In 2013, Kate Bowler ’02, a historian at Duke Divinity School, published her debut book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. It was the first comprehensive history of a movement defined by—as she explains in a 2016 New York Times essay—“the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.”
Two years later, she was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at 35. “I did the things you might expect of someone whose world has suddenly become very small. I sank to my knees and cried. I called my husband at our home nearby. I waited until he arrived so we could wrap our arms around each other and say the things that must be said,” Bowler wrote in the same essay, “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me.” “But one of my first thoughts was also Oh, God, this is ironic. I recently wrote a book called Blessed.”
Bowler’s words appeared in Macalester Today when we reprinted her essay later that year. Since her diagnosis, she has navigated what it’s like to be an expert on health, wealth, and happiness while being ill. She published a memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved), which became a New York Times bestseller, and hosts the podcast “Everything Happens.” Released this fall, her book The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities follows the rise of celebrity Christian women in American evangelism. “This is a history of the modern Christian marketplace that explains why most women are asked to lead with their personality than their credentials,” she says. “It is a critical look into the evangelical world, those who are given power, and mainly, those who aren’t. It might reveal things about your own life, or show you more about the culture in which you live, or introduce you to a new world of female leaders whose books line every shelf at Target.”
What surprised her during more than 100 conversations with Christian celebrities? “The way they let a complete stranger into the deepest parts of their lives,” Bowler says. “This book wouldn’t have been possible if the interviewees didn’t decide that it is better to be known than to be deemed perfect. That’s a lesson I’ll take with me.”
Introduction by Rebecca Dejarlais Ortiz ’06
The following is excerpted from THE PREACHER’S WIFE: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities by Kate Bowler. Copyright ©2019 by Kate Bowler. Published by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.
UNDER THE CHURCH’S website banner, Ed and Lisa Young were smiling at the camera in matching denim, her hand lightly touching his chest and his arm around her back. “For just a moment, forget everything you’ve ever thought of when it comes to church,” reads the caption beside them. “Imagine a home for all who are looking for hope. This is Fellowship Church!” Though in their mid-fifties they looked a cool decade younger, which did not hurt sales for Sexperiment, their New York Times-bestselling guide to sex that had the couple spending 24 livestreamed hours in a staged bed on the roof of their church. She was the founder of “Flavour,” the women’s ministry for their 25,000-person congregation, and the author of a few books on marriage, beauty, children, and a cookbook, A Dash of Flavour. Together, they were the branded image of the largest Southern Baptist church in the country, which met at seven different locations throughout Texas and Florida or via the streaming of Ed Young’s “Fifty Shades of THEY” on Netflix. Everywhere one looked for Fellowship Church, the two of them were pictured smiling and inviting all to join them next Sunday for the latest sermon series like “Shark Weak” or “Espresso Yourself.”
In the world of modern megaministry, a pastor’s wife was the welcome mat. She was the smile, the open arms, and the “Hello! Won’t you come in?” to a church experience with a dizzying array of ways to participate. With multiple services and a half dozen campuses, a pastor’s wife like Lisa Young could not simply stand by the door handing out bulletins and greet people as they entered. The country’s largest churches had outgrown any leader’s capacity to know the majority of their congregants. Every megachurch wife I spoke to described what it was like to look out over a flood of attendees and not recognize a soul. Although she may not always know them, they know her; somewhere in the sea of digital and in-person experiences of a single ecclesial community, the pastor and his wife were anchoring figures. If there was a billboard on the side of the highway advertising a church, she would be there, leaning over her husband’s shoulder or slipped under his protective arm. And on megachurch websites, a photograph of the pastor and his wife was the most common advertisement for the church.
The omnipresence of women’s images was matched only by the dearth of substantive information about them. Most churches wanted to make it clear that the pastor’s wife had no actual position on staff or, in any case, that her importance was relative to his. This made introductions into a linguistic obstacle course, because as women were presented they almost instantly disappeared. An 8,000-member Arkansas megachurch introduced its senior pastor, Rick Bezet, to online audiences in a very typical way.
Next to an image of him beside his wife Michelle, were the words:
Rick & Michelle Bezet // LEAD PASTOR
Rick Bezet is the founder and lead pastor of New Life Church of Arkansas. Since starting [New Life Church] Conway in 2001, New Life has grown to include ten churches in nine cities with 20+ services, and two online services. . . . Rick and his lovely wife, Michelle, have been married for over 20 years and they have four children. They live in Conway, Arkansas.
Michelle appeared next to a title she did not possess as part of the branding for a church that may or may not employ her. In the Christian public’s mind’s eye, a famous wife was a block of marble chiseled mostly by the imagination. She might be the neck that turned her husband’s head, the Salome that turned his heart, or the Ruth that laid herself at his feet. Her defining qualities and acts in shaping the ministry must be interpreted in gestures and shadows. Did she stand tucked behind him or sit quietly in the front row? Was she alone on stage explaining how she would give up ministry in a heartbeat if her husband simply told her to? Perhaps she sat beside him as the cameras filmed their television show, but when the credits rolled the show was in his name only. Sometimes I wondered if the fastest way to identify a woman’s role in megaministry was to interview all of the lighting technicians on every mainstage in the country. Who would the spotlight fall on when the lights went down? Did the crowd know her face? Her role was a curious one. Whether she eclipsed everyone in the room or was an unseen partner to her husband’s ministry, her mere existence sparked with power.
