Article by: Suzanne R. Holsomback
In the fall of 2007, several female Truett Seminary students gathered together to encourage one another in their ministerial call from God and discuss their journey through seminary. They call themselves Women of the Cloth, and God has called each of them to preach. Through informal conversations over lunch and after class, several women realized that female preaching students need to be together, know one anther, and talk about issues and obstacles they face in ministry. Leah Grundset, a December 2007 Truett graduate, says that the women have committed to being honest about the realities of women in ministry, to encourage and recommend fellow female ministers for church positions, and to form a network that keeps track of one another as they graduate and move into ministerial positions.
Each member of Women of the Cloth has an incredible story of God calling them to preach. For some the journey has taken longer and the call from God developed slowly, but each woman embraces the call on her life and pursues what it means to be a pastor who is a woman.
Leah remembers standing in the hall of her church and telling her pastor's wife that she wanted to be pastor. She remembers, "This horrified look came over her face and she said, 'Leah, you could never be a pastor. God would never call a woman to that. God would never call you to be a pastor.' And I said, 'Oh, okay.' I was ten. I believed my pastor's wife. The next day the pastor came up to me and shoved some papers in my hand that was an article about why women can't preach and the scripture that supported it; I was ten."
"[I]t took me a long time to move past that," Leah says, "I was involved in the youth group there and always felt connected to the church, but never totally connected because I felt that my potential wasn't being tapped into." It was after she came to Baylor University and became active in the Baptist Student Ministries did she begin ministering and feel affirmed in her ministerial calling. As a senior, she began entertaining the idea of a call to preach. Leah joined Calvary Baptist Church in Waco and saw Julie Pennington-Russell preach and pastor and realized that preaching was the call on her life. After a pastoral mentorship in Washington, D.C., Leah began her final year in seminary with a renewed understanding of her call. She says that she was empowered by her experiences and feels confident that her call will come to fruition.
Another member of Women of the Cloth and third year student, Lillian Hinds says, "I think I've known since I was a teenager that I was called to something. Then when I was twenty-one I was in a church service one night and really felt God speak to me, saying, 'Lillian, I want your life.' And I remember thinking, 'Okay, all of it. You can take all my life.'"
Lillian married a minister and had a daughter, but soon realized that divorce was the only option for survival for her and her infant daughter. She says, "I was devastated. I knew even then that divorce means failure in ministry. I thought any opportunity for serving God was gone and that my life was over, so I seriously considered ending my life. That sounds real odd now because I love life so much, but I felt like my life was at an end. I thought through what it would be like to stand before God if I died and God spoke to me the second time in my life...I knew it was Jesus. And he said, 'Can't you give me another chance?'" Shortly thereafter, Lillian began serving as a minister of music at her church. Thinking back to that experience, she says, I had a leadership position and it very much satisfied something inside of me that I didn't know needed satisfying."
Several years passed and Lillian moved to Tyler, remarried, and had another daughter. She finished a Masters degree in Psychology and became a licensed counselor. Slowly circumstances around her melted the cultural bias she had about women preaching, and at a Wednesday night service at her church a paper was presented called The Role of Women in the Church. Lillian says, "the heavens opened up and God said, 'I meant it before and I still mean it today, I want you to preach.'"
Pam Rivera, a first year Truett student, is also called to preach, but grew into her calling through the affirmation and assignment of her denomination. Her journey to the pastorate began in 1995 when she was ordained an itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. She says that she did not feel called to pastor at that time, and in 1997 she joined Grant AME Worship Center in Austin, TX as the youth minister which an on-the-job training opportunity the pastorate. Pam says, "I had an opportunity to develop that ministry as a church within a church." This position gave her invaluable experience and skills for the pastorate. Pam has serve as pastor of two other AME Churches in Texas and when the position opened in Waco at St. Luke AME Church in 2005 she was appointed pastor by Bishop Gregory Ingram. Twelve years have passed and Pam says, "It has been a great experience. I enjoy it. I would not have chosen it personally, because I understand the seriousness of it, the commitment, and the responsibility."
