Women pastors remain a rarity
S.J. Dahlman is associate professor of communications at Milligan College. Reach him at email@example.com.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of two columns on women in ministry. As Beth Yarborough was leaving her office at Jonesborough Presbyterian Church (USA) recently, she met the photographer for the church directory, who was just coming in. “Are you the secretary?” he asked. “Actually, I’m the pastor,” she answered. The photographer froze for a moment in awkward shock. “Oh!” he blurted. “The pastor?” It was one of the few occasions from Yarborough’s seven-year pastorate when she was pegged by a stereotype. A man in her place, after all, probably wouldn’t have been asked if he was the secretary. But she laughed about it. “After he got over the initial surprise, he was fine,” she said. “Having a woman as a pastor is still a bit of a rare phenomenon in this region.” Indeed. With hundreds of congregations in Northeast Tennessee, women serve as senior or “solo” pastors in maybe a dozen of them. Denominations across the theological spectrum — Pentecostal, evangelical and mainline Protestant — ordain women for all types of ministries. Others, of course — including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church, the nation’s two largest denominations — limit the types of ministries women can perform. Still, any congregation can struggle when a woman steps into its pastorate, especially if she’s the first female in that role. Tradition often trumps accepted practice. Sharon Amstutz, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (USA) for the past six years, has been warmly received, but she suspects a few families left when her ministry began because of her gender. But she also recalls a particular hospital visit with the church’s oldest member. He had opposed calling a woman as pastor. “But I was wrong,” he told her. She has felt accepted ever since. In recent conversations with a few of the local women who are pastors, they all resisted two notions: first, that they are feminists in any militant, “I-am-woman-hear-mepreach” sense, and second, that just being a woman specially suits them — or hampers them — for ministry. “In this culture, starting by saying ‘I’m a pastor’ can close down a conversation,” said Michelle Buckles, pastor of Cherokee United Methodist Church since last summer. She explained with a scenario that won’t come from a male pastor. “Where I have my nails done, I didn’t tell them for a long time that I’m a minister. I just tried to let them get to know me. What I want to say if someone has a problem with a woman pastor is, ‘Please give me a chance to get to know you, and vice versa.’ I’m comfortable enough as a woman, as a minister, as someone trying to follow God’s call, to handle it.” “There’s really nothing gender-specific I can think of,” Amstutz said. “As a woman, my greatest contribution (compared to male pastors) is that I bring food to the potlucks,” she joked. They have all wondered whether women are particularly effective in providing pastoral care, but they know men can do that task equally well — although Yarborough did suggest at least one difference when she talked about visiting a dying parishioner in a hospital. The woman didn’t need more medicine, Yarborough realized. “She just needed a hug, and so I climbed up beside her and just held her for a few minutes,” she recalled. “I
don’t think a lot of men would do that.” They are well aware that questions, sincerely held differences of biblical interpretation and even suspicion hover in the air over their roles, but none of these women doubt their own calling, just as they don’t expect male ministers to doubt theirs. “My job is to help people be the body of Christ,” Amstutz said. “That’s not a power over them. I don’t see my job as having authority over anyone. We’re sorting through the Scriptures together.” “I’ve seen God’s work in my ministry,” Buckles said. “(Author Frederick) Buechner defined vocation as the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. That’s where I’m living right now.” Yarborough said she doesn’t think much about being a woman in ministry. “If someone has a problem, I tell them to talk to God about it, because I know I’ve been called,” she said. “I just think of myself as a pastor. I focus on that. Here I am.” Next week: Why not women in ministry? Churches have reasons.