If you would have told a 12-year old Kara Lyons-Pardue that as an adult she would become a New Testament Professor at a Nazarene university, she probably wouldn’t have believed you.

If you look back at her story, however, there are clear signals that lead to this outcome. These signals are sprinkled from her childhood in a believing Christian family to responding to God’s call to minister in an educational context as a professor of New Testament, shaping students and teaching them how to engage with Scripture in deep, fulfilling, and curiosity-filled ways.

Where it All Began

Kara J. Lyons-Pardue grew up in Illinois in a household of what she describes as two “very faithful, believing Christians.” She was particularly shaped by her father, George Lyons, a New Testament professor for many years at Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois and later at Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho.

“I grew up in a family that cherished Scripture,” Lyons-Pardue said. “We valued Scripture memorization and education more broadly. Our conversations at the dinner table, both with my mom and dad, would be about nature, the world, history, and different cultures.”

This tradition of valuing Scripture dates back a few generations in Lyons-Pardue’s genealogy as she’s one in a long line of family members in the Nazarene tradition. Her great-grandmother, on her father’s side, for example, was involved in church planting during the 1900s.

“She sacrificed her family’s fortunes and all sorts of things when she became a sanctified believer and felt the call of God on her life,” Lyons-Pardue said.

As a child, Lyons-Pardue had the opportunity to explore different cultures. During her father’s sabbaticals, the family would spend some time living in Australia where he would minister at the Nazarene Theological College.

“We got to encounter lots of different cultures in that way,” Lyons-Pardue said.

All throughout her childhood, she was exposed to a strong church culture she grew to love and cherish.

“Growing up, we were nurtured very strongly in the church, in Scripture reading, and in all the activities typical of the Church of the Nazarene like Wednesday night church, Sunday mornings and evenings,” she said.

It was in this context that she would begin to develop a more intimate relationship with Jesus which would lead her to ministry.

Receiving the Call

Although she never had a “traditional” conversion story, Lyons-Pardue had a tender heart for ministry since childhood.

“I don’t remember a time in my life when I did not feel pulled toward Jesus or understand God’s love for me,” she said. “There was no specific point in which I repented of my sinful ways at four years old or something, but God had forever been working in my life and I had always been sensitive to the things of the Spirit.”

Lyons-Pardue had always enjoyed school. With a bold and outspoken personality, she would jump at the chance to perform in the classroom or in a group setting. When given the opportunity to act out Bible stories in Sunday school, Lyons-Pardue would offer to play the lead roles which were often men’s roles.

“I was told, ‘no no no, wait for Mary or Martha,’” she said. “They would also tell me, ‘Maybe you can be Lot’s wife,’ so I never really got to play those key parts.”

Through interactions like these she began to perceive women were treated differently than men in society.

“I began to internalize a bit of a secondary status that was in conflict with a growing call toward discipleship and allegiance toward Jesus that I felt during church services,” she said.

Although it wasn’t directly taught to her in such a way, she would often associate the terms ‘pastor’ or ‘preacher’ with ‘male.’ Coupled with the fact that she didn’t see very many women in leadership, she understood women seemed to have a different status in the church.

“I had heard, seen, and intuited enough and could tell that there seemed to be an upper-tier to which women could rise,” she said. “Sure, women could be children’s pastors, worship leaders, or traveling evangelists but there seemed to be a maximum capacity that they could reach.”

At the age of 17, Lyons-Pardue experienced a specific call to ministry. Given her love for education, she imagined herself teaching as a missionary. She enrolled at Northwest Nazarene University where she double-majored in English and Christian ministry.

“I could not imagine a call to ministry that wasn’t somehow steeped in teaching,” she said.

During those first few years of college, she was exposed to the Wesleyan tradition’s full embrace of women in pastoral leadership, being taught by female theology professors and meeting other female church leaders. These interactions and experiences allowed her to envision a ministry future for herself.

“My imagination began to expand,” she said. “All these pieces formed the perfect nurturing ground for what ultimately would become my vocation. It was the final piece for me to recognize God’s full empowerment of women in leadership in all roles in the church and in the world.”

All these pieces formed the perfect nurturing ground for what ultimately would become my vocation. It was the final piece for me to recognize God’s full empowerment of women in leadership in all roles in the church and in the world.”

One of the key passages she studied that had a profound impact on her was the story of Pentecost in the book of Acts: “It is then that the prophecy of Joel is fulfilled and the Holy Spirit is unquestionably poured out on all flesh, male and female,” she said. “Ethnic, age, and socio-economic divisions don’t matter anymore in that context.”