Assessing questions of significance and power were further complicated, as I discovered, by the ambiguity with which most public women in ministry narrated their own significance. Almost all women in the largest churches, parachurches, and on other platforms went to great lengths to hide their importance as a way of shielding themselves from criticism.
The self-presentation of Proverbs 31 founder Lysa TerKeurst was a study in deflected significance. Though she ran a multimillion-dollar organization that reached hundreds of thousands of women every day, making her one of the most powerful women in modern evangelical circuits, she described her success as being able to: “get through the day having spent time with the Lord, exercised in some way, had a laugh with one of my kids, had clean underwear in my husband’s drawer when he needed them and made a friend smile.” Before their marital woes became public knowledge, Lysa described her husband as a loving leader and a longsuffering man, who, once a month, “simply puts up with me and my bout of the Princess Must Scream syndrome.” While no one expected Oprah to keep her partner Stedman’s underwear drawer stocked, these audiences were keenly attuned to indications that TerKeurst grounded her identity in relationship, motherhood, and wifehood. Superstar Beth Moore was quick to assure audiences that her husband, Keith, wore the Wranglers in their relationship, while televangelist Joyce Meyer continually invoked her husband Dave’s benevolent approval of her media empire. As icons of the middle class, these women were expected to embody its trials and triumphs. They must be hard-working but not competitive, polished but not fussy, wholesome but not perfect. And as famous women, they must do what all famous women do and pretend to be average, subject to the acid test of “relatability.” Their stories should be peppered with mishaps—they broke the eggs bagging their own groceries, put their shirts on inside-out, and ruined their children’s Halloween costumes.
Some of these women were particularly formidable given that most cobbled their skills together on their own, without men in ministry’s equivalent pastoral education. As we will discuss in Chapters One and Four, women had rarely been expected or encouraged to be theologically credentialed. As a result, most never sat in classes to learn systematic theology, scriptural exegesis, counseling, Christian history, or preaching. Instead, they assigned their own reading, honed their own preaching skills (often before female audiences), and earned their place in the Christian industry without the benefit of formal training. They were queens of self-mastery.
Or not. Some women earned their place in the sun and others simply basked in the reflected glow of others. While most women fought to be worthy of their status, it was possible to find megaministry women happy to float on the credentials of their mates, offering what skills they already had with mixed results. Like any inherited job, women may assume a church position as an entitlement and a perk. A megachurch wife might cheerfully list “shopping” as her primary hobby, knowing that her massive church salary and limited obligations give her plenty of money and time for it.
Regardless of whether she craved the public eye or longed for anonymity, she must pick her place. A famous Christian woman could be many things—ambitious or deferential, canny or naive, intuitive or clueless, sweet or with a dash of salty language. But, whoever she was, she lived in front of many audiences.
Though not all famous Christian women were pastors’ wives—and in fact, many of the most widely recognized were not—the most common role for a woman in megaministry was that of the preacher’s wife. Like Whitney Houston’s famous movie character, the preacher’s wife was married to the ministry and her talents were inexorably drawn into the life of the church. This should come as no surprise: the complementarian theologies that governed the largest Protestant churches installed hundreds of men at the helm of institutions and pressed their willing (and sometimes unwilling) wives into service. Further, many of the leading women in itinerant or parachurch ministry were also married to men in ministry. For this reason, a famous megaministry woman found that her power maintained the appearance of being borrowed. Regardless of her own credentials, she drew fame from the familial role she held as a mother, sister, daughter, or, most often, wife of an important godly man. It was seen in almost every small gesture like her Twitter handle or the way the conference host announced her onstage: Taffi was Creflo Dollar’s wife. Dodie was Joel Osteen’s mom. Priscilla was Tony Evans’s daughter. Though there were some scrappy women who built their ministries from scratch it was hard and lonely work. Most women built on the poured foundation of marriage and family.
The woman who professionalized her role as wife or family member could build a career of her own. It was a convenient arrangement for both churches that affirmed women in ministry and those that did not, because audiences presumed that a wife’s actions were subject to her husband’s approval and therefore sanctioned. She could likewise benefit from the administrative staff, publicity, in-house audiences, and personal and professional relationships that floated his career. In the pages that follow, the preacher’s wife serves as an embodied argument for the twin forces—complementarianism and capitalism—that steered the careers of evangelical women celebrities. The preacher’s wife was the safest woman in ministry: authorized to exercise her gifts by her husband’s pastoral oversight and shielded from the worst excesses of the marketplace. Most women’s careers in ministry depended on borrowed institutions, a guest spot on a television program, or a women’s conference in someone else’s church. Certainly, women without famous husbands could build a career on their own with a skeleton staff, but their livelihoods hung on a delicate web of relationships and connections. They depended on each other to keep their content and their brand in circulation and to find that sweet spot between irrelevance and controversy.
For women, this is an era of almost—almost feminist, almost patriarchal, almost progressive, and almost regressive—and in these pages we hold the prism of their experiences up to the light. The lives of public women invite us to ask again what Americans expect from women in the spotlight; and whether they will ever grow used to women’s presence in the main seats of power, in the pulpit, in the corner office, or in the White House. The women of megaministry are exceptional, but they are not simply exceptions. They are religious reflections of almost-mythic American ideals of women as wives and mothers, pillars and martyrs, in a culture divided over whether women should lean in or opt out.
November 1 2019Back to top