By Sue Sprang

SYNOD – As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in the Lutheran Church by focusing on the women clergy of our synod, Part 5 of this series gives us a chance to learn what has challenged them during their journey as ordained ministers of the church, both professionally and personally.

QUESTION: What have been the professional and/or personal challenges?

Pastor Ruth Overdier: “Personal challenges have always been to balance family needs with professional calling. I intentionally waited until our fourth son finished high school and was off to college before entering seminary. It was hard for me to imagine serving as full-time pastor and caring for a family at the same time.”

Pastor Joan Oleson: “Some major challenges for me are learning to balance work and play, as well as over functioning. Dealing with gender biases has also been challenging.”

Pastor Rebecca Ebb-Speese: “At one time I attempted to become a Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor. That was the most challenging experience of my career. It involved a lot of work and time while also working as a chaplain full time. The committee appearances were very difficult. After almost two years, I decided that it was not worth it… a hard decision to make but the best decision.”

Pastor Kjersten Sullivan: “Well, given that we’re in a pandemic, where do I start… I think, in general, the biggest challenge is helping folks move through the cultural change of the role of church in society. Historically, we as Christians do way better when we are not the cultural center of society, so I think the shift is actually good for the church. But it’s hard to move from everything being Christocentric to the more secular society we are in now. Couple this with how the loudest voices in Christianity are completely antithetical to my congregation’s understanding of faith, it’s a challenging time.”

Pastor Pauline (Polly) Stadley: “I never expected: hate mail while I was in seminary, professors who refused to recognize that I existed. The Vocation Committee (Michigan Synod, Lutheran Church in America) who were more interested in whether or not I was going to have children than in any of the theological reasoning or practices I held, call committees who could and did refuse to consider a woman, or synod staff (Upper New York Synod, LCA) who expected me to work for less that my male colleagues. After all, I had a husband who worked.”

Pastor Megan Crouch: “Ministry is a challenging field of work. I’ve had my call questioned because of my gender by people throughout seminary, internship, and as an ordained Pastor. I have found myself in situations I never dreamed I would be in – like the home visit turned ER trip for the person having a heart attack. I have dealt with real trauma, loss, grief, and stress. Those Holy Weeks where the words won’t come for your sermons, multiple people die, and the roof of the church starts leaking. 

“I’ve had to learn how not to step on the egos of other pastors who have been around a lot longer than me, and how to be the kind of pastor I am, not the kind of pastor I’m supposed to be. This has meant learning hard lessons, like allowing myself to feel the pain of others as I walk with them through grief and heartbreak, admitting I can’t fix the problems written on prayer cards by teens struggling with life, and learning to be okay with the fact that the work is never done. I don’t regret doing what I do for a second, but being honest about the challenges is the only way to survive in ministry, and as every pastor knows the challenge are very real.” 

Pastor Jessica Rivera-Walker: “I think that people who are called to ministry share the kind of personality that wants to please other people – we want to make people happy and we can’t make everyone happy. I learned very early that someone will always be unhappy with any decision I make. Developing that thicker skin is difficult. Personally, balancing motherhood and ministry has been difficult. As women pastors we are often expected to have a family, but then challenged when we put that family first. I got so many questions about when I was going to have children, then I got pregnant and had people saying ‘oh, does this mean you are leaving, we don’t want you to leave’ and then, after my son was born, challenges about taking time if he is sick, why does my son always come to church with me? My son might be distracting me… This kind-of goes back to the first thing – you can’t please everyone.”

Pastor Julie Bailey: “This is a hard one. When I was first a pastor, it was dealing with things I had no idea a pastor would have to deal with, or better be expected to manage. Being single, I have been told on more than one occasion it is good that I don’t have a family because I can devote all my time to the church – I have a family – just not a husband and children! Sometimes I received letters from community members that told me that I was leading the congregation into hell as a female pastor with all the reasons why I shouldn’t be a pastor.  I have had a few people leave a congregation admitting it is because I am a woman. For the most part, I have been able to state this is their issue, and don’t take it personally; and I can’t change that fact that I am in fact female.  What has become more difficult to manage are the comments from within the congregation and in the larger church who treat pastors who are also female as secretaries or event planners, and as being too emotional to have a conversation about a difficult subject.’

Pastor Jane Mountain: “As a pastor, the surprises of ministry present interesting challenges. For four years I was the pastor of one of four churches that consolidated this past November [2019] into a new church. I never dreamed I would become the pastor of a church that more than doubled in size in one day. It is challenging to help our leaders establish and nurture structures and a culture into which we can grow. Listening to the Holy Spirit is so important in this environment. I also never thought I would be doing this during a global pandemic. Over the past few months, I think many of our pastors are challenged by the need to become digital and media experts in a way that supports church community. Added to this challenge is that of finding ways to better communicate in multiple ways so those who are not a part of the digital world are not left behind.

“The church is ministering to six and seven generations in today’s world, and that is both new and exciting. It requires me to think in both old and new ways in order to carry the gospel message to people whose generational experiences are quite different. I am challenged to experiment and encourage others to do so as well. I love to try new things, but sometimes it is difficult to balance all that is happening in order to give myself time to process and plan. I think time management and a balance between doing and dreaming are challenging for many pastors. The COVID-19 experience has taught me that I need to adjust my days to allow for new ways to communicate and nurture our being church together.