The discrepancy between what she was seeing in the church and what she was reading in Scripture energized her.

“I was convicted and realized this is our heritage,” she said. “This is a life-giving, spirit-filled way to read Scripture. And if this is the way to do it, I am fully on board and ready to advocate for what I see and speak up about what I perceive to be a diminishment of what the Spirit can do in our churches if we only fling wide open the doors.”

The Journey to Academia

As she progressed in her undergraduate studies, Lyons-Pardue began to realize she deeply enjoyed her theology, Bible, and ministry classes, sometimes far more than her English and literature ones.

“It became clear that I was moving toward a certain path,” she said.

She dove deep into more Bible classes including ones on the Old and New Testament, Hebrew, as well as classes in Greek. She also took several classes taught by her father.

Lyons-Pardue consistently performed at the top of her class and went on to win several awards. She credits her teachers and her father for helping her excel.

“I’ve had good teachers and good role models,” she said. “My dad, being my primary New Testament teacher, was wonderful. I loved his classes and learned so much from him.”

Despite her love for education, Lyons-Pardue initially shied away from the possibility of becoming a New Testament professor.

“I didn’t want to grow up and just be like my dad,” she said. “So, I think it took me a little longer to recognize what I was called to do. Those pieces should have fit together faster for me since I was taking a lot of Bible classes, loved school, and was called to ministry, but for some reason I ignored that possibility at first.”

She came around to the specific direction for her teaching vocation when she attended Nazarene Theological Seminary in Missouri right after graduating from college.

“Once I was out from under my dad’s shadow I realized my love for New Testament studies,” she said. “It was really within that year of being at seminary that I really understood that teaching the New Testament would be my trajectory.”

Following her time at seminary, she enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey where she formed significant friendships.

Lyons-Pardue preaches at PLNU Chapel

“My time at Princeton was every bit as challenging or more than I thought it could be,” she said. “I had amazing Ph.D. colleagues with me. We were a small group so we became very close and would support one another through the thesis-writing process. They have continued to be a gift to me in terms of encouragement, advice, and friendship.”

In 2011, Lyons-Pardue began teaching at Point Loma Nazarene University, where she now serves as Professor of New Testament. In that time, she completed her Ph.D. thesis on the long ending of Mark and was ordained as a minister in the Church of the Nazarene.

An Array of Accomplishments 

When she isn’t teaching, Lyons-Pardue engages in multiple writing projects each year from the most technical to the most accessible for a general audience.

“I really love that my career has allowed me to do that so far,” she said. “Now [a decade] into teaching at Point Loma, I get to write at multiple levels.”

She’s written journal articles and chapters, edited books, and presented at conferences, with titles including a “Commentary on Philemon” in Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition and an article in the Journal of Theological Interpretation, among others. She also regularly writes Sunday school curriculum for the Church of the Nazarene as well as other writings and contributions to Nazarene biblical literature.

Hand holds up a copy of Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon commentary book.

“It’s been really enriching. All of that has ramped up my enthusiasm and my conviction that there is always something new to learn when we encounter Scripture with an open mind,” she said.

Another activity she engages in whole-heartedly outside of teaching is pouring into her students’ lives.

“I spend several hours a week talking with students, sometimes in times of crisis or questioning and other times in ways of support and having a dialogue about biblical texts,” she said.

She’s recognized over the years that making time for her students outside of class can be just as important as the academic work she engages in.

“It’s not in competition with what we’re doing academically,” she said. “In fact, it often reinforces and allows us to feel safety and openness in conversation in class. That’s been a really rich part of getting to know my students.”

A Woman in Ministry

Being a woman in ministry comes with blessings and challenges. For Lyons-Pardue her time in the Ph.D. program was fairly positive as she was part of a cohort made up of an unprecedented number of female students at the time.

“It turns out that if you have more female students, you start to notice more female successes,” she said. “You also start seeing the possibility of men and women partnering exceptionally well.”

Lyons-Pardue affirms the women in the program were very supportive of each other on their journey.

“In a culture that tends to privilege men or see men as the norm, women can have an attitude of competition toward one another,” she said. “I’m so grateful that both in my doctoral program and among my colleagues here at PLNU, that we have conscientiously rejected that idea of scarcity and have supported and lifted up one another.”

When it comes to the challenges of being a woman in ministry, Lyons-Pardue’s experience of discrimination has been much more subtle.

