A short sermon in the form of a poem by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler, an advocate for women and justice and an occasional preacher in Churches of Christ circles, likely reached more than twice as many people as there are members of the Churches of Christ in the United States within 48 hours of its publication on social media. It may have now reached more than 10 million people.
sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch. …
And it continues on, delivering a rich, multi-themed message.
Male preachers who preach “from pulpits off limits” to women are among the themes.
For a woman from the Churches of Christ to reach an audience that probably exceeds the worldwide membership of the Churches of Christ with a sermon is particularly notable due to its status as one of the most restrictive Christian groups relative to women and girls in the church. Its congregations make up most of the 1-4% of U.S. Christianity completely excluding women and girls from speaking, leading, and otherwise publicly and actively serving in any way during its worship services.
It is also now one of the fastest-shrinking evangelical groups in the U.S., with about 1 in 8 members departing since 1990, the decline accelerating recently to over 5.6% of membership from 2016 to 2019. This occurred even in times and places other evangelical groups grew or held relatively steady.
There are signs of even greater decline coming absent changes. The number of freshman from the Churches of Christ entering its affiliated colleges each year dropped by more than half over just the last 13 years.
Some Churches of Christ congregations identified the prohibition on women and girls as a man-made tradition that contradicts scripture and changed to allow women to preach. The vast majority of its congregations, however, still completely prohibit women and girls from speaking at all in the worship service.
Shetler’s poem has been widely discussed but Churches of Christ leaders seem to have largely ignored, missed, or foregone publicly commenting on it so far.
I interviewed Shetler a few weeks after its publication:
I saw your Advent message when it was published in December and loved it. I alternate between calling it a poem and a homily (a short sermon …). Do you consider it a homily? How long have you been writing poetry?
I wrote my first poem in 2018, and I’ve written about 28 “Poems for the Resistance,” all of which have some justice theme. Many of them focus on my own challenges around growing up in a faith tradition that found my silence preferable to my voice.
I love the idea of this being a homily—I hadn’t thought of it like that. Honestly, calling it preaching makes me feel extremely seen. To write something that speaks a truth about God—and to have it resonate the way it did—validates what I believe my own calling to be. So thank you!
Did you grow up in the Churches of Christ?
Yes — I was born and raised in the Church of Christ. My parents were part of the Church of Christ, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, …. I went to Harding, worked at Lipscomb, participated in lectureships. I’ve traveled around a lot and have been to more Churches of Christ than I can remember.
I know you preach occasionally at the All Saints Church of Christ and that you’ve preached in at least one other Church of Christ and in other places. What is it like to be a preacher in a tradition that typically bars women from preaching and even from speaking in the worship service?
Phew. I have a hard time fully describing the emotions that come up for me when I think about this. Preaching is relatively new, and it is only an occasional practice for me. I remember the first time I stood up to pass a communion tray at another Church of Christ. I had a hard time keeping tears from falling down my face. It struck me in that moment just how much I had been removed from the sacred experience of worship.
It was the same feeling when I gave my first sermon. I was honored and felt at home in who I was and who God called me to be.
But at first I struggled with anger. I knew in my heart of hearts that if I had been born male, I would have gotten my MDiv and been a preacher. And the fact that was never an option for me — or, at least an option I knew about — frustrated me.
When I started preaching, I had to grieve opportunities I had lost that were behind me, all while giving thanks for those before me. It was really confusing at first!
Did you have a different feeling about this poem, the one that went viral, before posting it? Did you have any sense that it might receive such attention?
Total surprise. Though, when I wrote it, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace that I had not with the others. Sometimes when I write, it takes me by surprise because what comes out on paper is not exactly what I was thinking when starting to write. To me, that’s 100% the Spirit.
I told my husband I felt a little guilty about taking credit for this poem, because I truly feel it was God speaking and I was just writing it down. I felt it was time to write and this idea came to me — I knew a subject and theme. I was trying to say something. I felt and then the words just seemed to appear. I read what I wrote, and I didn’t feel like they were my words.
You posted it at nearly midnight. Did it immediately start receiving huge numbers of likes and shares, and did you stay up all night? Or did you wake up to it?
I posted it and went right to sleep. When I woke up and saw all the shares and comments, I was shocked! And I didn’t get much sleep the two nights after. Not only was I receiving notifications every few seconds, I was getting lots of friend requests and private messages.
Your original post has been shared over 30,000 times. I’m aware of another person’s posting of your poem that itself was shared over 26,000 times. There are only about 1.1 million Churches of Christ members in the United States and you probably reached a multiple of that number, a least, with your poem. What do you think about that?
