After a recent worship service at Branches United Methodist Church in Florida City, Fla., pastor Audrey B. Warren returned to the sanctuary to turn off the lights. There, draped in Warren’s stole and with the microphone in hand, was 4-year-old Cassandra.
“I didn’t catch what she was saying, but I have to believe that she was ‘playing pastor,’” Warren recalls. “If that is not progress ... I don’t know what is. How amazing for young girls to dream of being pastors.”
At 26, Warren herself belongs to a distinct minority: young women who are lead pastors.
She is among recent female graduates who, with newly minted Duke Divinity master of divinity degrees in hand, have moved quickly from seminary student to local church pastorates. In addition to Warren D’08, there’s 29-year-old Elizabeth Evans Hagan D’06, who serves as senior pastor of Washington Plaza Baptist Church in Reston, Va., and 25-year-old Meghan Good D’09. Just two months after graduating last May, Good began leading Albany Mennonite Church in Albany, Ore.
A Hopeful Trend
Reflecting a hopeful trend, these clergywomen—navigating denominational bias, interpreting the biblical role of women, and resisting age and gender-based stereotypes— are leading churches.
In the process, they are swimming against the ecclesial tide. Female clergy lead only about 8 percent of U.S. churches, reports Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religion, and divinity at Duke University, and director of the National Congregations Study. Since women serving as head clergy are more likely working at congregations with smaller memberships, only about 5 percent of American churchgoers worship at churches led by female pastors, according to Chaves.
To be sure, the numbers have risen in some denominations. In 2006, Chaves notes that 22.8 percent of United Methodist, 22.5 percent of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and 20.6 percent of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations were led by women. That compares in 1998 with 16.5 percent UMC, 12.6 percent ELCA , and 15.4 percent PCUSA .
Still, Chaves discloses, despite the rapid influx of women into M.Div. programs in the past decades, as a group female M.Div. enrollment peaked in 2002 and since has begun to decline.
The church that Elizabeth Evans Hagan serves is radically different from her Southern Baptist upbringing. Yet her journey to Washington Plaza Baptist Church actually began in those formative years. “I think I developed a relationship with God, or a sense of spirituality, that I knew was going to be completely different from that of my parents, and even the church I grew up in.”
Her congregation at Washington Plaza, where she was installed as senior pastor March 1, 2009, includes a large African-American, Chinese, and growing Hispanic representation. It is welcoming and affirming of all people, and a church where seekers feel at home.
“I have people who enjoy the fellowship of the community and sing in the choir, but who are still figuring out their faith,” says Hagan. “The beautiful thing is that we’re building a community that’s learning how to be church. My calling is to bring Jesus to them: to ground them in the Christian tradition and in this community.”
The daughter of a Southern Baptist pastor, the Chattanooga, Tenn., native might be seen as a prophet without honor in her childhood home. Her father does not endorse women in ministry, and his church is not an anomaly. According to Chaves, half of American congregations are either in denominations that do not permit female clergy, or independent churches that do not allow female head clergy. While 37 percent of congregations that identify themselves as “theologically more on the liberal side” are women-led, only 9 percent of American churches claim to be liberal.
If you were a man …
When Hagan was growing up, she often spoke or led activities with her youth group. “People would come up to me afterwards and say, ‘If you were a man, you’d make a really good preacher,’” she says. “I felt a calling toward ministry the summer before I entered high school.” But at 14, Hagan felt no one seemed to understand her, or “really knew what to do with me.”
In fact, it wasn’t until she was a student at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., that Hagan heard a woman preach. Then, during her time at Duke, she clearly grasped her vocational path. “It was an overwhelming sense that God was saying, ‘You are here to learn how to be a pastor,’” she says. “That’s what I knew I was looking for when I graduated.”
Hagan started the search-and-call process for a pastoral post nine months before graduation. “I still didn’t have a position by the end of the next summer, and not because I wasn’t in conversation with churches, but just because it was slow,” she says.
But Hagan remained determined and focused.
“I had to be very clear about my calling. It takes a lot of gumption and willingness to speak to others, plus persistence,” she says. “The way that I got to where I am as quickly as I did, of course, is God’s providence and timing.” Recalling one naysayer who argued that she would be forced to start her own church, Hagan muses, “Ironically, I became the pastor of the church he served as interim pastor.”
