What Does Equality in the Church Look Like?

When I married my husband in 1982 and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, my denomination had no local churches. God had called me to plant one, so I set about my work. To do so I had to convince the annual conference to approve me. This met with interesting responses. On the one hand, no one else was lining up to start a church there, so they had little to lose. They offered me about $50 a month to help…and a mimeograph machine.

On the other hand, they had previously had single women in an earlier era start churches and pastor, and currently had a pastoral couple, but were confused about a married woman whose husband wasn’t ordained. My husband worked in youth para-church ministry, so they tried to ordain him, that would have fit their categories, to make us a clergy couple. But when he discovered the process required a church appointment, my husband left the system and remained a lay person.

Church planting avoided several pitfalls for women in ministry. As I knocked on doors recruiting people to attend our new congregation, many were surprised to hear of a woman pastor. The non-churched folks found it refreshing, they would say things like, “Well women do everything else now.” Or, “I have a woman doctor, why not?” Or more importantly they would have had a negative or even abusive experience with a male pastor, and I didn’t trigger those associations.

The only people with issues were those who had been taught this was unbiblical, and since these were folks of faith with their own church already, I wasn’t trying to recruit them anyway. So I didn’t have to deal with the expectations of a congregation changing from a male to a female pastor.

Not long after starting the church I became pregnant with our first child. So our family grew along with the church. This gave me the option of caring for my children while pastoring, especially because the laypeople had no prior expectation of hours I would spend at the church building or other such conflicts. In fact, I had to beg them to tell me things like they had gone in the hospital. One dear old saint would not tell me this, and I told her to let me know, because I could work it out to visit, and could certainly pray.

One of the most challenging experiences I had came from an already Christian couple who became leaders in the early years. We worked together for ten years but the wife never fully accepted my leadership as she had grown up in a church that taught women could not be pastors. Her husband supported me fully and was one of my key leaders. She had many talents and used them well in the church but could never fully see me as her pastor. After ten years they chose to attend a different church, leaving quite a gap.

For the most part, I have found my role in my local church without much controversy since I started my own congregation. I did fight some battles in the conference, one was an extra year added to the ordination process. As our leadership of the conference changed to a superintendent whose wife pastors (that original clergy couple from when I started) I noticed such a change in attitude in my conference and a corresponding increase in female pastors and leaders.

Not all my women friends experienced a smooth path so I often found myself advocating for women in other conferences and settings. A male pastor friend started the ordination process with me while we were in seminary together. He married a woman from another denomination who worked full-time as an ordained chaplain. When she sought ordination now in her husband’s conference, the leadership feared ordaining her would lead to all the pastors’ wives seeking ordination. Not all of them would want it, but if they could satisfy the requirements, why not? And how did that possibility negate the reality of her being well suited for ministry?  

Meanwhile my own four children grew up with a female pastor as their only experience. One of my favorite stories involves the daughter of a pastor from our conference who lived with us one semester while attending school. My own daughter protested when I explained her father was a pastor. “But daddies can’t be pastors!” Although I knew I had to burst her bubble, for one delicious moment women had the priority in her world.

When those same four grew up and left for college, they had to make their own decisions about faith and issues like drinking or homosexuality. But I realized that the one non-negotiable for me remained women in ministry. To deny that possibility equaled denying my very purpose. I need not fear however. My daughter Junia spent her first weekend at college defending her own name and her namesake’s significance as a woman apostle.

As my children have moved to different cities and searched for churches, I’ve been amazed at the new and relevant church plants, often with racial diversity and the most hip features, that nevertheless deny the possibility of women in leadership. I am grateful for our denomination’s founder who wrote a treatise defending the ordination of women two centuries ago. If only we could all live up to his insights. I look for the day when little girls and little boys and those of all races see people like them represented in all the roles God gives.

By Katherine Callahan-Howell at kcallahanhowell@blogspot.com

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