that alienate mainline women from the evangelical-dominated marketplace.
I knew this was a thing. Right? I had to have known this was a thing. I had even intuited some of the reasons Bowler substantiates through her extensive research, such as my longstanding theory that when evangelicals want to read a book about marriage, they look for a faith-based marriage book, whereas mainline Christians saunter past the religion section to peruse the secular self-help shelves. Still, nothing quite prepared me for the following paragraph:
A measure of denominational authority did not win [liberal women] influence in the largest congregations or in the wider marketplace. In the last few decades, mainline Protestant denominations have slowly adopted the feminist mantle and opened doors to women in mainline leadership, whether as pastors in churches or as denominational executives. Despite this openness and celebration of women in positions that had previously been held by men, there were few progressive female megaministry celebrities… ordained progressive women secured some degree of institutional sway, but they lacked the popularity and the cultural capital of their conservative counterparts. To overstate the case only a little, we might say that conservative women gained considerable influence without institutional power, while liberal women gained institutional power without considerable influence.
There are exceptions, of course. Barbara Brown Taylor, check. Nadia Bolz-Weber, check. But you really can count the number of progressive women with significant influence on one hand – particularly if you’re filtering that for ordained progressive women.
Conservative women gained considerable influence without institutional power, while liberal women gained institutional power without considerable influence.
Can I tell you how I received that paragraph? It was like Kate Bowler put her hands on my cheeks, and looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Oh honey, it wasn’t your fault.” No, I’m not as gifted a writer as some, nor am I as charismatic a presence as others. But I was playing a game I was never going to win.
What does this mean for the progressive women who are called to preside at the Table and write books that bear witness to the spiritual life? Surely we shouldn’t cede the Christian market to our evangelical sisters, just as our evangelical sisters shouldn’t stop pressing for a place at the Table. But thanks to Kate Bowler, we can engage in the writing and publication process with a far clearer understanding of the situation. There is, after all, something to be said for realistic expectations.
There is also something to be said for not letting hundreds of copies of one’s spiritual memoir be pulped. The decade that began with a renewed vocation ended with a letter informing me my first book was officially out of print. Before I read The Preacher’s Wife, I would have considered the ballast of boxes in my basement a symbol of my failed writing ministry. Now I get that they are also perhaps a symbol of my ordination, just as surely as the stole slung around my neck.