Nov. 25, 2020
“How we talk about things matters” — this concept is a key starting point to get to know professor of communication studies, Joy Qualls, and part of why she authored the new book: God Forgive Us for Being Women: Rhetoric, Theology, and the Pentecostal Tradition (Pickwick Publications, May 2018). As a rhetoric expert, Qualls applied her skill and passion for rhetoric to research how language surrounding the role of women in the church used in the Pentecostal tradition has impacted church practices and people. In the book, she shares how rhetoric used in the tradition on the role of women has created dissonance and discontentment for both men and women.
Here, Qualls shares more about her research, personal interest in the topic, and how she discovered the catchy title for her book.
The book is titled God Forgive Us for Being Women. What does that mean? Is there a story behind the title?
The title comes from a speech given on the floor of a Southern California District Council by Mae Eleanor Frey. Frey, an evangelist, who at one time wanted to be credentialed for the role of pastor, but was never allowed that credential (only that of evangelist) was responding to debate on the floor over a resolution that would have allowed women to serve in greater capacity in the So Cal District. Frey carried on a nearly 25 year letter writing relationship with the General Secretaries of the Assemblies of God in Springfield over her work and her desire to be credentialed. Frey’s exasperation when she stated, “I feel like asking God to forgive us for being women!” served as an inspiration for the title and for the foundation of the book. What it means is that women, called to minister, ran into obstacles that are inherently rhetorical (how we talk about things), simply because of their gender, in spite of there being rhetorical positions and policies that should not have inhibited their work for the church.
The book title addresses the Pentecostal tradition but you focus nearly exclusively on the Assemblies of God. Why?
I chose to focus on the Assemblies of God (A/G) for two reasons: 1) It is my ecclesiastical home. 2) the A/G is the largest Pentecostal fellowship worldwide and has the most open official policy to the work of women at all levels of ministry. This policy is enshrined in the constitution and bylaws and has been nearly unchanged since 1935, yet women today still find themselves having to justify their call to ministry and struggle to find pastoral positions in many churches. I title it the Pentecostal tradition because I show the trajectory from the precursor movements of Pentecostalism to the birth of the movement itself and then to the more focused history of the A/G. Women in the Church of God in Christ, Church of God (Cleveland, TN), and International Pentecostal Holiness Church among others have experienced even greater challenges.
Why does a rhetorical focus on the subject of women's leadership in the church provide a new perspective?
The rhetorical focus emphasizes that we as human beings create a substantial part of our reality through our rhetoric, or how we talk about things. By focusing on the rhetorical history (rather than just a historiography), this study provides a deeper dive into how Pentecostal’s wrestled with how to talk about who they were while at the same time establishing doctrine that would hold up to scrutiny. The book also shows how women (and those who support the egalitarian position on women’s leadership) negotiate and re-negotiate their way through this construction of reality though their own rhetorical action.
What is it about rhetoric specifically that provides a means to find solutions between official policy and praxis on women's leadership?
I believe firmly that how we talk about things matters. So to analyze the way we have talked about things can also provide insight into the dissonance that has been experienced with regard to policy and praxis on women’s leadership. I have heard from countless people (even women pastors) who did not know the position on women was not just a white paper, but also a legally binding part of the AG Constitution and Bylaws. How we have talked about women’s leadership has framed our history and it will frame our future. Talk without action is often more dissonant, but I believe action comes from understanding which in turn comes from how we address these issues.
How do you answer those, even in your own tradition, who present arguments against women's leadership?
My answer to those who argue against women’s leadership is to look to the Scripture — even those very Scriptures that other’s use as a means to produce roadblocks to women’s leadership. I think from Genesis 1-3 and into the writings of Paul, there are substantial arguments that allow for women’s service to the church in all capacities and I think we need to wrestle with our differences and not just write people off. I hope those who disagree with these positions will still read the book and be open to the dialogue it is meant to create and sustain.
You tell a lot of stories in the book? How did you choose the women to feature? Why are their stories important?
I insisted on the narratives being included in this book. I wanted people as they read to feel the powerful ways in which women challenged the status quo, the frustration they felt at road blocks placed in their path, and the ways in which history was negotiated rhetorically. The narratives help provide names, faces — humanity to the historical record. I purposely chose women who were not the most famous, not the most heralded , and yet some who were well known for their work as well. I wanted the spectrum of the kind of women who helped created and forge the Pentecostal tradition and how they managed to engage in ministry work in spite of the obstacles they faced. I also wanted the reader to feel the tension of irony as some of these women were married to men who did not support official positions on women’s leadership, but were champions of the work done by their own wives.
How can pastors and local leaders benefit from your work?
Pastors and leaders can benefit from my work by examining the ways in which they use rhetoric with regard to service in the church. It is meant to open up discussion on the ways in which the local church and then regional districts play a more significant role in women’s freedom to pursue ministry or the inhibitors placed in the way of that service. I believe if we are to make significant in roads to reconciling our policy and practice, it has to begin at the local church level, then to the districts. That is where the rubber meets the road as it were for women and men who seek to promote a more egalitarian theology of women’s leadership.
God Forgive Us for Being Women: Rhetoric, Theology, and the Pentecostal Tradition (Pickwick Publications, May 2018) is available for purchase online.
Written by Jenna Loumagne, manager of media relations. For more information, contact Jenna at (562) 777-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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