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Christian Education at First Pres
CHRISTIAN FORMATION 7/1/19

Christian Formation - Part of St. Mark Venice 1846 by John RuskenCalling Junia to the Pulpit

By Ben Menghini
Director of Children, Youth, and Family Ministry

Greetings First Presbyterians,

Transition is the word on everyone’s mind at First Presbyterian, and with it comes mixed feelings. There is often worry and doubt: how will we fill the pulpit while we search for a pastor, what if I need counseling or a baptism during that time, will people leave if we don’t fill the position soon enough? Yet alongside those concerns come hope, and the energy of new beginnings: what new talents will our congregation be blessed with, what new relationships are on the horizon, how can we learn new ways to love our neighbors and one another while we make the transition?
 
I want to make a suggestion (and it is only a suggestion) that while we dream about the future we consider what it could look like to call a female pastor to lead our church. In the PC(USA) tradition we do not limit our candidates for ordination on the basis of sex, gender expression, or sexual orientation, and that is a tradition we can be very proud of. I also know that First Presbyterian has been served by a female interim pastor before in the past, so this isn’t really new territory. 
 
By calling a female to pastor our church we take part in and support the biblical tradition of women preaching the gospel. Mary, in her Magnificat, was the first to proclaim Jesus coming and his mission of liberation, even before John the Baptist. The women at the tomb were preachers to the Apostles, the first to declare Jesus’ resurrection to the world. Priscilla, an associate of Paul’s, was a missionary and hosted a church in her home. Junia, an apostle, held great acclaim in the early church.
 
While we celebrate our great Presbyterian and biblical tradition of female pastors, we must also recognize a significant gender gap in ministry. The gap exists even in denominations that ordain women.
 
A recent study from Oxford University Press by Dr. Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bollen offers some insight into the standing of women as clergy in the US.
  • A little over half (55%) of Americans who attend religious services at least occasionally say that their congregations allow women to serve as their principal leader, although only 9% currently attend a congregation where a woman is serving in that capacity. Thus, women’s ordination in America is more common in principle than in practice.
  • Two of every five American worshipers say that they “strongly prefer” that their congregation allow women to serve as their principal religious leader. When added to the 32% who say they “somewhat prefer,” it makes for nearly two-thirds (72%) of American worshipers who say that they support women’s ordination. This includes 68% of Evangelicals, 85% of Mainline Protestants, and 70% of Catholics.
  • 70% of female worshipers say that they support women’s ordination in their congregations. This is, however, nearly identical to the 69% of male worshipers who say the same. In other words, women are no more or less likely than men to support or oppose female clergy in their congregations. Contrary to what might be expected, gender does not structure attitudes toward women’s ordination in American society today.
  • When asked about their support or opposition to female clergy in their congregations, the most common reasons included scriptural authority, personal experiences, and gender stereotypes. These three issues were cited by both those in favor and those against female ordination, selectively applying arguments and experience to support their positions.
  • While support for female clergy is high, only 9% of worshipers report that they would personally prefer that their own congregation’s leader were female. This might help partially explain the persistent gender gap in the leadership of American congregations, even among those that have gender-inclusive leadership policies in place.
  • While many people are quick to say that it “doesn’t matter” whether their congregation’s principal leader is male or female, they are quick to point out a variety of ways in which they have personally seen that it does matter in their own lives. Specifically, they tend to focus on ways that gender affects what type of counseling clergy are able to provide (in talking about issues such as rape or abortion, for instance), as well as the ways that female clergy can often successfully attract young people and families to their congregations.
  • In our survey, women who had influential female clergy growing up have higher levels of self-esteem as adults, as well as higher levels of education and full-time employment, compared to those who had only male leaders. They are also more likely to think about God in more graceful/loving terms instead of a more authoritarian/judgmental way. This is important because self-esteem, education, and one’s view of God have all been linked to psychological and emotional health and well-being. Thus, female clergy can indirectly improve future levels of health, well-being, and economic empowerment of young women and girls in their congregations.
These stats are striking without even approaching the dynamic of race. Based on this data I believe that we should consider specifically seeking out a female pastor, because (1) many women do not fill a pulpit because congregations are not actively welcoming to them when it comes time to put their money where their mouth is. They still default to hiring white men, which means that often a man can receive a job offer before completing his MDiv, while many women turn to chaplaincy due to job scarcity. (2) The analysis provided in the survey demonstrates that one of the best ways to support the women in our congregation, especially the younger women, is to give them a female pastor role model.
 
