“There’s something about preaching,” says Jerusha Neal, assistant professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School. “When someone stands and risks telling you what they really believe about who God is and what God is doing in the world, there are ways we can find each other through disagreements of dogma. There are ways we can meet heart to heart.”
Neal, who started at Duke this past July, didn’t always see herself as a preacher. She grew up in a nondenominational, intentional Christian community where the possibility never entered her mind. She thought she was called to academic work, but while at Princeton Theological Seminary, she preached for the first time at a 325-year-old church, First Presbyterian in Elizabeth, N.J. The experience was revelatory. “It was like a match got lit, and I knew that this was what I was supposed to be doing,” she says.
An ordained member of the American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA), Neal found herself falling in love with a United Methodist who worked in the California-Pacific Conference, one of several regions in the country where the ABCUSA resisted women in ordained ministry. “He was being assigned to a geographic area where the chances of my being able to preach were very small, and I had been called to preach," she says. “One of the great blessings of that season was a Methodist bishop who provided me an ecumenical appointment so that my husband and I could serve together. Since that time, I’ve spent my career preaching and serving in Methodist congregations.”
Most recently, Neal served as a Global Ministries missionary to the Fiji Islands through the United Methodist Church. During her years in Fiji, she served as dean of studies at Davuilevu Theological College, the oldest pastoral training school in the country.
“It was a fascinating place to think about theological education in relation to land, community, tradition, and God's Word. Fijian Christians are asking big questions about how to hang on to what is precious in their heritage while still remaining open to the outsider and God's transforming work,” Neal says.
The experience shaped her thinking about preaching in the global church and what it has to reveal about preaching in Western, white Protestant contexts.
“Preaching is so contextual, and it was a challenge to teach preaching in a place where the way words have meaning and what counts as a good sermon are so different! And that's just the start. In Fiji, the core scriptures that a preacher gravitates toward, the important themes named, what brings comfort and challenge, how metaphors work, how stories are told, all of these things are different,” she says. “And there's something about getting thrown off balance by those who look at the work of proclamation differently that makes space for God's Spirit to do something new in you.”
Neal also says that her experience in Fiji gave her a new appreciation for women’s voices, noting that only four of 70 students at Davuilevu Theological College were women.
“I'm teaching 'Women Preaching' here this term, and I'm amazed how many women still have stories of challenge in all kinds of traditions, not just in traditions you might expect,” she says. “Seeing the courage that Fijian women bring to these challenges in their own context gives me hope and reminds me that we have much to learn from our global sisters. When I left Fiji, I asked the women there to be in prayer for the women here.”
Neal’s experiences in the global church and her work with women directly relate to her scholarly work, which examines the action of the Spirit on the performative borders of body and culture. Her work looks at ways that the teaching of preaching has been historically used to exclude and marginalize certain bodies and describes ways to talk about body and Spirit that make space for God’s great diversity in the world.
“The preacher is not the one that saves,” she says. “Jesus is the one that saves. But God uses the preacher's body in a holistic way to testify to the fact that Jesus is in the room, transforming congregation and preacher both. In my experience, that living relation between Christ, preacher and community is what anointed preaching looks like. The joy of Spirit-filled preaching is that God changes us at the same time that God is changing the world."
At Duke, Neal says she appreciates the scholarship and conversation that stretches beyond the walls of the institution to Christians around the globe. She notes that the school is asking questions similar to those of our Fijian brothers and sisters: "How do we hang on to who we are while still being open to God's transforming work?"
“I feel like Duke lives that out in their theological commitment to the church—when they prioritize the language and self-identities of local faith communities in their scholarship,” she says. “But just as important is that edge of self-critical thought and a desire to be open to a God that changes our minds and hearts through a living Word. Theological education is not only about formation; it's about transformation.”