At iAbide, Women Clergy Share Joys and Challenges Over Dinner
Story and photos by Taashi Rowe
Minutes away from the main convention hall where hundreds of pastors are attending iAbide, the Columbia Union pastors convention in Baltimore, some 20 women sit down for a simple dinner at a restaurant. A green salad graces their plates, followed by vegetable kabobs set on a bed of quinoa and finished off with a dessert of ice cream, berries or a combination of the two. The women chat and laugh, tease each other and share sage advice. These women are not just pastoral spouses (although some are). They are pastors, pastoral interns, chaplains, conference administrators and Bible workers who minister throughout the Columbia Union.
Esther Knott, an associate in the North American Division’s Ministerial Department and an associate pastor at the Pioneer Memorial church in Michigan, organized the special dinner because “we are hungry for fellowship.”
The women immediately dive into getting to know each other and chatting with those they already know. At one end of the table, Lillian Torres, the Columbia Union and Pennsylvania Conference Bible worker, is deep in conversation with Jennifer Deans, pastor of Potomac Conference’s Community Praise Center-Dulles church plant in Northern Virginia.
Deans, who has been pastoring in the Potomac Conference for seven years, shares a bit about the project. “Although we are plant of the CPC Alexandria church we are not trying to be a carbon copy of it,” she says. “We still want to maintain the core, family-friendly identity of the Alexandria church. Most of the Alexandria church’s members are black and 90 percent commute in—some even drive over an hour to get to church. However, only six percent of the Dulles community is black. There are more Caucasian, Hispanics and Asians in this community and we are purposeful about making our leadership team look like the community.”
Torres nods in approval. “I’ve worked in churches were the people attending don’t look like the community,” she said. “How we are going to reach the community when we don’t know what’s in the community? If you don’t live in the community and aren’t invested in it, how can you really speak for them?”
Deans concurs, “Most of the people we hope will be attending live within 10 miles. Because traffic is a challenge we will have to be creative. We are still doing our research.”
Torres: “Have you done a door-to-door survey?”
Deans: “Not yet. Right now we rent a space. One of our challenges is that we are not residential. We are located in the Dulles Town Center where everything around us is commercial so we’ll have to approach people in the parking lot.”
Lillian: “Have you thought about capitalizing on your newness?”
Torres: “Go introduce yourself to your neighbors and let them know you are a new church. That’s also a good excuse for doing a survey—ask them what their needs are. Also before you do this, plan an event in the future that you can invite them to.”
At the next table, Pranitha Fielder, the youth and young adult pastor at Potomac’s Sligo church in Takoma Park, Md., shares her story with some new colleagues. “I’m an Indian woman and come from a culture where women have their place. I had been working in Youth Ministries at Sligo for five years when my mom asked me, “Who is going to marry you as a pastor?’” Five months later when she attended the seminary, she met the man who would become her husband.
As the women get to know each other, some of the women shared their accomplishments. Chesapeake’s Carolyn Scheller said after working with her husband, Ken, on the Eastern Shore for 20 years, first as a teacher, then as a Bible worker, she finally got the title of associate pastor in March. The women applaud wildly. They also do the same when a colleague announced that Paula Olivier, who pastors Allegheny East’s First church in Montclair, N.J., completed her Doctor of Ministry.
Somer Knight is a chaplain at Chesapeake’s Spencerville Adventist Academy in Spencerville, Md., and Marilynn Scott, Spencerville church’s pastor for Children’s and Women’s ministries and community services, work only about a mile apart but are so busy that they don’t see each other often. They say that this dinner was a nice opportunity for them to catch up.
“Women in ministry are highly relational but I had no idea there were this many of us,” Knight says.
And while this may be true, Scott says, “You can feel isolated sometimes in ministry. Having time together to know each other better and network is so good. It helps us realize we are not alone.”
They each share a bit of their stories.
Scott worked with her husband in ministry for 19 years but when he passed away she retreated into a human resources post at the world church headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. “When this opportunity at Spencerville came, I didn’t think it was the right timing,” she says. “I prayed about it and then told them, ‘No.’ But I felt God calling me and worried about rejecting something God was calling me to do.”
Knight, who has been a Bible teacher and a chaplain for about 10 years now, is sure of her calling and sees her chaplaincy work as complementary to that of a church pastor. “One of benefits of working in the school is we get five days a week with the kids as opposed to hoping for one day a week,” she says. “We get to know them and nurture their walk as they daily experience God. The most important thing for our pastors to know is that I’m their partner in ministry at the school.”
When Therezinha Barbalho introduces herself as the senior pastor of Potomac’s Brazilian church in Richmond, Va., and the only woman pastor in the entire world to serve in a Brazilian congregation, an audible “wow” went around the room.
She says, “Please pray for me.”
When I cornered Barbalho later and asked her if the 15 recent baptisms at the church is proof that God is working through her, she humbly said, “These only happened because of God.”
Lisa Reid Smith, pastor of Allegheny East’s New Life church in Hampton, Va., is also a trailblazer. She was the first female pastor in any of the regional conferences and has been in ministry for 20 years, seven of which have been at New Life.
“When I first got there, there was a group that wouldn’t attend period because I am a woman. And to this day they haven’t come back,” she says. “One of my challenges is to get leadership to see we are not just female pastors we are just pastors. When leadership is looking to fill a post at a church I’d love to see them look into what the church’s needs are instead of asking the senior pastors if they are willing to take a woman pastor.”
Knott tells the women, “Some of the work we do paves the way for others. And although there will always be challenges, they don’t have to be the same ones.”
The women also find support from division leadership. Ivan Williams, NAD Ministerial secretary, says he and his associates, “pray for you all, serve you and are advocates for you. We support you 100 percent.”
He also gives some advice: “Be certain that you have solidified in your mind your calling. You should be able to tell without hesitation why God called you and how He met you.”
Knott then shares some good news. “One of our goals is to double the numbers of women in ministry around the North American Division in five years,” she said. “We now have 107 women, but it is difficult finding churches that will take women. We are now working on giving incentives to churches, including offering to pay half a woman pastor’s salary. Money talks.”
Women’s ordination was naturally also on the menu that evening. Tara VinCross, pastor for Pennsylvania Conference’s Chestnut Hill church in Philadelphia, who serves on both the General Conference and North American Division’s Women’s Ordination committees, those committees have “given me great hope and great joy. I’m excited by how God is working and He has been a source of praise in my life.”
She also shares a comment from Artur Stele, a General Conference vice president who said during one of the ordination meetings, “While we are deciding who should be distributing bread, people are starving.”
Knott who is also on those committees says, “How can we lay aside what God has done in our lives? I know I cannot do that because that would be a denial of what He has done in my life for the past 20 years.”
She also tells the gathering that the next women’s ordination meeting will be on July 2. “The church will not split over this,” she says. “Pray for us. Your being in the field is important because you are breaking down barriers.”
Ann Roda, a pastor at Chesapeake’s New Hope church in Fulton, Md., asks about support for women’s ordination at the seminary.
Williams responds, “The seminary overall is very supportive of women in ministry with a few exceptions. The faculty should be making a statement about this soon.”
Roda also shared the story of a young woman she met in the Philippines: “This young lady dropped out of the premed program because she felt God’s calling so strongly. I told her this was quite a risk because her chances of getting a church is zero but she said she can’t deny the call.”
Despite the challenges that women pastors face here and abroad, Williams encourages the pastors to mentor young women who show interest in the ministry. “Don’t be afraid to tell them to consider pastoral ministry,” he says. “We need to be intentional about grooming future leaders if the Lord tarries.”