Jenee Woodard is a bustling, blueberry-muffin-making 54-year-old “mama,” she says, to Jaie, a biophysicist pursuing her Ph.D. at Harvard, and Phil, whose autism is about as severe as it gets.
Woodard rarely eats breakfast, and sleeps only in snatches, when Phil does. She is uncomfortable in crowds, or talking about herself.
She listens to audiobooks and knits. She plays her acoustic double bass or her beloved 1975 Fender P-Bass in her spare time, when she’s not getting her son through the day or leading classes in biblical studies.
But all of that happens only when she’s not holed up in the sunny little hardwood-floored office in her ranch-style house in Jackson, Mich.
That’s where she studies biblical texts -- often in Greek, Hebrew or Latin. It’s where she trolls the Web for Christian commentaries, articles, artwork, music and sermons.
And it’s where she created and single-handedly operates The Text This Week, (often called by its url, Textweek) a website that generates two million hits a month -- four million near Easter -- mainly from ministers and educators.
Textweek.com is one of the most influential Christian websites in the United States. Woodard says a link or a reference on her site can generate half a million hits for other websites.
“Her influence on the Christian church today is unbelievable,” said the Rev. Peter Wallace, the president and executive producer of Alliance for Christian Media and on-air host of the Day1 program. “If you think of all the preachers who use her resources and preach sermons from all those resources, she probably has more influence on mainline churches than any resource today.”
“Peter’s funny,” Woodard said to that. “It’s weird to me that people consider me an influence in the church. I don’t see myself that way.
“I just do what I do.”
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans
After graduating from Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo., Woodard, a United Methodist, worked in a variety of ministry settings. She then moved to informal study: the Bible, early Christianity and textual criticism.
Seminary and pastoring were not her niche, Woodard said. “I bombed at both. I’d just as soon be studying. I’d only be good with people for a short time. Then I’d lose it.”
Woodard planned to pursue an academic career and was writing applications to graduate school. But then daughter Jaie, now 25, whom Woodard calls “Einstein,” arrived, and Phil, 21, whom she occasionally refers to as “Rain Man,” came along three years later.
Phil was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, and her world took a hard left turn.
“Before my life-reality changed, I believed more in the categories that other people used,” Woodard said. “I trusted that people … knew what they were doing if they had a degree.”
That “life-reality change” meant dropping the doctorate, dealing 24/7 with Phil’s autism and figuring out how she could still develop a ministry.
Questions to consider
Questions to consider:
- How have your life circumstances changed or challenged your calling and ministry?
- Do the services your institution provides grow organically or strategically? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each?
- Textweek is an example of how technology is changing ministry. Do you see unmet needs that technology could be used to respond to?
- Woodard speaks about a “faithful integrity” within a host of changes. How do you understand this “faithful integrity” in the changes you are experiencing?
“A ministry, to me, means giving myself away -- not for what it gets me or God or the church -- but for the act itself. To me, this is probably the essence of faith,” she said.
The Internet was a relatively new phenomenon when she created the site in 1998, and before content aggregation or curation was commonplace, she recognized the possibilities it offered. The Internet could do without paper what used to require a shelf full of books, Woodard realized.
“I thought about how cool it would be to read all of the different commentators right next to each other,” she said.
“My son had just been diagnosed with autism. It was very difficult, and I needed something engaging to get my mind off it.”
The site’s popularity grew organically. Woodard showed it to her pastor, and he showed it to his friends, and they showed it to their friends, and so on, she said.
All these years later, it’s still a bare-bones website -- it’s still primarily text and links, and it still reflects Woodard’s sensibilities.
She works in snatches, at a desk less organized than she’d like it to be, while she’s also doing other things.
When she gets rare uninterrupted time, she uses it to index American Theological Library Association (ATLA) material, since it’s written in a more academic style and requires more thought than some other resources.
She works intuitively, “thinking to myself, ‘What that I am reading contributes to the conversation going on in my mind about these particular texts?’
“I like to learn … about how communities work and how people put together theological understandings, share them and integrate them, as individuals and communities. I suppose I consider myself part of that discussion, but … I’d much rather listen than speak,” she said.
The Rev. David Hockett, the senior pastor at Forest Hill United Methodist Church in Concord, N.C., said he uses Textweek to background the ways theologians and scholars reflect on individual texts. “There’s a breadth of information, a breadth of theological positions, from early right up to contemporary preachers,” he said.
Wallace, the Day1 host, calls Woodard “a free spirit, so much fun, and brilliant.”
“I love her story,” Wallace said. “She was faced with this situation and found a way to reinvent herself, to do what she enjoys doing, but in a way that reaches so many people.”
No business model
For many years, Woodard earned no money from Textweek. Now she says she earns what a pastor of a small-to-midsize church makes, supplementing the income of her husband, a special education teacher and music tutor, with Textweek sponsorships and ad sales. She also is paid by ATLA for her indexing.
She admits she could use a few more sponsors. But she accepts only on-point ads -- no shimmying women pushing diet pills. She also turned down an offer to sell the site, she said.
“I don’t have a business model, or a business plan, or a budget of any kind,” Woodard said. “I did the work for 10 years without receiving anything in return, including compensation for my time. I didn’t see it as a business. I saw it as something I was doing.”
She gradually began to bring in what she needed to keep up with her children’s educational needs, and a few years ago, she was “talked into” getting a business manager to run the ad sales, but she doesn’t think of it as a commercial site.
