The Reed: Tell us about your ministry WomanPreach!
Valerie: While I am the leader of WomanPreach!, I am by no means its catalyst. This ministry was born in the bellies of women hungry for support, guidance, training, and resources for preaching. It was urged on by those students in the Sacred Rhetoric classes jointly sponsored by Memphis Theological Seminary (MTS) and the University of Memphis, and later at the Cathedral in D.C. The appetite for intimate, “real talk” grabbed us all. The desire to grapple with the hard questions, the irrepressible questions, the persistent questions led us into this labyrinth.
It has been gratifying to watch preachers seemingly overnight find courage and confidence and their own voice. We have a process that pushes people into the text and into their own interior landscape to come out with a Word of grace spoken in their native tongue. We hear back from the attendees often of how very different they are in just a weekend event, or from the weeklong event. But the messages that make me and the team keep going, I think, are the ones from the senior pastors or the parishioners who thank us for “whatever you all did” for the preacher.
WomanPreach is in our fourth year (we’ll be 4 in July), and we’re getting the kind of traction that only comes with tenacity and keeping at it. We started small and have a small, but faithful group of volunteers who are committed to the work, or as one of our board members say, “We’re committed to stamping out bad preaching one woman at a time.” And we do it from the vantage point of Womanist/Feminist concerns, believing that the gospel of Jesus Christ is Good News especially when it considers women and children, the least among us often.
I’m always surprised when out of the blue I hear someone talk about WomanPreach! Inc. as if they have been in one of our workshops or one of the academies. The fact that our name is recognized catches me off guard. But I’m excited about the possibilities of helping the church, the Reign of God in this way. We like to say that we do one thing and we do that one thing very well: we help preachers preach. But we also are very committed to our highest value which is we do nothing without collaboration. We depend on relationships with seminaries, churches, and other non-profit organizations to do our work.
The Reed: Is this different from what you had planned or what you thought you would be doing?
Valerie: As a scholar-pastor, I was always “on the ground” in some way. Most of my ministry work has just shown up on my door. In Austin, I was deeply involved in trying to eradicate gang violence and did a lot of “in the streets” work. And I was very involved with the artists’ community here, so my ministry among poets especially was natural. When I lived in Memphis, again, it was artists and gangstas. This “preaching ministry” seems so churchy to me in some ways, so it is way off my radar of what I imagined I would be doing. But I do feel extremely called to it in this moment. And I’ll be following God around these corners until God leads somewhere else.
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Valerie is the invited celebrant for the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. worship service at Austin Seminary on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 11:10 a.m. Her sermon is titled “Dead Prophet, Living Hope.” This worship service will also feature the Huston-Tillotson Choir.
The Reed: Tell us about your term as ASA President. What does it mean to you to represent the ASA Board as President?
Valerie: I am honored to serve. I think I represent a part of Austin Seminary’s history and ministry that need to be highlighted. As a Presbyterian school, the ministry of the school has reached many, many people like me: non-Presbyterian (I’m ordained Church of God, Anderson, Ind.), non-white, and any other lists of “nons” that people might not see as Presbyterian. My presence says that the seminary is training women and men for ministry in an ecumenical, global way. That’s a good thing.
The Reed: What do you hope to accomplish?
Valerie: I recognize that we get busy in our lives and so looking back at our time in school(s) can be only nostalgia. I hope to help more of our alumni/a reconnect with the school as a resource for their ministries and as a place to share in ministry. I came to Austin because an alum was on the board and met me and spoke God’s word into my life. I can’t tell my call story without calling Louis Zbinden’s name. I hope the board will be able to inspire alum to see involvement at the seminary as an integral part of their ministries. I want to see an increase in return visits to the campus, to using the library, to sending students from their congregations, and to giving to support the seminary.
I hope the ASA will continue to help the seminary think about whether and how it’s living into its mission and call. Alum are in the unique position of knowing, after some years out, what they wish they had gotten from the seminary or what they got that really serves them well. We need to continue to give that information back to the school. I don’t know what ministry training will look like in the future—times are changing so swiftly. But I believe Alum often see it coming before the seminary does and so we need to figure out how to inform the school about any coming apocalypse (I mean this only in the sense of break in history so that what was is no longer or it will never be the same).
The Reed: What advice do you have for other alumni about getting involved with the ASA and the Seminary?
Valerie: My advice for former students is make yourself available to a current student. If students know someone who graduated from Austin, they might get to know them.
Except for Dr. Zbinden, I don’t think I had ever met an alum. I wish I had known someone, especially a student of color or an African American particularly who had been at the school. I chose Austin precisely because it was NOT my denominational school, but it can be a shock to some people. It would have been helpful to hear from someone who had thrived in the process.