Women Finding Their Place As Church Leaders

SHREVEPORT, LA (AP) — When the Rev. Linda Baker first recognized her calling, a minister told her she misunderstood.

         The Minden native held annual workshops as part of a teaching ministry at one Ruston's larger churches. Her heart told her she was needed as a pastor.

         But, she said, a pastor at that church "said he could not allow this."

         She's now pastor of Mays Chapel CME Church in Ruston.

         In Shreveport, Kelly Berne, associate pastor at Christ United Methodist Church, is working toward ordination and is up for commissioning in June. Berne said one obstacle she faces is balancing work and family.

         "There is a lot more pressure put on a woman to perform well in the workforce but still be a good mom and a good wife," she said. "I don't often see it that way with men."

         Although women have made countless contributions to their churches throughout history, their roles as church leaders have been limited in some cases and almost nonexistent in others.

         According to a National Congregations Study survey, many major U.S. denominations accept women as pastors and rabbis, but only 11 percent of American congregations were led by women in 2012 — a number that has held steady since 1998.

         Many of the nation's largest denominations, including Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, Mormons and the Orthodox Church in America, do not ordain women or let them lead congregations.

         However, more women are entering the traditionally male-dominated field. Women make up nearly half the students at Emory's Candler School of Theology, said Lisa Garvin, associate dean of the chapel and religious life at Emory University in Atlanta,

         "Where there once was a glass ceiling for the places that women can serve, those ceilings are beginning to be broken in a lot of places," she said. "But there still are a lot of places that are hesitant to receive women as their lead pastors."

         According to the United Methodist Clergywomen Retention Survey conducted in 2010-12, all five U.S. jurisdictions have seen between 20 to 30 percent more women serving as clergy for local congregations. In each region, at least 95 percent of clergywomen are in local church ministry.

         But Terri Stovall, dean of women's programs at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said the Southern Baptist Convention holds to the statement of faith that only men can be pastors.

         The Bible says that men and women are equal before God but have different roles, Stovall said: "Paul, in his writings to the church … says women should not teach or have authority over men."

         There are plenty of women's ministries, she said: "working with teenagers, working with children and working with service ministries like pregnancy center and homeless ministries."

         Stovall said Southwestern averages 3,000 students, with about 20 percent of them women.

         Pheobe Kimble, wife of Mount Olive Baptist Church pastor Bernard Kimble, said women are needed in church leadership, just not as pastors. "The man is the head and we need to understand who God called us to be," she said.

         Kimble said she ministers to women who have fallen on hard times. She and her husband founded Women of Vision, an interdenominational ministry designed to educate, encourage and motivate women in leadership roles.

         "We are called to go to the nursing homes and we are called to feed the hungry," she said. "And we are called to help the single moms who can't help themselves — to be a support mechanism for them."

         Baker, an ordained elder in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, said the Bible doesn't state that women cannot lead the church.

         "It's a personal preference, and I've heard ministers try to justify it," she said. "But I've actually prayed about it and the Holy Spirit said to me, 'When they say you cannot preach, you tell them you are not responsible for your gift. They need to come and talk to the gift giver.' So that's exactly what I say to them. I don't try to clarify it."

         Baker said she fought her calling for years but confessed it in 2001 at Minden's St. Rest Baptist Church.

         Berne said had resisted her call until 2011, at a children's ministry conference she attended in Atlanta as director of children's ministry at Asbury United Methodist Church in Bossier City.

         "I realized God was really putting this on my heart," she said. "He had a plan and a purpose for me and that involved becoming a pastor."

         Although women can't be ordained in the Catholic Church, they serve in many other capacities.

         Bishop Michael Duca, of the Diocese of Shreveport, said traditional understanding is that Christ ordained men, while religious communities created a strong role for women.

         "Many of the hospitals in Louisiana were started and run by women. So they've always had a very strong place," he said.

         Duca said women also have operated Catholic schools and recently have become more involved in day-to-day ministry and administration of parishes and the diocese.

         "Recently, Pope Francis is even beginning to bring them (women) in to some of the highest levels of the church administration," Duca said.

         Valerie Robideaux, director of professional discernment at Centenary College, said interpretation of Scripture and apostolic tradition matter. "There is the desire to follow as close to tradition as the apostles as possible," she said.

         Berne recently was visiting a hospitalized member of her congregation when a man noticed her clergy badge.

         "He said, 'You're the first woman clergy person I've ever met.' And I said, 'Sir, I'm going to take that as an honor. Thank you very much.'"

         – by AP Reporter Sherry P. Shephard with The Times

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