“I wish we had more advertisers, but I will not compromise the integrity of the website and my vision for it as a ‘virtual study desk’ in order to take ads which are not also useful and of a certain integrity for my audience,” she said.
How broad is the word of God
Her audience appreciates it. Margot Lyon, the director of ATLA business development, said that pastors in focus groups hosted by her organization mention time and again The Text This Week as a key online resource.
In partnership with ATLA, Woodard methodically searches its 250 journals for relevant current articles and indexes them, with EBSCO host links, for the entire three-year liturgical calendar. The links, previously available only on a legacy platform, have expanded the scope and reach of the ATLA recommendations.
“Jenee is one of the most authentic, grounded and inspirational people I’ve ever known. To offer that she is popular is the understatement of the year,” Lyon said.
At professional conferences, “attendees line up … to shake her hand,” Lyon said.
Woodard is asked now to speak publicly but doesn’t do it often, because, she said, “I’m uncomfortable around many people, and I’m overwhelmed much of the time by my son’s needs and my own work and life.”
So she mainly just works quietly on Textweek at home, helping pastors get ready for Sunday.
The site reflects Woodard’s belief that the Bible as it stands now, after 2,000 years, is more valuable -- and truer -- for today’s readers than ever.
“Not only are there remnants of ancient texts; it has all the interpretations over the years. That doesn’t mean I think it’s inerrant. But it has all those people in it … who attempted to live lives of faith and integrity. If anything, it makes it possible for me to relate to those people,” she said.
This is especially true of the prophets, she said: “They had to rethink everything, look at their own institutions and figure out what was wrong with them. It’s our dilemma,” Woodard said.
“I think a lot, when I’m reading about communities and change, about traditions and change, and especially about faithful integrity within that, ‘What changes, and what doesn’t?’ It seems increasingly fluid to me. And it also seems natural,” she said. “But we dig our heels in, in the church, because it’s hard to change.”
Verity Jones, the director of the New Media Project at Christian Theological Seminary, said Textweek is an “incredibly wonderful resource for preachers, and leaders of the faith, because [it] aggregates so much of the tradition, the variety of theological perspectives and history.
“We are changing theology through technology. We are witnessing ecumenical changes. If [all pastors] have the same library from which to draw, that demonstrates … how broad is the word of God -- how it’s not scary, not a problem.”
The theology of listening
Life is easier -- not easy, but easier -- now that Phil is grown. He is unlikely now, for example, to leave the house without supervision. But that relative ease has come only after enormous measures of home intervention, frustration and downright discrimination.
A member of her church, Woodard said, once sent her an anonymous letter saying “You’re not welcome here” because Phil couldn’t always remain quiet during services.
She once told a Michigan State University audience that she tries to maintain a sense of humor, especially in public. But “you don’t see me when I’m by myself, screaming, ‘I can’t do this for one more freaking day’ -- only I don’t say ‘freaking.’ I say, ‘I didn’t ask for this! I don’t want this! It shouldn’t be mine anymore!’ I feel all of that.”
Her work is one antidote to that frustration.
“I am certain that Textweek was the only thing that kept Jenee sane through all the ‘growing kids’ years -- assuming that Jenee is actually sane,” her husband, Bob, said jokingly. “While the kids were both a blessing, they were both very high-maintenance.”
Jaie had all the demands of a high-achieving student. Phil required constant attention.
But Phil’s autism diagnosis didn’t just change Woodard’s career track. It also changed her.
“I have been humbled by the fact that Phil can’t be ‘fixed.’ And I am deeply touched and encouraged by the fact that he doesn’t need fixing,” she said.
“Phil’s autism has changed my theological understandings as much as it has changed everything in my life, and the way I understand and work within the world. I am much less certain, since Phil’s autism, of anything.
“I’ve come to understand ‘theology’ to be a whole lot more about listening than about stating. I listen a lot, very deeply, respectfully and carefully, to people with whom I disagree and to people I do not understand. To me, this is ‘doing theology.’ I think that I would not have come to that understanding without my son.”
As for Phil himself, an un-air-conditioned school bus can send him into a screaming fit, but he is mostly sweet, and funny. He is only basically conversational -- he responds to “yes” and “no” questions, and constructs three-word sentences when he’s really motivated. He ends everything he says politely, with “please.” If you offer him something he doesn’t want, you get, “No, please.”
But Phil is brilliant with electronics. He has performed circuit board soldering for Eaton Corporation in a Goodwill sheltered workshop, helps maintain his intermediate school district’s computer network, and once put together an entire computer and loaded the operating system in 90 minutes -- at the age of 14.
Sometimes he rests his head on his mother’s shoulder, or fixes her computer. “I try to appreciate my son for who he is. He does everything a human being needs to do, and people who take the time to get to know him and work with him realize a lot about themselves and God and religion,” Woodard said.
The challenge of raising Phil “did open a door that would not have been there -- the creation of Textweek,” Bob said. “The influence she has on others in the world of religious studies is so much greater than if she had become that traditional religious scholar.”
Rather than serving a small niche, Woodard is helping millions of scholars, educators and pastors.
“It is my ministry -- or what I do with my life, as I explore what I think is my responsibility as a human being -- to give more than I take, and to use my gifts for service to others, while giving myself a delightful new lens on texts and interpreters of texts.
“This is the heart of my own faith and of my task, as I see it, in the world.”