These pastors share insights on fulfilling God’s call on their lives as they serve in local churches, and how being women affects that service.
Rebecca Jones (RJ1), Robbie Cansler (RC), Melissa Brussa (MB), Rachel James (RJ2), and Sarah Riley (SR) join in the conversation.
HT: What does it mean to be a woman clergy member today?
RC: A sense of “otherness” exists because it seems as though colleagues are unsure of ways that we should relate with one another.
MB: We don’t always have a clear sense of being colleagues. To be colleagues, we have to be mutually affirming in mutual relationship, choosing each other. It’s more than a language of inclusion, but also a practice of it. We can create a sense that we’re serving together, no hierarchy.
HT: Do you all feel that way?
RJ2: I feel like I’m not sought out as a part of a larger conversation. I have to invite myself into those conversations, whereas it seems my male colleagues are just naturally a part of the conversation.
SR: We see a desire to advocate for women in ministry, not to be set apart as something other, but to just build up ministry roles for all clergy. I would love to see a system within our church that encourages us to think about how we speak in district or general assemblies.
What language do we use? Who is placed up front? Then, it becomes a natural part of who we are instead of feeling that we are like a thorn in someone’s side because we want to promote women in ministry.
RJ1: I’ve been told by laypeople, but I don’t think I’ve ever been told by people in leadership, that I can’t be a pastor, or can’t serve in these areas, or that I shouldn’t pursue this call. And I agree that our language has to change. Just being on pastor and spouse retreats—I still hear them referred to as “pastor and wives’ retreats.” So it’s just kind of this implicit culture that we’re still a part of where all pastors are perceived to be men and all of their spouses are women.
HT: Are events for pastors and their spouses often specific to the gender of the majority?
RJ2: I’ve been part of districts where they say we’re going have a pastors’ gathering. And what that means is they’re going to meet for golf. Often women are, or feel, excluded when gatherings focus on typical male pastor activity.
My husband finds that at annual ministers and mates retreat, the “mates” activities are very women-centered and so that’s very awkward for him. Why can’t we have gender-neutral activities?
RC: I would take it a step further. When I was a youth pastor they had a regional youth pastor gathering that was golfing and they purposefully did not invite me. When I asked them about it they said, “Well, we just assumed that you wouldn’t want to golf.” And I said, “That is not the point. I could have gone and driven a golf cart. But I missed out on the conversations and the team building that happened because you made an assumption.”
The thing I appreciate most from my male colleagues is when we’re at events and they say, “Hey, we’re going out for coffee. Come with us.” Because I’ve seen the other side where they will all go to coffee or dinner and I’m sitting there by myself.
HT: What about the often old model of men not being in cars with women or similar circumstances? Elaborate on that since we see that a lot of conversation happens outside of a meeting but perhaps in the vehicle to and from an event.
RC: Yes, there are boundaries that you should have with everybody. But there should be boundaries across the board and then if those boundaries are in place, those should be the same boundaries regardless of gender. If we cannot treat one another in a professional way we’re never going to move past this.
HT: How does co-pastoring affect some of these factors?
RJ1: In some way I think it makes it a little bit easier because my husband is aware of the dynamics and he’s making it very clear that those types of ways of treating me are not okay. When he goes into a situation, such as when we began our co-pastorate together, there were certain things that I automatically led up front because he did not want it to be assumed that I was the associate pastor. We were co-pastors. And there were certain opportunities with leading the board in which I stepped out very clearly.
In some ways, co-pastoring makes it a little easier. Our church supports me. But in the beginning, subtle messages were sent such as going to him over financial and business matters versus coming to me or to us together. As a female you’re always assumed to fill certain roles in the church, whether they are with children, youth, or women’s ministry.
HT: Sarah, you live near a Nazarene university where young women are preparing for ministry. What advice would you give to them?
SR: So many things come to mind. Nina Gunter said this to a group of women there and I thought it was one of the best things I had heard, “Show up.” Even if it’s the golf that you don’t want to do, show up. Because you’re a pastor too, and if we don’t show up then we will never be taken seriously. I’m willing to do that and I hope other women are willing to do that in order to make our voices heard. My voice has value just as much as any other pastor on the district.
Also, don’t be afraid to speak up, to help change the language and ask the questions. I used to think, “I just need to be one of the group and change will eventually come.” But that’s no way to affect change. We need to affect change in order for women in ministry to be taken seriously because we are called by God the same as every other minister.
HT: The church has always ordained women and theoretically we’ve supported women leadership, lay and clergy. But a disconnect exists in how few women actually serve, and how many churches actually say, “We want a female pastor as much as we’d want a male pastor. We want to look at all the candidates.” We say one thing but practice another.
RJ1: I had an experience several years ago where I was in a district interview to renew my district license, and I had just gotten engaged to be married to Levi. It was understood that we were going to be co-pastoring. He was interviewing for his district license just as I was, at the same time but in separate rooms. But I was asked, “Why do you need to be ordained? If he’s going be a pastor, why do you feel the need to be ordained?” My response was this, “Are you asking him the same question?” Why does he need to be ordained if I’m getting ordained? I think they realized how the question came across.
HT: We have a history of ordaining women, but that isn’t understood by many Nazarenes.
SR: We had a guest attend a service who then asked, “So when did the Church of the Nazarene start affirming women pastors?” And one of my board members, who is completely supportive of me, said, “That’s a good question. I’m going have to find the answer.” I have to educate my congregation, but that education should not start when a woman becomes the pastor. It should be in the upper levels of the church and reach all the way to the local congregation.
RJ2: In the group photo of the 1928 General Assembly, there were many women pictured. From our inception, we have ordained women. Where did we go wrong in misunderstanding this?
RC: We still ordain women; we just don’t seem to place them in churches, right? So part of that disconnect is that it’s not always easy to get ordained as a woman because there may be complications. And we know many ordained women who aren’t placed. So that conversation has to look at the disconnect from saying we affirm women in ministry, but actually placing them in ministry and leadership roles.
HT: How has society’s culture affected the church on this topic?
RC: I think that we’ve allowed the culture of the last 50-60 years to shape our praxis instead of allowing our theology to shape our praxis. A lot of it goes back to post-World War II where men wanted their jobs back. They created this culture, including within the church, where they often removed women from leadership. Then that wedded to the 1950s “housewife” culture and the church bought into that.
Next came the 1960s feminism and church reacted and swung the other direction. But in the early 1900s, we had people in the church who advocated for women. They responded to this popular theological thinking that was completely outside of our tradition, because that was the dominant culture-war voice. And then we get into the culture of the 1990s and 2000s that also impacted the notion by some that women were delicate flowers who need to be protected and sheltered and guided until the father passes her off to her husband to be her defender.
So we have all of these movements in the greater evangelical world, which are greatly influenced by reformed theology. That view provided a completely different view than our Wesleyan view of women in ministry, in marriages, and in the church in general. And we’ve allowed the dominant evangelical culture to shape our praxis instead of allowing our theology as holiness people to shape our praxis. This is complete complementarianism coming from the greater Evangelical reformed world.
HT: The disconnect many women clergy feel seems fixable.
MB: Part of the issue in giving consideration to women for pastorates or leadership positions is that it doesn’t work if women’s names are slipped in there to appease—just to put a woman on the ballot.
RJ2: Many women clergy don’t have support and may feel they that are being used as tokens to appease the general culture rather than making sure it’s a good fit, just as they do for a male counterpart.
Holiness Today, 2017
Please note: This article was originally published in 2017. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.