“I grew up confident and a little bit argumentative,” she said. “I like to put myself out there and, by disposition, am much bolder. Those aren’t always characteristics that are prized in women. There have been times in which my default mode of operation has been off-putting and that’s been paralyzing.”

This has often created a pressure to change her demeanor even though it’s not her disposition.

“I think perhaps some of my academic mentors saw me as someone who needed to be put in her place perhaps,” she said. “And even in scholarly spheres, there’s a subconscious sense that perhaps I should model myself in a more meek way and that would have perhaps resulted in more benefits for me. But it’s not my natural way of operating.”

Lyons-Pardue has encouraged students to be knowledgeable about the Scriptures in such a way as to have constructive debates with individuals who don’t believe women should lead in the church. She herself has learned the best way to have these discussions is in love. 

Through her teaching, Lyons-Pardue has been able to influence hearts and minds so as to reshape the way Christians think about female leadership in the church.

“A few passages from Paul’s letters can be used to try to stifle women’s calling in ministry and used as clubs to keep women in their place,” she said. “I’ve warned students that sometimes we need to know our stuff so that we can be able to respond appropriately.”

Lyons-Pardue believes there are theologically and biblically responsible ways to respond to critics of female leadership in the church and that erroneous interpretation of certain passages (such as 1 Corinthians 14 or 1 Timothy 2) don’t necessarily have to have the final say when it comes to determining whether women should lead.

“Those passages are contextualized just like everything else in Scripture,” she said. “They must be placed within their literary, social, cultural, and theological context.”

Lyons-Pardue has encouraged students to be knowledgeable about the Scriptures in such a way as to have constructive debates with individuals who don’t believe women should lead in the church. She herself has learned the best way to have these discussions is in love. 

“It’s not good when there is just a sense of defensiveness or a desire to wound and I’ve learned that the hard way, too,” she said. “God’s been working on me and He’s been working on all of us.”

Balancing Work and Motherhood

Another challenging aspect of being a woman in ministry, and one she shares with many women around the world, is the balance between motherhood and work. Lyons-Pardue’s two daughters, Zoe and Iris, have taught her a lot about motherhood.

The Lyons-Pardue family on a hike.

“That’s been a new journey of figuring out how to be a good mom,” she said, “and also a good professor and balancing those two.”

Lyons-Pardue says she’s received a lot of support from her husband, Charlie, and from PLNU. A surprising effect of being a working mom is that she’s learned how to better make use of her time, which has led her to be even more productive in her accomplishments, as she’s published a greater number of writings than she expected since becoming a mother.

“I recognized that I had a certain amount of time and had to do the best with that time because I didn’t want my work to steal time from my kids,” she said. “But through all of that, my kids are wonderfully loved.”

Throughout the years, Lyons-Pardue and her husband have navigated a healthy partnership when it comes to raising their children.

“I have a wonderful partner in Charlie who has been really supportive and a wonderful dad to our girls,” she said.

Making Way For the Next Generation

Throughout Lyons-Pardue’s life and career so far there have been clear signals that pointed to ministry and education. Now, she seeks to pass the lessons she’s learned to her students, encouraging them to see the possibilities of ministerial life.

“My hope is that students gain an expanded vision and see themselves in whatever job they take in this vocation of Christian discipleship and being part of God’s life-giving mission in the world,” she said. “And I think that’s absolutely undergirded by a faithful and continually curious reading of Scripture. I long to extend the gifts given to me in that way, particularly, but not exclusively, to my students who want to be or feel a call toward ministry.”

Within that, she also encourages students to engage in cultural experiences outside of their own so as to avoid interpretations of Scripture that have been destructive to specific groups.

“The way to negate the impact of certain interpretations of Scripture is to remain in conversation with people who are different [from] you,” she said. “That really puts us on guard against self-serving readings of Scripture which have been the cause, on a small scale, of a diminishment of God’s witness in the world and, on a large scale, have led to great social evils like the Holocaust, apartheid, or slavery in the North American context.”

Lyons-Pardue also has advice for women and anyone wishing to pursue ministry which is to ask the hard questions as they deepen their commitment to following Jesus.

“When we ask theological questions and even second-guess things we thought we knew or have been taught our whole lives, we’re saying that God is big enough to handle those questions,” she said. “It speaks to a theological confidence and produces greater discipleship and more Christ-followers of Jesus.”

Guimel Sibingo is a freelance writer based in Lisbon, Portugal. She graduated from PLNU in 2014 with degrees in communication and philosophy/theology. She has a Master of Arts in journalism from the University of Missouri.