What Men Can Learn from a Woman’s Call to Ministry: A Review of Kristen Padilla’s Now That I’m Called
The American evangelical church is in the midst of a painful, public, and much-needed reckoning. Perhaps exorcism is a better word. Formerly silent victims, empowered by the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements, are courageously speaking out against the sexual misconduct and spiritual abuse they’ve experienced at the hands of male church leaders. These accusations, along with a fresh round of debates over gender-related issues like the Billy Graham Rule and whether or not women should be seminary professors, have ignited conversations about gender roles, power dynamics, evangelical celebrity culture, and the marginalization of women in the Church.
The questions being raised in these conversations aren’t minor issues; they’re at the very heart of the gospel and central to the Church’s mission. Is the Church a safe place for women? Does our theology allow for women to be treated as anything less than image-bearers of God? Is there room in the Church for women to thrive and live out the call God has placed on their lives?
Kristen Padilla, author of Now That I’m Called: A Guide for Women Discerning a Call to Ministry (Zondervan, 2018), has been wrestling with versions of these questions since she was a little girl. “Why didn’t God make me a boy so I could be a preacher?” she recalls crying to her mother after becoming a Christian at the age of seven. The daughter of a Southern Baptist pastor, Padilla committed her life to ministry while attending a Christian camp in high school. She wasn’t exactly sure what that would look like, though. “There was no one in my life—no woman doing full-time ministry—who could mentor me,” she writes. “I felt like I was traveling down a road where no one had ventured before.… And I had no one to guide me.”Does our theology allow for women to be treated as anything less than image-bearers of God? Is there room in the Church for women to thrive and live out the call God has placed on their lives?
Padilla, who received her MDiv from Beeson Divinity School, where she is now on staff, wrote Now That I’m Called to provide guidance for women who, like herself, have experienced what theologian Brevard Childs called “a strong sense of divine compulsion”—a call from God to communicate his Word to his people. Of course, she never could have foreseen the context in which her book would be read. The fact that it hit bookshelves in this unique cultural moment seems particularly providential.
Too often, the conversation about women’s roles in the Church is dead on arrival. This complicated topic, which deserves nuanced exegesis and charitable dialogue between brothers and sisters in Christ, gets reduced to two words: egalitarian and complementarian. Egalitarians support the ordination of women, and therefore have rejected the biblical teaching on gender and caved to liberalism, so the stereotype goes. Complementarians, on the other hand, don’t ordain women, and therefore are backward sexists who cling to patriarchy. It’s “us vs. them” theology at its worst. Bible verses are used as ammunition, and the dividing lines deepen.
Padilla will have none of it, choosing instead to focus on common ground and the shared mission of the Church. “The discussion of the role of women in the Church falls into these secondary doctrines, which means we can disagree on this issue and not compromise our Christian faith,” she writes. Now That I’m Called doesn’t explicitly advocate for one side or the other, but encourages women to prayerfully consider what it means to fulfill their call to ministry, saying, “What ministry looks like for women and which roles are open to women is a topic of debate in our culture and must be worked out within your church tradition and according to your conscience, which is captive to Scripture.”
The book begins with a general exploration of what the Bible reveals about how and why God calls people to ministry, with a focus on the experiences of Moses, Joshua, David, Jeremiah, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and Timothy. Then Padilla turns specifically to the stories of women in the Bible who were called by God to play important roles in salvation history, like the Old Testament prophetesses Deborah and Huldah and New Testament figures like Mary (the mother of Jesus), Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, and more. “What we have seen… is this: God calls women and employs them in his service,” she writes. “His plan has always included women, not merely as recipients of grace or mere spectators but as active participants.” In her chapter on 1 Timothy 2:11–15, a passage that causes much confusion and controversy, Padilla offers interpretations from two New Testament scholars: Andreas Köstenberger, who falls into the “complementarian” camp, and Philip Towner, who falls into the “egalitarian” camp. Her goal, it seems, is not to settle the argument, but to empower women to fulfill their call in whatever context they may be serving. She also offers practical answers and advice too, like the importance of a theological education, the difference between seminary and divinity school, and how to find a mentor or internship. Each chapter ends with a short profile of a woman working in ministry in some capacity today—an Episcopal priest, a youth minister, a professor—highlighting just how broad the call to ministry can be. The result is a wise, practical, and—dare I say?—deeply pastoral book that casts a stirring vision for women with a longing to serve the Church.
And that’s exactly why men, especially pastors and those in positions of leadership, would do well to read this book.
As stories of trauma caused by toxic leaders with too much power will almost certainly continue to come to light, one of the most important steps men in the Church can take to change a culture of complicity is to simply listen to and learn from women. Now That I’m Called is written by a woman, for women—and it’s an opportunity for men to expand their theological imagination about what it means for a woman to be called to ministry, and to empathize with the unique challenges and experiences they face within the walls of the church.
“In a way, a call to ministry is simpler for men,” Padilla writes. “But when it comes to women, many church leaders simply do not know what to tell women who sense a call to ministry.” This description of the disparate experiences of men and women seeking to follow God’s call resonated with my personally. I was in high school when I first felt the “divine compulsion.” It was easy to imagine what a life of ministry could look like. There were countless pastors, theologians, and professors I could turn to for guidance and encouragement, men I could relate to, men who I could aspire to be. When I finally enrolled in seminary, no one questioned the validity of that decision. When my wife announced she too would be pursuing an MDiv, she was met with more than a few raised eyebrows. Thankfully, youth pastors and spiritual mentors have identified and encouraged her call to ministry over the years, and our current church home has been nothing but supportive.
Many Church leaders and pastors though, have little vision of what it looks like for women to serve the Church beyond volunteering in the nursery. Part of the problem is that, in some churches, there are few, if any, women on the payroll who have received a theological education. This is a profound loss for the body of Christ as a whole. Women who are called to full-time, vocational ministry deserve to regularly see and learn from other women who are fulfilling that same call. Men need to regularly witness the fullness of God’s glory on display through all of his people, not just half the Church. Every church, regardless of theological bent, should make hiring formally trained women, or providing women on staff with a clear and accessible path for further training, a priority when possible. “If male ministers are required to have seminary training, so should female ministers,” Padilla writes. This is not just to check a box, but for the sake of the souls in the pews. “The best defense against false teaching is having God-called, trained ministers of the gospel on staff, including those who oversee women’s and children’s ministries.”
Men should pick up Now That I’m Called because we need women. We need their spiritual gifts, their points of view, their readings of scripture. Male pastors in particular must be ready to equip and empower women in their congregation when they express an interest in vocational ministry, and this book is a helpful tool to do just that. None of this will reverse the harm that has been done or provide easy answers to complicated questions, but it’s a good first step in the right direction. The reality is, Padilla writes, “God calls women… to feed God’s sheep.” When men sincerely believe this truth, then perhaps the Church will be able to emerge from this reckoning renewed, with men and women laboring together for the good of the gospel, on earth as it is in heaven.