Ashley Wilcox, an alum of the 8th On Being a Spiritual Nurturer class, has been following a call to preach for some time now. It has led her to travel in ministry, start a church led by women preachers and, most recently, write a lectionary focused on passages on women in the Bible.
School of the Spirit’s administrator, Olivia Chalkley, attended Ashley’s church, the Church of Mary Magdalene, several years ago. She reconnected with Ashley for this interview on where her call to ministry is leading her now.
Could you share a bit about your history as a Friend?
I grew up evangelical, in Anchorage, Alaska, which is a particular flavor of evangelical. I went to a private Christian school that was parent run, just a notch above homeschooling really. So I was in this evangelical bubble growing up, and I was really into it. I was into God and youth group and all of that, but I knew that there wasn’t really a place for me in it. I felt an early call to ministry, although I wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but the only options were to be a pastor’s wife or a missionary teacher. I thought maybe I would like to be a missionary teacher, when I was a kid, but it just wasn’t a good fit.
Then I went to public high school, and when I was in high school, Alaska was one of the first states to have a ‘marriage is only between a man and a woman’ amendment. Church got super political, and I had all of these queer friends and I was just like, I’m out. This is it for me. I didn’t end up coming out until much later, but I just couldn’t stay. I left the church entirely and went to UC Santa Cruz for undergrad, which was great, and so far away from church. It wasn’t until I went to law school that I started looking for a church again, because I was so unhappy in law school socially. Because of the way I was raised, I went to find community in a church.
That was one of the good things out of my childhood experiences: I knew to look for that. I was looking around, and I went to an Episcopal church and I almost ended up there. Then I went to visit my aunt and uncle in Portland, and they said, we think a Quaker church might be good for you – they had gone to a Quaker church before. I found Freedom Friends online and ended up there, so my first experiences of Friends were in a semi-programmed worship. That was a really good fit for me then, in terms of community and spiritually. I felt like I could be myself; I loved the silence; I loved the singing and prayer. It was just good.
I stayed there for a few years and then I moved to Seattle for work. There wasn’t a semi-programmed worship there; there was only programmed or unprogrammed, and I ended up at the unprogrammed meeting, just kind of randomly. It could have gone either way, but people reached out to me from the unprogrammed meeting. And so again, it was community for me. I’ve always been back and forth between semi-programmed and unprogrammed and programmed meetings, and I feel really comfortable in all of those settings. I could have ended up in any of them, but instead I’m kind of in all of them.
Now I’m worshiping with a conservative meeting, and that feels like the best fit for where I am. Because so much of my ministry is outwardly focused it’s good to have a place where I can sit in open worship and charge up like a battery, and then go out and preach and teach and do other things elsewhere.
You were in the eighth On Being a Spiritual Nurturer class at School of the Spirit. Could you talk a little bit about that – how it impacted your ministry and your current work in the world?
I did the School of the Spirit when I was in my late twenties – I started in 2009. I already had some notoriety in Quaker circles at that point because we were coming out of a period where a lot of people were reading each other’s blogs, and I was looking for some more grounding in what I was doing. I had been doing some traveling ministry and organizing the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference, and that continued while I was doing the School of the Spirit. So this was a time where I was traveling a lot. I remember I had a suitcase packed and I was going somewhere about once a month. It was ungrounding, and I was in transition in my life in a lot of ways.
I was working full-time as a lawyer, and on top of that doing basically full-time Quaker ministry. It was just really unsustainable. I was looking for something, and School of the Spirit was great for me in terms of meeting people and being grounded in worship. I did two projects in that Spiritual Nurturer class – the first was on supporting young adult Friends who are traveling in the ministry, and the second was on Quaker women who had been recorded in different Yearly Meetings. Both of those projects were really personal to me, and I got to meet a lot of people who cared about those topics while I was doing research.
That really set me on the path for what I would do next. I was meeting with my Care Committee at one point during the second year and in that meeting, everyone became clear that I would go to seminary. I had been resisting it because I already had a graduate degree and I didn’t really want to do another one, but we were all talking about it and were like, yeah, that’s actually what’s going to happen. I’d had a lot of people suggesting it to me before then, but that was when I made the decision. It took me a couple more years after to get my life ready for that kind of change, but I knew it right then.
I really burned out around that same time on the kind of Quaker ministry I’d been doing – the traveling was just too much and I wasn’t feeling good. So I stopped and that was really good for me too – I just stayed home for a while.
So the Spiritual Nurturer class put you on the path to going to seminary, and you went to Candler School of Theology. What was your focus there?
I did a Master of Divinity thesis on women ministers’ bodies and how they’re perceived as threatening and threatened. That work has been really important to me personally and professionally – women’s bodies and women’s stories. For that thesis, I collected the stories from hundreds of women in ministry about their bodies and the experiences they’d had.
You went on to start the Church of Mary Magdalene – how did that project come to be?
While I was at Candler, I started realizing that I felt really called to preach and do pastoral work. I hadn’t planned to do that when I went – I thought I would probably work for a Quaker nonprofit because those are the jobs that are available. I applied for a few of those while I was in school, and they just weren’t the right fit.
One summer, while I was at Candler, I worked at First Friends Meeting in Greensboro. That was when I realized that I wanted to do pastoral work. I loved the preaching, and I loved the administration, and I loved the people. So in my final year, and then afterwards, I was applying for Quaker pastor positions, and way was not opening for me to get any of those jobs. It was really frustrating and sad for me because I felt this call and I didn’t have any place to do it.
Then I had a dream about preaching for women. I got up in the pulpit and there were these women sitting out in the sanctuary. There weren’t very many of them, and there were a lot of chairs, but when I got up there, the women brought their chairs up to the front and were there to hear me.
