Female pastors: challenges in fulfilling calling

Rev. Alison at Gilroy’s Methodist Church

Gretchen Vandenberg stands with the other ordinands as the
dramatic sounds of the Taiko Drummers of the Clovis United Japanese
Christian Church fill the William Saroyan Theater in Fresno. Bishop
Beverly Shamana of the Northern California and Nevada Conference of
Methodists and Bishop Gaspar Domingos, of the West Angola Africa
Conference of Methodists place their hands on the long-time Gilroy
Unified School District music instructor.
Gretchen Vandenberg stands with the other ordinands as the dramatic sounds of the Taiko Drummers of the Clovis United Japanese Christian Church fill the William Saroyan Theater in Fresno. Bishop Beverly Shamana of the Northern California and Nevada Conference of Methodists and Bishop Gaspar Domingos, of the West Angola Africa Conference of Methodists place their hands on the long-time Gilroy Unified School District music instructor. The ceremony brings everyone in the audience who knows Vandenberg to their feet in her honor. She is facing the bishop with her back to the audience, but says later she could feel their presence standing with her.

This ordination ceremony earlier this month marked the culmination of a lifelong personal journey for Vandenberg, who, like more women today, are responding to the call of ministry.

Vandenberg, ordained at age 60, is one of only a handful of ordained women serving in a mainline Protestant denomination in the South Valley area.

Although women’s groups have existed since the establishment of the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1789, the first woman was not ordained until 1965. Many mainline Protestant denominations now ordain women as pastors, and with fewer men going into ministry these days, there is more of a demand for the gifts and talents brought to church leadership and theology by women in many of those denominations.

Yet most clergywomen will tell you that there are still plenty of stained-glass ceilings to break through.

“Are you the altar girl?” a parishioner asked earlier this year as Rev. Alison Berry arrived at St. Mary Catholic Church for the pulpit exchange in which she preached there while Rev. Dan Derry preached from her pulpit at the United Methodist Church.

Another time, a caller asked “Could we get married at the Methodist church?” when Berry answered the church phone. “Yes,” she answered.

“Can we speak to the minister?” was the next question. When she answered, “Yes, I’m the pastor here,” the next thing she heard was a “click” as the caller hung up.

It happens all the time, she says.

Rev. Stephanie Lutz Allen, former associate pastor at Gilroy Presbyterian Church, says earning respect is a bigger challenge for female ministers.

“Men are given respect by virtue usually of the position and their gender, especially if they are tall, deep voice, etc. Respect as a pastor is theirs to lose – they have to work to keep it. I’ve found that all respect as a leader has to be earned, as I walk in with none given based on who I am. All respect as a leader for me has to be earned from nothing.”

Warner said it’s especially tough to serve in places where there hasn’t been a clergywoman before. But, she adds, once they get to know her, parishioners warm to having a woman pastor.

“The challenge is usually in the beginning, like when I was an intern in Chicago. Sometimes people have been reluctant about accepting a woman at first.”

Lutz Allen says she saw a dearth of role-model women pastors when she knew what she wanted to do early in life. That meant that, for a while at least, she didn’t realize that women could be ministers.

Rev. Anita Warner, senior pastor of Advent Lutheran Church and the only woman senior pastor in Morgan Hill, had a similar experience. “I attended a Lutheran parochial school, and I grew up in the faith. But there were no visible women pastors. I asked my teachers, and they told me it wasn’t possible. They advised that I pursue other things.”

Many of the women pastors in the area have done just that before coming back to the ministry. Rev. Ardyss Golden who heads the Hollister United Methodist Church says, “In our denomination, we believe that all of us are ministers. I first heard the call to ministry at age 13 at church camp, but I didn’t get a sense of being called into ordained ministry until I was 53 years old.”

Golden was doing a kind of ministry before becoming ordained, in the sense that people sought her out.

“I realized that God wanted me to speak out,” she said. “I was the one people came to talk to. People in my church said I should attend seminary.” Finally Golden asked her husband, “What would you say if I went to seminary?”

His answer surprised her: “I’d say, ‘I wonder what took you so long.'”

Vandenberg, the first female minister in a long family line of ministers, pursued another field – teaching music – for 30 years before becoming ordained.

“There are so many children whose lives are different because they learned to sing,” she observes. Advent Lutheran choir director and highly regarded local music teacher Phil Robb was one of the early teachers in the program.

Now the Minister of Spiritual Formation, with a focus on Visioning and Music for the Methodist church in Gilroy, the grandmother and teacher has realized her goal at age 60.

“I guess I’ve finally decided what I want to be when I grow up,” she says.

“I feel like I’ve been in ministry all my life,” Vandenberg said. “I’ve always worked in the church, both professionally and as a church member. I’ve directed choirs for 35 years, led worship services, and taken over for pastors when they took sabbaticals. We all have different gifts, different talents. You have to go with your call. There are signs along the way. Many of us hear calls over and over again before we are ready to respond.”

That was the case with Golden, who works in Hollister as church pastor and official chaplain to the Mounted Search and Rescue Team.

“God molds us into ministers,” she said. “Sometimes for a very long time before we are called into ordained ministry.”

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