Women in the ministry are becoming more common, but some face resistance from churches
Amy Kay Pavlovich first heard the call of God as a child. When she was 14, she began telling others that she planned to become a pastor —news that didn’t exactly thrill her parents.
“I’m from a farm family that does not favor women in the ministry,” said Pavlovich, 28, an associate pastor at First Christian Church.
Pavlovich says her family has since accepted her calling, and despite their misgivings she sees no reason she should not continue her ministry.
“I feel like this is what I am supposed to be doing,” she said. “When I go home, I feel good.”
The role of women in the church has been debated since the beginning of Christianity. Some denominations, such as the Disciples of Christ, have had women clergy for more than 100 years. Others, including Catholicism and Southern Baptists, prohibit women from occupying positions that require ordination. Many denominations are divided on the issue. For example, some Presbyterians say women can be ordained, while others prohibit it.
“It’s an ongoing conversation for most churches in some form or another,” said Travis Tamerius, pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church PCA. “Denominations split over these types of questions. Some settling has taken place, but the question is still being explored.”
Nancy Weatherwax, visiting assistant professor in MU’s department of religious studies, said that women had more opportunities during the first decades of Christianity. A woman’s role in society was more private than public back then; groups met in household churches where women played a major role.
“Ordained leadership structures developed gradually in the churches over the first 150 years,” Weatherwax said. “As the church institutionalized and took on a public role, women were marginalized. But there were many things women could do with or without a public office.”
Indeed, specific women are mentioned in the New Testament. In Romans 16, Phoebe is called a servant of the church, and Prisca, or Priscilla, is addressed by Paul as a “fellow worker in Christ Jesus.” In Acts 21:9 and Romans 11:5, women prophesized, and in Acts 16:40, Lydia housed a church.
Some Biblical passages are explicit about the role of women, and those have been used to prohibit women from having vocational roles in some denominations. In the New American Standard Bible — I Corinthians 14:34-35 — Paul wrote that “women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak but are to subject themselves just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.” For some denominations, prohibitions against women are based on the process of creation. Some Christians believe Paul was also the author of I Timothy 2:11-14 from the New American Standard Bible: “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.”
Denominations that limit women’s roles in the church interpret these passages literally. Dave Benson, pastor of Campus Lutheran Church, said the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, argues that the Bible does not give women the authority to be preachers. “There is a concern about not violating any scriptural principles, but at the same time we don’t want to unnecessarily restrict women from opportunities of ministry within the church,” Benson said. “That is the tension we live with in our church body.”
The Missouri Synod does offer women vocational opportunities that require further education. A woman can be commissioned as a deaconess — a position in which she visits the sick and teaches scripture but is prohibited from preaching or leading worship services. Women can also be directors of Christian education and outreach as well as teachers at Lutheran schools.
Based on a literal reading of scripture, Catholicism also has strict prohibitions against female priests. In 1994, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the church’s tradition and declared , “the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitely held by all the Church’s faithful.”
Jane Smith, a Roman Catholic chaplain, knew to be ordained, she would have to change denominations.
“My experience as a housewife in the pew was that you could volunteer to the moon, but you couldn’t get a paycheck for doing ministry,” Smith said.
In the end, Smith decided to remain a Catholic. “I couldn’t be me in another denomination,” she said. “But I decided I really had to be me.” Smith went back to school, earned a master’s degree and doctorate in ministry and became a certified chaplain; she has worked at the Fulton State Hospital since 2000.
Smith continues to fight for equal rights for women in the Catholic Church. She said women who hear the call to ministry and have the education need equal access to church vocations. The battle is a slowly fought one, though. She remembers the first Sunday she was lector in a service with an altar girl — a practice that didn’t begin until the 1990s.
“When the priest got up to preach, I leaned over to her and said, ‘When you grow up, you can do that too,’ ” she said. “I thought we would have made that much progress, but we’re really not any closer.
“The Catholic Church is cutting the nose off its face by not hearing the word of God from women,” Smith said. “There are more women in the pews. Why not hear from their hearts?”