It was really powerful. I met with a friend the next day and was talking about this dream and about my frustrations and I said, you know, I’m thinking about starting this Wednesday night semi-programmed worship, just to give myself a place to do this. That’s how it got started. It came together very quickly and went for two years at Atlanta Friends Meeting.
Looking back, it was just such an interesting time because I got to try out some of the ideas that I wanted to do. You may remember that one of the goals was to “pass the microphone,” to have other people come and preach and to pay them. We couldn’t pay them very much, but we paid them something. Prioritizing women of color, queer women, people who wouldn’t necessarily get a place to preach elsewhere. That was really cool for me to be able to see. If I were to start a church again, I would start it differently, but it’s great to have a place where you can try out those ideas and see what works and what doesn’t
What would you do differently?
I think if I was trying to be a diverse place, I would start with people of color in leadership from the very beginning. That’s something that I’ve learned along the way and heard from other places, but it really was true there. We did have some diversity in the leadership team that ultimately came together, but it’s just not the same when you don’t have those voices contributing from the beginning.
Makes sense. So, you have a book coming out in August?
Yes, and my book really came out of Church of Mary Magdalene. I was preaching at Church of Mary Magdalene, and that was my first experience of weekly preaching. I’d done a lot of preaching before, but it was usually as a guest preacher – I was in and out and just had one topic. So it was exciting for me to be able to come up with series and, over time, see how things connected.
I found that Church of Mary Magdalene people really responded when I preached about women in the Bible. So I did some series on those, and I was loosely following the Revised Common Lectionary, which many Protestant preachers do, but a lot of the stories about women were left out. I’d look in there and try and find a story about a woman for that Sunday, but I wouldn’t be able to, so I’d have to choose something else. I felt this real pull between the two options, because there are so many resources for the Revised Common Lectionary, and it’s nice to be part of a community of preachers who are preaching the same thing… but I wanted to preach about women.
So I was talking about this with my partner one day and he was like, well, why don’t you just write your own lectionary? That was over a Thanksgiving weekend, so I had some time, and at first I just wanted to see if I could come up with enough text from the Bible to put together a year of preaching – one from the Old Testament, one from the New – and I could! It came together pretty quickly. That was really exciting for me – it was like a game or a puzzle.
During this time I was also a teaching associate for Candler’s Intro to Preaching Class. I went to see the professor that I worked for, Ted Smith, and told him about it. And he just assumed that I would be writing commentaries on all of them, so it went from being an outline to a book in one meeting. He was really encouraging. So I started using that lectionary to preach at Church of Mary Magdalene, and then turning my sermons into commentaries. This was another place where that church was a great place to experiment, because I didn’t have anyone telling me that I couldn’t do it, or any outside structure.
It’s funny, as I’m telling you this I’m feeling how Way opened and Way closed in various places. Sometimes when it opens it’s way open and sometimes I really think something should happen and it doesn’t.
Your book comes out on August 24th from Westminster John Knox Press. Do you have any events folks should know about?
Right now I have mostly online events lined up for the summer. I’m doing a course at Woodbrook based on the book called “Evil Queens and Wicked Stepmothers,” and I’m doing the Bible Study at North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. One of the things that’s so cool about this book is that I’ve written a lot of building blocks that I can use in other classes and Bible studies, and I hope it will be that kind of resource for other people too.
It does seem like a really great jumping off point. Are there other spaces where you’re called to ministry these days?
For the past few years, I’ve mostly been outside of Quakers in terms of where my ministry is, and I’ve felt like I was a Quaker for others. I’m teaching at a Methodist seminary; I’m working with a Presbyterian press; I preach for Disciples of Christ and Baptists. I’m just outside of the Quaker world, and that’s been really good for me, in part because other denominations pay better! And that is really helpful. I’m often pretty broke, and so getting larger honoraria really helps. But also, they are really interested in what we have to say. For example, I’m doing a Quaker discernment workshop for a UMC church in a few weeks, and they really want to know what our discernment practices are. Communities that don’t have those kinds of practices want the tools. So much of being in the Quaker world is having the same conversations over and over again, and I get tired of that.
Studying at Candler was really helpful because my professors there would push me to articulate Quaker theology in a way that made sense to other people. It helped me clarify what I believe and what Friends are about, and to situate Friends historically, because many of the things that we just think of as weird are very historically specific. Like the Inner Light – that was a big deal in other denominations around that time. And we can lose that context. Just having an overview of church history is really helpful. I don’t think that people need a graduate degree in theology to understand Quakers, but it sure was helpful for me.
The Women’s Lectionary is a resource for working pastors to preach weekly on women and feminine images of God in the Bible. I hope to reach newer pastors who are a few years out of seminary and are looking for Bible-based resources on preaching about women.
The underlying belief in it is very Quaker: that God speaks to women, God speaks through women, and God speaks through women’s stories. If we don’t listen to these, we are missing part of the fullness of God’s witness in the world.
The book is not just for preachers, though. And it’s not just for women. A lot of young people and people of all genders are looking for fresh ways to read the Bible and want to learn about these stories that we don’t always hear. I’m already hearing that people will use The Women’s Lectionary for Bible study groups and as a basis for ongoing conversations about the Bible, gender, and God.
Ashley M. Wilcox
The Women’s Lectionary: Preaching the Women of the Bible throughout the Year
Coming August 24, 2021 from Westminster John Knox Press
Ashley M. Wilcox is a Quaker minister and the author of the new book, The Women’s
Lectionary: Preaching the Women of the Bible throughout the Year. She wants churches to
spend an entire year preaching about women in the Bible and feminine images of God.