Putting these concerns into flesh and blood can help us to take the step from affirming women as pastors to actively desiring to have a woman serve our congregation. Our friend Hannah Shanks tells this story from the Sunday morning that she came to share God’s Word with us:
Several hours ago, I was in my hotel lobby waiting to be picked up. I was honored to guest preach today… A fellow guest saw me and said ‘You look like you’re going to work! On a Sunday?’ And I said yes, I was preaching. They said, ‘Oh! You don’t look like a preacher.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s the problem with most preachers.’ We don’t ever look the way we’re supposed to. There’s no way of being a woman in this world that’s actually ‘correct.’ And there’s no way of being a preacher that’s correct, either.
 
Most women are familiar with this sort of conversation, in which an opportunity for affirmation and encouragement is snatched away by a skepticism that can take your legs out from under you. Rev. Dr. Natalie Wigg-Stevenson shares a similar story of preaching on the night her congregation voted on her ordination:
I preach, keep it short, keep it sweet, keep it to the point. Afterwards my ordination committee assembles to meet in the senior pastor’s office, to vote on whether or not I can formally enter the path to ministry. ‘All the responses to your sermon that I heard were positive’, one of the members’ shares, and I breathe a sigh of relief. ‘In fact, do you know Dr. So-and-So? He’s a pillar of the church! Been attending for near 50 years now’. I shake my head, embarrassed. This church has more pillars than ancient Greece, and I can’t keep track. The man continues, ‘when I asked him what he thought of your sermon, do you know what he said?’ He laughs. ‘Couldn’t hear a word she said, but I sure enjoyed watching her say it’. I need to tread carefully now. This man is about to have a lot of power over whether or not I can formally enter the ordination process, and he thinks he’s offering me a compliment. ‘Perhaps he should sit closer to the front next time’, is the best I can muster.
 
May we commit first to never debasing someone’s gift and calling in ministry this way. Rather, in whatever way possible, we should seek to support and cheer on those whom God places before us.
 
There are also stories that illustrate for us the importance of women working in male dominated spaces. Woman can bring grace and vision that we never knew we were missing. After another sermon Dr. Wigg-Stevenson received an email from someone in attendance: 
‘I wanted you to know that I’ve been reflecting on your leadership of the service these past few days. I left the Baptist church because I didn’t think it had a path to ministry for me. You’re not the Baptist minister I’m used to seeing’. She encloses a poem that she has written, she says ‘to work out my feelings’. I click on the attachment, eager to hear what she has to say. Will it describe her call to ministry? Is she coming home to her roots? Might there be the opportunity for me to partner with this young woman, to work together to change our denomination from the inside? The poem opens with a meditation on my ‘deep brown, cascading curls’. It closes with the image of my red shoes.
 
Dr. Wigg-Stevenson shares a third story, this time presiding over the Lord’s Supper, and then speaking with a man in the congregation who had been crying. At first she thinks he is crying because he had been rejected from ordination because he was gay:
‘But no’, he says, with a smile crossing his whole face, ‘that’s not why I came to talk to you. I came to say thank you! Never in my life did I think I’d see the day, the day when I got to take communion from a young woman in a flagship Southern Baptist church’. He hadn’t been crying for his loss; he’d been crying for my gain. He was crying for the symbol of hope my bodily presence offered to him – completely independent of anything I did or didn’t do.
 
I can speak personally that my faith has been enhanced by many female pastors at various times in my life. I have been blessed to sit under the teaching of women who are the brightest scholars and warmest preachers I have known. I have received communion from women who conveyed God’s grace to me with their eyes, their voices, even the small gestures they made as they prepared the elements. I now even have the opportunity to support my only sister as she discerns a call to ministry. I cannot take for granted the gift of their leadership, and I also cannot take for granted that those opportunities don’t just open up for women, but that they must struggle and fight to have their calling affirmed. It is then my responsibility to do what I can to fight for them and create spaces where their gifts are celebrated.
 
This is what I have been dreaming when I consider the future of our congregation. I invite you to join me in dreaming new possibilities for God’s grace in First Presbyterian Church of Green Bay.
 
In Christ’s peace,

Ben Menghini

(Image is Part of St. Mark Venice 1846 by John Rusken)

Last Published: June 18, 2019 9:20 PM
HANNAH SHANKS SERMON & BOOK DISCUSSION

2018-10-28 Hannah Shanks book discussion-optPodcasts Available

On October 28, Hannah Shanks, author of "This is My Body", preached at worship and led a book discussion at First Pres. If you missed the chance to hear from the author of our Book Study book you can still hear her, as Pastor Randy recorded them. If you missed either, you can listen online with a simple click:

Find the sermon here.

Find the book discussion here.

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