That is the wildest thing I’ve ever heard! Truly. I am honored that it spoke to so many people. The reaction was extremely positive.
The irony is not lost on me that my own faith tradition does not welcome my voice, but so many people outside of my faith tradition have been extremely affirming and validating.
I have had few Church of Christ people speak to me about this poem, but I have heard from so many people who have left religion and faith entirely. I am grateful for the latter, but kind of sad about the first.
Even with all the positive responses, there is something inside of me that is still searching for that validation from my people. I am still hoping for the Church of Christ to say, “We want you and your voice. You are important to us.”
It is difficult to feel exiled from the people who introduced you to God.
Your poem included multiple themes in a tiny space! What seemed to engage people?
This poem resonated with so many. The sting of the poem comes from realizing that a woman, trusted with birthing God, would not be trusted in leading a church.
And that the people telling her story are the men keeping her from the pulpit in the first place.
It is a commentary on motherhood and womanhood, yes, but more than that, it is a commentary on the dehumanization of women and mothers in the context of the church.
I received many messages from women shut out from their faith just because they were women. The pain of this is not something that can be brushed aside. It is not a trauma that should be flippantly discussed or reduced to “the woman’s issue.”
Some will say that talking about who serves during the worship-service hour is a distraction and not important when compared to other matters.
I think they are missing the holiness of that hour. I also think they have some serious cognitive dissonance going on. If you really cared about women and what they are bringing to the table and what they have to say, you would not bar them from serving at the table and from speaking during that hour.
And to continually ignore the issue, and to let it continue, shows a lack of care about women. What a church does publicly, in that hour, speaks to their actual views and conduct privately. By not prioritizing women in that holy hour, it shows you are not prioritizing them privately, behind closed doors, and that priority is communicated to everyone.
Some want to say that this is a preference and not a salvation issue. I think it is sinful to limit women, to say their gifts must be limited, they must be prohibited, to close doors to them, to deny their calling.
This is people’s lives. I’ve seen it in messages and in conversations. This is much more important that the Churches of Christ makes it out to be. And this poem resonating with such a large number of people proves it.
You address challenging issues publicly. How has that gone?
I was never allowed to preach or teach growing up, but I felt like I had a lot to say. It felt “pent up,” and it began to spill onto paper. At first, I wrote fairly innocuous blog posts. But, as the years went on, I started writing uncomfortable truths—truths about racism and sexism and rape culture and feminism and homophobia.
Because of this, I lost access to many of the spaces to which I was previously invited. Lectureships no longer asked me to speak. Publications didn’t really want me to write. I felt pretty uncomfortable in a place I previously called home. At first, I was discouraged and did a lot of second guessing.
Did your outlook change?
Yes. I came to realize that just because someone is not receiving affirmation from their faith community does not mean that they are not gifted or that they are not speaking truth. Just because you are not getting validation from other people does not mean that you do not have a calling. It is God that is calling me to speak.
My voice is going to be my voice. I’m not able to modulate it to the liking of most people within our faith tradition. God gave me this volume and this tenor, and I keep speaking because I keep finding people like me. It’s like a beacon to those who have been so hurt by religion that they want nothing to do with it—and it’s these people who I have learned the most from and who have taught me God’s love.
Do you have a path or mission?
My mission is to find the kicked out, the bruised, and burdened and to learn at their feet. My mission is to create a community where we can share our lives and hearts with one another without dulling each other’s gifts, spirits, and love. My mission is to live with those the Church decided didn’t belong, and to help them carve out all the toxic experiences and self-loathing and to accept them doing the same for me.
What is your hope for the Churches of Christ?
I want it healthy … recalibrated … refocused. I want it to lean into its original mission and focus completely on the grace and love of God. …
It championed a priesthood of ALL believers. I want the church to step out of its ego and realize that the people leaving (and those who aren’t coming) aren’t participating in their community because they’ve been made to feel second-class and unloved. … I want the Churches of Christ to be a space open to the gifting of the Spirit. No matter who the Spirit has been poured out on, I want the church to say, “Come. We want to hear what you have to say.” … I want women to be able to lead, teach, and preach according to their calling. I want transgender people to feel fully seen and heard in their community. …
Above all, my hope for the Churches of Christ is the same hope I have for the global Church: love their neighbor as themselves and not quench the Spirit.
Shetler’s December 17 poem can be found at her Facebook page at this link: here.
This article is the second of two articles in a series on Shetler’s poem. The first one is here: Steve Gardner, “Female Church of Christ Preacher, Poet Reaches Millions With Advent Message,” AuthenticTheology.com (January 28, 2020).
