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A Woman Empowered

Caitlyn Stenerson ’14 S’19

“I was a teenager when I was called into ministry,” says 2017 Omark Preaching Competition winner Caitlyn Stenerson ’14 S’19 definitively. She preached her first sermon at 17, encouraged by her pastor and motivated by strong female leaders around her growing up. “Representation matters!” she adds.

Long before she was ever a student at Bethel, the seminary library first beckoned her with its more practical characteristics.

“It’s seriously the quietest place in the Twin Cities,” says Stenerson, who had followed a pastor friend’s recommendation for a quiet and serene spot to study up, with theological resources a-plenty. But even the quietest space and best collection of commentaries weren’t quite enough to help her knock her first speaking opportunity out of the park. “I wrote a speech. I didn’t deviate from my script. I didn’t do well! I realized it was because I didn’t know how to preach a message…I thought ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here at all.’”

Despite the rough start, Stenerson still felt an unmistakable call toward impacting lives through communication, and she actually looked at Bethel Seminary before even considering Bethel for college.

“I didn’t know I needed to go to undergrad first!” Stenerson says with a laugh. She enrolled in Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) classes at Bethel, attended another school for a time, and eventually finished her political science degree at Bethel in 2014. She spent a few years doing political communications before a friend suggested she apply for a Kern Scholarship back at Bethel Seminary.

Stenerson was on the fence, considering several other seminaries on her path back to ministry. But she realized that many of the top Twin Cities pastors she knew—including several of the women who had influenced and encouraged her growing up—were Bethel Seminary alumni. The most prominent Bible commentaries, she says, “all have Bethel contributors. Jeannine Brown—her work is everywhere! This place is well-respected by so many people. And the Master of Divinity explores how the church can be a part of the community in life-giving ways. I love that.”

Stenerson was awarded the competitive Kern Scholarship and the night before she needed to accept or decline the offer, she was driving with her mom and hashing out her options. Noticing the angst in her daughter about the big decision, her mom looked her in the eye and said, “Caitlyn, you have a message the church needs to hear.”

With those words of encouragement, she enrolled, but felt a bit like a fish out of water when she noticed the demographics of the other students around her. She recalls one class, early in her seminary program, where she was one of the younger students in the room, and one of only three women. The temptation was to sit back and stay quiet, for fear of sticking out in an already-awkward situation.

“Professor Dennis Edwards pulled the three of us aside and said, ‘I want to hear my sisters’ voices.’ Having a professor empower you like that as a human, and as a woman, is so amazing,” Stenerson says. “Sometimes we forget that we’re here because we have something to say that nobody else can say. Professors are here to empower us to do what God has called us to do, even if we can’t see it ourselves. Having a person in authority see and support us, to tell us that we’re not here by accident? That’s been really important.”

This spring, as a finalist in the Omark Preaching Competition, Stenerson showcased the biblical beauty and power of diversity by focusing her justice-themed talk on a piece of Scripture found in Philemon. She focused on how people’s different experiences could work together to advance the kingdom of God—something she knows a thing or two about. “Plus, nobody preaches on Philemon!” she says.

A mentor had often encouraged her to “embody the text,” ask what the words say literally, and consider the historical and cultural context. To flesh out a sermon, she consults Logos and Bible Hub—a website that allows her to see the original language next to current translations—and uses a journaling Bible where she can see her notes from previous sermons she’s heard on a specific theme or passage. (It’s always the English Standard Version—she calls herself an “ESV nerd.”)

Stenerson says the question in her mind—and the approach she takes to speaking and leading—is, “God, what are you actually saying? To me? To the church?” It’s there that her unique experiences and particular worldview are most valuable. She lets the passage marinate in her mind for a time, reflecting on its particular meaning, before she needs to actually develop her talk. Sometimes she leaves herself voice memos as she’s driving—because it seems the best breakthroughs happen at inopportune times, without paper or a laptop handy. There are some higher-tech tools as well: “Google is my friend,” she jokes.

“The night before, I usually take one more crack at it—I resisted the urge to scrap my whole Omark talk the night before,” Stenerson says. There was a time recently—with her youth group—that she set down her meticulously-crafted sermon notes and completely went off script with her talk because she realized it was what her students needed to hear that day. “I pray ‘Holy Spirit, this is Your message, not mine. If You want to steal the show, that’s fine,’” she says.

With that approach in mind, Stenerson won the Omark competition with her talk “Justice is Opening a Seat at the Table,” becoming one of just 10 female winners in the 50 years of the contest.

“The women who have done it before are some of the greats of Twin Cities preaching,” Stenerson said before going into the final round of the competition. She noted how excited she was to be able to take the stage in Chapel at her alma mater, and how incredible it would be to join the ranks of female Omark winners. “The Omark really emboldens and gives people confidence.”

Caitlyn Stenerson is heading into her third year as a Master of Divinity student at Bethel Seminary, with concentrations in Marriage and Family Studies and the Hebrew language. She’s passionate about pursuing holistic ministry that transforms communities, families, and individuals through the power of Jesus Christ—and currently serves as teen associate at Emmanuel Covenant Church in Shoreview, MN.

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