The realities for women called to preach are frustrating. Many women seeking pastorates are met with closed doors. Leah speaks plainly when she says, "there aren't a lot of churches that would call a woman as a pastor. There are a lot of churches that say that they support women in ministry, but there aren't many churches that will take the leap and actually call women as pastors. Until we get to the point where churches stop just saying they believe it and actually do it, it will still be a struggle." Leah says she is willing and prepared for the uphill journey because she know that this is God's call on her life. She says, "God calls everyone to walk alongside men and women in this struggle for equality and the recognition of 'created in God's image'....I am hopeful and confident that this is what God has called me to do and...God will provide and there will be a way and a job and a congregation willing and excited, and sees this as part of their prophetic voice and their opportunity inside the larger Baptist world."
Another reality for many Baptist women called to preach is whether to remain inside the Baptist denomination or to move to a denomination more open to female pastors. As Lillian enters her final semester at Truett, she is considering another denomination. As the daughter of a Baptist preacher and a Baptist all her life, this is a difficult decision to make. But Lillian is a woman in her fifties who has been divorced and she has to accept the fact that there may not be a place for her in Baptist life. She says, "I have already been turned down by one church as their music minister, because I was divorced. Being a woman and talking about preaching makes most people uncomfortable so I have to be careful what I say." Lillian believes she is called to preach, not to divide churches. She loves the church and the people of God and believes that she will be a good pastor. Although the future is unclear, she resolves to remain hopeful, positive, and faithful to her call.
Leah also faced changing denominations, but says that she could not move because she is committed to Baptist beliefs and core ideas. She says, "...I see myself committing to this and so at the same time calling churches to committed to calling women, because I am not giving up on the Baptist church and the Baptist church doesn't not need to be giving up on women either."
Even with frustrating hurdles and struggles, Lillian encourages ministerial students: "When God has a call on your life, you need to acknowledge that and follow it wherever it takes you, whether you are a man or a woman. That call won't go away. To women I would say that the point of the gospel is Jesus Christ. We are not called to a cause or to make a point about women. The point is always Jesus Christ." She says that Truett has helped her remain focused on Christ while examining what she believes. Lillian says remaining focused on Jesus Christ keeps her from being angry or bitter, even though she often feels frustrated. In concluding, she says, "Keep Jesus as the center of your life and don't give up!"
As an AME pastor, Pam says to her fellow sisters, "[D]on't trade your femininity to fit in. God made us women and he knew what he was doing and so we are just that. And there is a place for us in ministry. Don't be afraid to look outside of those who may not accept you and your gifts. Some are called to stay there and fight the battle where as others are called to move to engage in ministry."
Leah encourages the Truett community to have more classroom discussions about women in ministry and take active steps in supporting and promoting women in ministry. She urges male students, "to stand up for this and...be actively inviting women into your pulpit, even if it ruffles a few feathers along the way (clearly don't do it if it isn't appropriate), but you need to do it and guide the church through those ruffled feathers."
Seeing women as major presenters and having more events for women in ministry are two suggestions Pam made for the seminary community. She also says, "I think that men have to be a little more sensitive. Because many of them really don't understand because they have not experienced the 'no, you cannot preach or be ordained'....we who have been godly and female, many times, we have had doors slammed in our faces."
Leah, Lillian, and Pam come from different backgrounds, and have had their call to preach affirmed in different ways. These three women have faced obstacles and will continue to overcome hurdles for women in ministry as they faithfully follow God's call on their lives. Since graduating, Leah has moved to Washington, D.C. to minister in a local church. Lillian continues to look into pastoral ministry positions as she completes her final semester at Truett, and Pam will continue preaching at St. Luke while attending seminary. All three women speak highly of Truett and their time spent in seminary. Each woman also notes the support and encouragement she received from her professors through conversations in and outside of class, and the recognition by professors of the call on their life and affirmation of women ministers.