When I landed as the first female pastor of a congregation, I spent a lot of my time in my office with the door open, getting to know the people of the church and the community. From time to time, someone trying to sell church photo directories or wanting to put up a poster to advertise a community concert would arrive at my door and ask:
“Is the pastor here?”
“I am the pastor.”
“Are you the youth pastor?”
“No. I’m the pastor.”
The person standing at my office door would shift uncomfortably, look away, and hand me whatever literature he or she was passing out. The first couple of times this happened, I clenched my fists to keep the outrage I felt from escaping. The tone of the visitor’s response expressed skepticism about my call, ordination, and ability to lead a congregation because I am not a man. The questioning tone of voice was mixed with wonder and confusion, but mostly people seemed to dismiss the possibility that a woman would ever be able to do a job that a man “should” do.
I didn’t know what to do with the assumption that I must be the church secretary. I grew up in a congregation that didn’t challenge my call to ministry because of my gender. In fact, the church I attended through my childhood always included a female clergyperson on staff. I watched a woman preach sermons, baptize, and lead the liturgy of communion with elements in hand. I pursued ministry in the denomination in which I was raised, in part because of my understanding that the way for women to be ministers was clear.
Standing there with the church-directory salesperson and the doubting voice, I flashed back on all the voices I had heard from college to the present that had challenged my call to ministry because of my gender. After I explained that I was indeed the pastor, the visitor would treat me that way. For the next fifteen minutes, I stood there like a pastor, listening to the sales pitch, to the explanation that all members of the congregation who had their photo taken for the directory would receive a free five-by-seven portrait.
It wasn’t just the photo-directory salespeople who challenged my call to serve as the woman pastor of a congregation. There was some skepticism among the congregation’s own members. It didn’t take long to figure out who had been muttering and whispering about my being a woman and the pastor. I was surprised to discover, however, that most of the individuals in the congregation who had the most trouble with a female pastor in the pulpit were women. I had been warned about this possibility by a wise pastor-mentor from seminary, but at the time I couldn’t envision it. In my mind, women in a congregation would be especially supportive and excited to see a woman in a position of power and leadership. What I learned was that some women resent seeing another woman fulfill a calling that they were never even given the option to pursue. They may have felt a calling to ministry or another form of church leadership and were denied the option, because at that time women weren’t allowed to be ordained, or they believed the message that women’s roles at church were confined to caring for children, cooking meals, and attending to secretarial tasks. Now, here before them was a woman who stood for all that they had hoped for, longed for, were called to, and were denied.
I didn’t always know why some members of the congregation or community struggled with and others openly welcomed my being the woman pastor. I did know that almost everyone had a story about their experiences with previous pastors, the church, and their faith. Aside from preaching, what I felt particularly drawn to in solo ministry was the opportunity to hear and engage the stories of individuals in the congregation. I felt called to create space where these stories could be told and to be open to how these stories, along with the stories of the Bible, could guide and shape who God is calling us to be as a community of faith. As much as I wanted to push away the feelings of resentment by the women of the congregation and rejection by the men, I challenged myself to help people share their stories about their lives, the life of the congregation, and how God was speaking to us today.
Finding ways for people to share their stories wasn’t about investing a lot of time researching the best curriculum or purchasing supplies. I relied on something that already flowed freely and found its way into nearly every gathering of the church. Coffee. The large percolator coffee pot was started before worship every Sunday. During silent pauses of a prayer, we could hear the pot entering its final stages of brewing. After the benediction and handshakes, the worshipers moved from the sanctuary to the parlor, where they filled their cups and shared with one another the stories of their week.
As we gathered around tables, I saw arthritic fingers being warmed by the cup they held and young children dropping cookie crumbs on the floor. People shared stories about health concerns, school plays, new grandbabies, and what business was coming or going from the downtown main street. Sitting at those tables, I quickly learned that one of the most powerful aspects of ministry for a solo pastor of a small congregation was the gift of sipping a cup of coffee after worship and listening to stories about the places where faith intersects with everyday life.
Coffee became a catalyst for these after-worship gatherings, and they soon started happening during the week. On Thursday morning, I would start up a pot of coffee, and church members would stop in between doctor appointments or before running their next errand to see how everyone was doing. A faithful group of folks came every week, and others stopped in as their schedules allowed. It was here that I listened to the stories about the church. I heard about “the good old days” when church membership and attendance were at their peak—when there was a youth group, and so many kids in Sunday school that there wasn’t enough meeting space in the building. The members of the congregation told stories about the pastors whose pictures were affixed to the parlor wall and the ways their leaders shepherded the church through change. The stories were told in a variety of ways, all expressing the pain the congregation went through as economic downturn and population decreases in the county meant that people from the church were losing jobs and moving away, and young people weren’t coming back.
It was with a cup of coffee in hand that we talked about how much the church, this town, and the world were changing. My being there as a young woman pastor represented just how much their church had changed in the past fifty years, and in the safety of the church parlor, members were willing to bring out into the open what those changes were. The perceptions of those changes weren’t always positive, but I was encouraged by the way the congregants shared their stories and how the experiences of the past and present were moving us into God’s future for the church.
Beginning from this foundation—being able to openly share our stories in conversation over a cup of coffee, I drew on resources about Appreciative Inquiry to formulate questions about congregational identity and the moments in all those stories when people celebrated the best of who they were and who they could be. Members of the congregation expressed how with a male pastor they felt that an agenda was being pushed from “the top down.” With a woman in leadership implementing a conversational approach to ministry, they sensed a partnership between all the members of the church and the pastor. .
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog
Excerpted and adapted from The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion: Surviving and Thriving in Ministryby Melissa Lynn DeRosia, Marianne J. Grano, Amy Adams, and Amanda Adams Riley,copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion: Surviving and Thriving in Ministry
by Melissa Lynn DeRosia, Marianne J. Grano, Amy Morgan, and Amanda Adams Riley
As increasing numbers of young women are discerning a call to ministry, entering seminary, graduating, and searching for the call to a parish or other ministry setting, they need to be aware of the realities that face them. The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion is about the nitty gritty of ministry for young female clergy—how to maintain a sense of personal style, what it’s really like to be a solo pastor, how to date, what to do when they’re ready to quit.
Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change
by Mark Lau Branson
Grounded in solid theory and real-life practice, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations is a groundbreaking work of narrative leadership and the first book to apply the principles of appreciative inquiry to the lives of congregations. By focusing on memories of the congregation at its best, members are able to construct “provocative proposals” to help shape the church’s future.
Know and Be Known: Small Groups that Nourish and Connect
by Brooke B. Collison
In Know and Be Known, Brooke Collison looks at the element missing in most group dynamics today: intentionality about relationships. Counselor, educator, and long-time leader and participant in small groups, Collison knows the power of small groups to create meaningful bonds of friendship and support.
Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony
Lillian Daniel shares how her congregation reappropriated the practice of testimony one Lenten season, a practice that would eventually revitalize their worship and transform their congregational culture. Tell It Like It Is features the testimonies worshipers heard and reflections from both those who spoke and those who listened to these stories about God at work in the world .
Looking for insight and skills to help balance all the demands that life and ministry throw at you? This even is for you!
Last Chance! Registration closes January 13, 2012
Clergy Wellbeing: Balancing Your Ministry, Renewing Your Life
Leader: Larry Peers, Alban Senior Consultant
January 17-19, 2012
La Casa de Maria, Santa Barbara, CA
Copyright © 2012 the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share articles from the Alban Weekly with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at email@example.com and let us know how the Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of the Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please complete our reprint permission request form .
Subscribe to the Alban Weekly.
Archive of past issues of the Alban Weekly.