Author: Kate Bowler
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publishing Date: October 1, 2019
Pages: 368 (Hardcover)
For the first five years of campus ministry, I used family pictures for my prayer updates, newsletters, and those ubiquitous “Pray for Ministry X” fridge magnets of the mid-2000’s. Though my husband has never felt the call to full-time ministry, we have always been on the same page in seeing our home as an extension of the church building and in wanting to create spaces for people to encounter Jesus. The flexibility of his graduate studies gave him the opportunity to actively volunteer and to be next to me in various pictures of smiling groups of students and faculty featured in my prayer letters. Having him by my side—perceptually, me being by his side—gave credence to my work on campus; we were a team.
But when he finished grad school and became gainfully employed with regular workweek hours, suddenly, it was just me. As my husband settled into his role as an engineer and supportive spouse, I wrestled with how to navigate conservative evangelical spaces. When sharing ministry events, should I continue to use “we” language? Should I still put a picture of our family in ministry updates, underneath pictures of students and faculty with me, their campus minister? Which begged the question: What exactly should I call myself? Campus Staff Member? Campus Minister? Something else entirely?
It brought to the surface even deeper questions: though I work for a parachurch ministry, and not a church, where does my “authority” come from?1 What sort of role do I have in the lives of students and faculty members? Can conservative, complementarian supporters reconcile their views of male-only ordination with my ministry work as a woman? And why is John Piper hellbent on calling myself and other women in ministry positions usurping sinners?
These questions, and others, are precisely what Kate Bowler dives into in her book The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities (Princeton University Press 2019). In examining the stories of such well-known pastors’ wives as Victoria Osteen and Lois Evans, Bowler looks at the ways in which these women were able to build their own empire in the shadow of their husbands’ ministries. More intriguingly, she gets to the heart of how conservative denominations view women and their roles. In looking at “self-made” women who created their own platforms, such as Jen Hatmaker and Beth Moore, Bowler examines the deeper issues behind the ways that general Christian culture envisions the hallowed “Proverbs 31 Woman.” And most significant of all, she provides a framework for all women—even, and perhaps especially, those of us with smaller spheres of influence—to think about how the church sees us and how we see ourselves.
Her tone throughout the book is a fascinating parallel to what she shows as the necessary quality of celebrity evangelical women: at the same time vulnerable (she discusses her struggles with Stage IV cancer in the preface “A Personal Note”) and authoritative; funny (the phrase “spiritual chick-lit” on page 3 of the introduction was especially hilarious) and academic; visible and deferential. Interestingly, Bowler organizes her narrative not by examining specific evangelical celebrity women, but by the differing roles which the church has allowed for them: The Preacher, The Homemaker, The Talent, The Counselor, and The Beauty.
These chapters are prefaced by a rich introduction where she acknowledges some of the difficulties in examining the evangelical world—the lack of diversity, the structure of public image, and the hazy nature of defining the boundaries of spiritual empires. I found her caveats both helpful and also slightly limiting; she acknowledges that race is an issue while still reinforcing some of the stereotypes associated with Pentecostal and Black culture. She acknowledges that “white women, for instance, eventually wriggled out of the expectation that they constantly announce their submission to their husbands, black women did not. They bore the additional burden of modeling womanhood in a society that denigrated them” (8, emphasis mine), but without clarifying the society to which she is referring. I wondered if she was acknowledging the misogynoir which permeates the entirety of our national ethos—both majority and minority culture—or making a broad generalization against Black culture, without important nuance.
In including some examination of Pentecostal tradition, but keeping White Evangelicalism as the primary focus (and in the book’s subtitle), she relegates Black, Asian, Latina, and Native women to the sidelines in the same way that the culture does. While Bowler does acknowledge that there are far too few opportunities for women of color, she presents the few which she found as exceptions to the rule, almost entrenching them as token examples of a larger White phenomenon. It’s a real loss that (I’m assuming) publication deadlines left Bowler unable to address the significant controversy with Ekemini Uwan and the Sparrow Conference.2 Even as non-preacher’s wives and single women are mostly outside of the scope of the book, experiences such as Uwan’s (and there are plenty of examples from which to choose) would have greatly contributed to the discussion.
In each chapter, Bowler combines historical research with interviews, providing a framework which invites the reader to join her analysis of overall trends and personal stories. One thing I found surprising was her discussion of women’s ministry stalwarts such as Lynne Hybels, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Dorothy Patterson alongside men like Bill Hybels, Garrison Keillor (mentioned as a fellow Midwesterner and Lutheran), and Paige Patterson without addressing the controversies involving the treatment of women by those men. She does include several women of color in the chapter on The Talent, and queer women in The Preacher and The Beauty chapters, interviewing Jo Hudson and Paula Williams, who was exiled from evangelical circles when she transitioned from Paul to Paula.3
The direct quotes from hundreds of interviews gave universal experiences not just a face and a name, but also a heart. Even as someone who strongly identifies with many of the experiences of these celebrated women, each quote, heartfelt confession, and story of struggle gave me encouragement that I am not alone. Bowler takes famous Christian women from faces on a website to their personal stories as told to a more impartial interviewer, and the book avoids being stodgy because of it.
Bowler bookends her hefty volume with the idea that “In almost every spiritual empire, there was a she” (1, 238). Through countless examples, she shows how pastors’ wives made church ministry “feel legitimate” (238), and how the revenue of each woman’s “brand” contributed to the reach of established churches, even those which limited women’s power. More importantly, the proverbial (pun intended) minister’s wife was seen as “a story waiting to be told” (ibid), and the pastor, staffers, and even congregation dictated what that story would be. In those “famous women usually had men by their sides, but…were also fully capable of outshining them altogether” (239), we see the portrait of the everyday pastor’s wife ideal—winsome Sunday School teachers, bustling women’s ministry organizers, gracious co-pastors, and flawless front-pew sitters with children in tow.
That Proverbs 31 woman, with her wisdom and grace, has become personified in the pastor’s wife. It is held aloft as an example that all of us women in evangelical circles are meant to follow, whether we are “woefully” single,4 married to the preacher, or doing some sort of independent ministry. Those of us who have not “power… influence” (ibid) are expected to fill all the roles of Preacher, Homemaker, Talent, Counselor, and Beauty, all without breaking a sweat. Is there hope for those of us who are supposed to “glow” in any sort of spotlight? While Bowler doesn’t offer a solution per se (and this would certainly be outside the scope of this academic volume), I believe that there is. Our hope rests not so much on the shoulders of the women who have come before us, but, ironically, on the shoulders of a man: Christ Jesus, made flesh, the true personification of wisdom, sacrifice, beauty, and the preaching of the gospel.
See the “Gender & Authority” series: https://inallthings.org/gender-and-authority-the-legacy-of-sibling-rivalry/ ↩
Yet she did not include mention of, nor did she interview, Jackie Hill Perry, a black woman with much evangelical influence who identifies as formerly gay. Another strange oversight. Disappointingly, Bowler also left out differently abled evangelical celebrity women such as Joni Eareckson Tada and Shannon Dingle. ↩
I am certainly not advocating that women should be married; rather I’m acknowledging that in evangelical culture, family is all-too-often held up as a necessary part of ministry, leading to the worship of the nuclear family as an idol. Bowler examines this some, especially in the chapter The Homemaker and in the story of Annie F. Downs in The Beauty chapter. ↩