Like Catholicism, the Southern Baptist Convention’s official position on female clergy is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.
“In Southern Baptist life, the same group that says women can’t be ministers holds to a literal view of the scriptures — very literal,” said Bob Webb, pastor of Memorial Baptist Church. “‘He’ means only men.”
In spite of this, Webb said that he is not comfortable with excluding women from the ministry. Five of Memorial Baptist’s 25 active deacons are women, though not everyone agrees they should have that role.
“We have some people visit,” Webb said, “and they like everything but don’t agree with women in the ministry.”
Webb estimated that of the more than 1,900 Southern Baptist churches in Missouri, fewer than 50 have women deacons, and none have female pastors.
During her three decades of involvement with the Southern Baptist denomination in Missouri, Alberta Gilpin, director of education and administration at Parkade Baptist, has watched the restrictions on women grow.
“Up until 10 or 12 years ago, I did not feel stifled in my ministry,” Gilpin said. “I was not called to preach or to be a pastor. I didn’t feel limited until people began to say to me that I couldn’t speak behind the pulpit on a Sunday morning because I’m a woman.”
Gilpin thinks individual churches should make their own decisions about having women in the pastorate, but she doesn’t think most churches are ready to take that step. She says a female pastor at many churches would be disruptive and harmful to the congregation.
“If I were a Methodist, I would feel the same way,” she said. “From my experience, men and women will follow men. Women will follow a woman. But men are not as likely to follow a woman.”
Amy Kay Pavlovich sees the same split among members of her church, the Disciples of Christ. “A few members read the Bible very literally,” she said. “Those members might have a problem with me as a minister. Most members read the Bible and think of the context of the time it was written; they have a different view.”
Those denominations that do welcome women into leadership positions usually point to Galatians 3:28 as a justification: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Gary DeWitt, senior pastor at Community United Methodist, said that the Bible’s message is one of inclusion and that churches that shut the door on women in the pastorate shut the door on a blessing.
Fred Thayer, pastor of Calvary Episcopal Church, said Episcopalians debated for years before allowing women to join the clergy. Eventually, they decided that if the priesthood represents the people before God, groups that were excluded were not being fully represented.
“Women were one of the groups that were excluded,” Thayer said. “The people are better represented when women are allowed into the priesthood.”
The debate over scripture and ministry affects some women on an internal level. Those who passionately want to go into the ministry wrestle with the legitimacy of their own desires. Before entering seminary, Karen Walker-McClure struggled with her calling. She said a feminine minister seemed to be an oxymoron to her.
“I wanted to be able to be myself,” McClure said. “Then I saw some women in the ministry who were feminine, who could preach, who were sharp and who were well educated and it made me a little more comfortable in accepting my role.”
When McClure began seminary, she didn’t think she would become a senior pastor. But as her graduation day approached, her mind began to change. Now she is the pastor of Russell Chapel CME in Columbia, which averages around 50 people on any given Sunday.
“I love preaching,” McClure said. “I love going to the hospitals and nursing homes to visit my members. I love being able to pray for people — really just to help people in need. I get a good feeling.”
And that has inspired others. In February, a group of students came to Russell Chapel for a Black History Month event. She recalled that a female student said to her, “I’ve never seen a women minister before; I think I can do that.”
McClure said female pastors in the African-American community are not as prevalent as in some other cultures, and that the so-called “stained-glassed ceiling,” or the idea that women are unable to advance in the church hierarchy, hinders women.
“Some might be accepting of women in the ministry, but not in the pastorate,” she said. “The reality is that it is not just men. There are women who don’t want women pastors.”
While different congregations hold different views on the legitimacy of women in leadership positions, women are drawn to the ministry by the same love of God as men. Katherine Jackson, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church, loves leading worship services, visiting the sick and elderly and “hearing the stories of their lives,” she said.
Jackson said stereotypes of clergy still exist, and overall, men in the ministry still outnumber the women. But she sees a change coming. When Jackson attended seminary, there were as many women as men in her classes.
“There are still advances to be made,” she said. “But the good news is that more women are interested in ministry.”