“Personally there have been challenges being away from my family in a place where families are so greatly emphasized and where relationships are not as fluid in as in the large urban environment to which I am accustomed. My husband also has health challenges and is homebound. That makes it difficult for him to bring his physical presence into my activities beyond our home, and it gives me greater responsibilities at home for things that he used to take care of.”

Pastor Marilyn Robinson: “Professionally, I am an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA. My call and affirmation for this service began as a child with subsequent years of personal development, growth, and life experiences, which acted as scaffolding for the call within. When navigating the waters of Reformation, Protestantism, Catholicism, Pentecostalism, and multiplicities of faith as an African-descent woman, certitude, fortitude, and courage led the way; the presence of a female in the most liberating and welcoming worship spaces provide only a subaltern* atmosphere or environment whereby she can exercise her calling. The addition of racism, marginalization, or fear of ‘other’ (not European-descent) sets the stage for subtle or indirect acts that become oppressive, bitter, or malicious.

“Considering the context of my work, my language might seem a bit manic… but it is the most effective and the most forthright ‘recap’ of my contentious ‘sinner/reconciled saint’ relationships within the body of Christ; ‘co-laborers together as God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them.’ (2 Corinthians 5)  

“The professional/personal challenge has been walking on the wild side of cultures, traditions, presumptions, unconscious biases, structural, systemic, and overt expressions of racism; with the continuous assault upon my voice, my character, and my authority; wrestling with a denomination and worshipping community who also believe they are ‘good people without any connection to racism,’ seeing no ambiguity between a confession of faith in God’s grace and forgiveness while holding racist thoughts of African-descent peoples in practice. 

“My personal challenge: clinging to my ‘be-ing’ in Christ while reminding those I served and worked with of ‘our’ being in Christ; the fact that ‘we’ are is made evident through God in Christ. Kathryn A. Kleinhans writes: ‘Martin Luther describes Christians as “simultaneously saint and sinner” … a distinctly Lutheran understanding of who we are in God’s eyes… he redefines “saint” as a forgiven sinner. We are called saints…because our relationship with God changes as a result of God’s grace. When I look at myself in the mirror, I always see the reflection of a sinner. But when God looks at me, he sees me through Jesus. Christ’s righteousness covers my sin.’** 

“In 2 Corinthians, Paul addresses the idea of working from a ‘focused center’ – ‘the one man who died for everyone’ so that ‘everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own.’ He talks about not evaluating others by how they look. The passage ends with ‘The old life is gone; a new life burgeons.’ This new life for all is under the direction of the Holy Spirit. ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life…’ Ethnologic politics, governments, law and order, evaluation of others based on looks, economic standing, and accepted faith practices are not the Holy Spirit’s advisors. This far better life that we can live is inclusive and not under our directive but is divinely given.

“The pervasiveness of white supremacy and systemic racism in my country and within the church is challenging, personally and professionally. When asked to contradict my ethics concerning the value of every human being, how God sees us, how God sees me, makes me undone. My body type and my mahogany completion are, in the mind of the dominant culture, God-ordained inferior. I find myself forced to live within a pseudo justified characterization, theorized as ‘other,’ ‘naturally violent,’ ‘sub-human intelligence,’ ‘bred for service but not inclusion.’ 

“This designation is not God-given, but is derived from very human desires for power that appropriates and marginalizes as the way we’ve always done ‘it,’ an act of God and nature. The believing community’s justification for actions that run counter to what God says about the works of God’s hands is challenging and most grievous: it is difficult to see the saints living and worshiping in faith, a god, that supports a racial construct that empowers/marginalizes, forgives/demonizes, loves/hates and feeds/impoverishes as a standard operating procedure for the designated dominant group. 

“Galatians 5 says that ‘It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. But instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows.’ 

“I believe what God says about humanity, how much God loves the world. That is always the challenge before me. God is reconciled to us.  It is for freedom that Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1). We have been freed from the power of sin and the grave and freed to love and to make known to a world in chaos the unsearchable riches of God’s love. This is not expressed in bigotry, hatred, impoverishment, warfare, power-mongering, or as allies/collaborators with evil.  

“The greatest temptations, missteps, and challenges inevitably lead the transgressor and the transgressed to God, reminding us of the commonality of our fragility, our sinfulness, while at the same time, renewing us, empowering us, so that we can make the steps that not only glorify God but bring God’s justice and peace into the world as we love and fight for one another.

I am challenged by God’s Word. I live and I am because of it. My profession, called to serve, compels me to believe in God’s Word through which I am called into kinship and kingdom relationship with everyone because of my Father’s multifaceted grace, love, and mercy. 

“Challenge: repentance and newness of life always lay before me. I cannot sit idly by and not challenge injustice, nor resist oppression, no matter the challenges. I must accompany anyone who is actively resisting any form of captivity, ecclesiastical or civil. I pray that we, the church, can again embrace the life-giving words of Christ found in the book of Luke:

“’He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”’ 

*A subaltern is someone with a low ranking in a social, political, or other hierarchy. … Subalterns occupy entry-level jobs or occupy a lower rung of the “corporate ladder.” It is also used to describe someone who has no political or economic power, such as a poor person living under a dictatorship.

**“Saints and Sinners,” April 12, 2005, 2005/ 04/saints-sinners/