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Sources and Notes
Shetler’s December 17 Advent poem, the one that went viral, can be found at her Facebook page at this link: here.
Her poetry page can be found at this link: here.
For sources and notes for this article generally, see my prior article describing the viral nature and reach of Shetler’s poem and the sources and notes: Steve Gardner, “Female Church of Christ Preacher, Poet Reaches Millions With Advent Message,” AuthenticTheology.com (January 28, 2020).
On the Churches of Christ decline generally, data on shrinking rate, evangelicals holding steady, 1-4%, etc., see, e.g., these articles and sources cited therein: Steve Gardner, “Church of Christ Decline Worsens, 2400 a Month Depart, Treatment of Women & Girls Factor,” AuthenticTheology.com (November 13, 2019); Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Closing Monthly, Doubling Rate, Treatment of Girls and Women Factor,” AuthenticTheology.com (December 11, 2019).
Major study warning: See Stanley E. Granberg, “Three Bold Challenges for Churches of Christ,” Wineskins.org (July 17, 2019) (“A disturbing prospect looms before us as the fact of our decline of Churches of Christ (CoC) has moved from unbelievable to undeniable. The question we must answer is no longer, “How are we doing;” our question is now, “What shall we do about it?” Last year I published an article describing the decline of CoC in the Great Commission Research Journal (Fall 2018). This year, Tim Woodroof and I wrote a paper that looks into the crystal ball of the possible future of CoC in 2050. At the present, the best analysis is that each month six CoC congregations close their doors. Given the current trends, we expect that rate to double—or even triple—before we arrive at 2050. If this does occur, we could see the fellowship of CoC drop from just over 12,000 churches to under 3,000.”); Tim Woodroof & Stan Greenberg, “Churches of Christ: Losing Our Hope Seeking Our Future: New Study Reveals Drastic Decline,” Interim Ministry Partners (2019).
Number of freshman …: Trace Hebert, “Do our churches still benefit from our universities?,” The Christian Chronicle (January 2020).
Some Churches of Christ changed …: See, e.g.,some of the churches at Where The Spirit Leads.Org; see also Steve Gardner, “One of Largest Churches of Christ Opens Preaching Role to Women — And Some Questions,” AuthenticTheology.com (September 17, 2019).
A short sermon in the form of a poem by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler, advocate for women and justice and preacher in Churches of Christ circles, reached more than double the number of U.S. Churches of Christ members in under 48 hours of its publication on social media. It may have now reached more than 10 million people.
Shetler’s poem has been widely cited and discussed but Churches of Christ leaders seem to have largely ignored, missed, or foregone publicly commenting on it.
I interview Shetler about her poem, what it’s like to be a female preacher and activist in the Churches of Christ world, and her hope for the future of the Churches of Christ.
The interview has been edited for length.
Update: 2/5: Removed the italics on the introduction. Made it harder to read when viewing in some browsers at that length.
Picture: Picture of Kaitlin Hardy Shetler speaking at church.
For more on scripture, see:
Start here —– : Steve Gardner, “20 Passages Asking Women to Speak, Teach, Lead, and Have Authority Over Men, In the Assembly and Elsewhere,” AuthenticTheology.com (September 3, 2018).
For a discussion regarding 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, see Steve Gardner, “Most Church of Christ Colleges No Longer Exclude Women From Leading in Worship Services: … 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 …,” AuthenticTheology.com (May 22, 2018).
For a discussion regarding 1 Timothy 2:12, see Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: 1 Timothy 2:12, “Teach or Usurp Authority” (Part 3),” AuthenticTheology.com (April 9, 2019).
For a discussion regarding 1 Timothy 2:11-15, see Steve Gardner, “Most Church of Christ Colleges No Longer Exclude Women From Leading in Worship Services: … 1 Timothy 2:12 …,” AuthenticTheology.com (May 30, 2018).
For a discussion regarding female elders, see Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: Female Elders (Part 2),” AuthenticTheology.com (April 3, 2019).
For a discussion regarding Christ’s example, see Steve Gardner, “One of Largest Churches of Christ Opens Preaching Role to Women — And Some Questions,” AuthenticTheology.com (September 17, 2019).
For scriptural discussions from various Churches of Christ, see these three articles: Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: List and Links (Part 1),” AuthenticTheology.com (March 26, 2019); Steve Gardner, “Another 10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: Their Reasons & a Quiz,” AuthenticTheology.com (April 24, 2019); and Steve Gardner, “4 More Churches of Christ Open Speaking Roles to Women,” AuthenticTheology.com (November 26, 2019).