Paving the way for female clergy: A testimony

January 29th, 2016

As I stood in front of the congregation, ready to preach my first sermon, there was no doubt in my mind that this had been God’s idea, not mine. Four years earlier I had been a member of the Orthodox Jewish community when Jesus appeared to me in a vision. He turned my ordered world upside down. I fought and resisted the call to Christian ministry. Later, I wrote a book about it: The Jew Named Jesus: Discover the Man and His Message, but at the time, leading a church was not on my radar screen.

Growing up, I had wanted to be a rabbi. But Jesus’s unexpected entry into my life changed things. Big time. I found myself in seminary where I felt God say to me, “I want you to lead my people.” I found myself trying to figure out what that looked like.

I landed at Scott United Methodist Church in Denver, Colorado. This African-American congregation was quite welcoming when I showed up at their door as a brand new follower of Jesus. One year later, the senior pastor asked me to step into a newly created Associate Pastor role which would begin when I finished my nine-month advanced field education placement there.

I was psyched! Being present in a black church was the fulfillment of a heretofore unarticulated lifelong dream for me. Even though I didn’t grow up in church, I was aware of black church culture. I had experienced bits and pieces of it primarily through movies and spirituals. I wasn’t disappointed when I began to worship and serve at Scott UMC. I was jazzed by the music, inspired by the prayer and wowed by the preaching. The faith of the people was dynamic. And the culture was very engaging.

Nevertheless, I met with some resistance from the congregation. Here I was a female in leadership in a congregational culture that expected and respected male clergy. Folks were also uncomfortable with my being non-African American, too. Not to mention the fact that the church had never had an associate pastor, female or male, African-American or otherwise. And let’s not forget that little fact of my being a Jewish Christian. As you can imagine, this change in leadership got quite a few conversations going. Not all of it in the open. Not all of it pleasant. Not all of it in favor of this new change. In fact, you could say there was conflict.

But the senior pastor’s leadership made all the difference. It was the difference between a church that might split and a church that came together to enjoy fruitful years of ministry. He paved the way for female clergy to flourish there.

What did his leadership actually look like?

1. He was bold. “You know,” he said when I stood up to join the church after six weeks of attending worship services there, “heaven is not going to be all black. We’ll all be there.” Some amens arose from the crowd as people nodded agreement. “We might as well get started accepting each other right here and right now.” More nods. People accepted what he had to say, and welcomed me graciously that day. In that way, he paved a way for me to be part of the congregation.

2. He put his reputation on the line. While people accepted me as a member of the congregation, and even as an advanced field education student, it was more difficult for some to accept my being the associate pastor. In fact, several people threatened to leave. The senior pastor told them he would leave too if I was not accepted. A risky move for sure. Thankfully, one that bore much fruit.

3. He was open to the movement of the Spirit. When it was time for me to preach my first sermon, this senior pastor empowered me to design the service, include members of the congregation and try some things that had not been done before. Meanwhile, he sat in the congregation and gave his support through the power of his presence. He did not place the people’s comfort over God’s call. Neither did he abandon them to navigate the change alone.

4. He partnered with others to bring about change. As visionary a pastor as this man was, he was not by nature a huge risk-taker. In fact, he tended toward the cautious side of things. He started small by welcoming other female field education students before me. He wasn’t driven by ego, but by call and conviction. Over time, other lay women and men got on board with his vision. Together, led by the Spirit, we were able to bring about a culture shift in that congregation. While it was already lively and inspired in worship, active and engaged in ministry, it hadn’t moved from primarily male leadership to balanced male and female leadership. He paved the way for much-needed diversity in the leadership of the church. My gender and Jewish background, along with a unique skill set, allowed me to bring innovative ministries to the congregation and community.

This experiment didn’t end with me. I’m happy to say Scott UMC now has a female senior pastor who has been eagerly accepted and supported. I too went on to serve as a co-pastor, then a senior pastor in other settings.

Bottom line, this visionary senior pastor crafted a vision for change and then backed it up with everything he had. I would not be where I am if it weren’t for him. Nor would the church. His model of leadership has continued to inspire me over the years.

How open is your setting for female leadership? Consider what sort of visionary leadership you can provide. Not sure how to do it? Consider joining a Fall Creating a Culture of Renewal group to quickly grow your leadership capacity.

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at She is the author of The Jew Named Jesus and Green Church.

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