Meghan Good had barely shed her cap and gown in Durham last May when she sat down to talk about pastoring Albany Mennonite Church, in the Oregon town of the same name. “They wanted me to interview the day of graduation, but I pushed it back two days,” says Good, who then spent eight days in Albany and landed the job.
The daughter of a Mennonite pastor, Good now lives some 50 miles from her father’s first church. The family moved several times as her father changed pastorates. Still, Good saw no female role models in Mennonite ministry.
“I never actually met a female pastor until college, and never met one in the Mennonite church until seminary,” she explains. Yet, “even as a kid, going into the ministry kind of went through my head. I would have my siblings play church with me, and I was always the preacher.” Arriving at Duke Divinity, Good says she felt “a really strong calling to preach,” but she thought about doing it in a non-pastoral context. With a 4.0 GPA at Duke, she seemed headed for Ph.D. studies and an academic career.
As an undergraduate at Gordon College, Good had explored evangelicals’ positions on women in ministry. “I knew the arguments on both sides,” she says, “but I didn’t know what could tip you one way or the other.” At home on vacation during her first year of Duke, Good cried out to God, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to know you want me to do this.”
Then she met the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7. Seeing how Jesus overturned the social order for this woman opened up the answer.
“It doesn’t matter what the order was supposed to be,” says Good. “This is the Jesus who hears the voice of the people who want to encounter him. I felt a sudden release, ‘Yes! This is who I follow, and this is what he does.’”
In Africa, where Good later served a Duke Divinity summer internship, “seeing the raw human need, and the hunger for God,” helped her answer for herself, “Where does God need his people?”
Did God need her most in an office, or on the ground introducing people to this radical Christ?
Her conclusion: “I’ve never seen theology convince anyone. The only thing I’ve ever seen change people’s mind is how theology is lived.”
Today, Good is bringing a fresh perspective to Albany Mennonite Church. The denomination of her youth, the Mennonite tradition, is “really where my heart is, my theology is,” she says, even as she’s trying to stretch her congregation a bit.
She introduced instruments to the traditional a cappella worship. And, she’s bringing Information Age multimedia into Bible study and worship services. On a Sunday last November, she showed a clip from YouTube. “I’m just beginning to stretch the imagination of what worship is and what church is,” she says.
Still, Good is one of just two women leading Mennonite churches in Oregon, and the other is more than twice her age. The dynamics of being young and female are with her every day, she says. “When I walk into the room, I’m the unknown factor,” she says. “I’m representing a possibility that isn’t being tried often. How it works out is going to impact others who are considering taking this risk.”
Ministry at the‘Bottom of the World’
Into the multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural urban mix that is Florida City, pastor Audrey Warren is shocking people, too. “You don’t have a boyfriend?” one youth asked.
Romance isn’t at the top of Warren’s to-do list these days. As the only paid clergyperson on staff at Branches UMC, she takes just one day off each week.
“With that one day, when rest is more on my mind, do I really want to go to the beach?” she asks. And yet, not making time to mingle—because dating someone in the church is out of the question—may make meeting someone all the less likely.
That’s a risk, Warren admits. “I think even single males will agree, the risk of loneliness is a [high] risk” for young pastors, she says.
At least for now, Warren wouldn’t have it any other way. The Naples, Fla., native requested a pastoral assignment in the Miami region. Fluent in Spanish, Warren actually wanted to serve where HIV/AIDS, poverty, crime, unemployment, and teen pregnancy are high, while church growth and influence are low.
“A lot of the churches are not thriving because they don’t know how to deal with [this diversity],” she says. “I have a heart for urban ministry and see those churches as being in places where they really can do a lot and bring people into relationship with Jesus Christ.” Warren took a church in a community she says is often described as “the city at the bottom of the world, the last city before you get to the Keys.”
That’s a long way—culturally and socially—from the Leesburg, Fla., United Methodist Camp that Warren attended growing up, first as a camper, then a counselor.
“My family and I joined the Methodist church when I was in fifth grade,” she says. “In sixth grade my life was changed by the church …[through] the family I found in the youth group.”
Indeed, the combination of youth group and camp would play a significant role in Warren’s faith journey. She recalls telling her youth leader, “I want to do what you do, lead people to Jesus Christ.”
Her youth leader’s response was, “Great, but I think you’d be a good pastor.” It wasn’t that Warren didn’t think she could become a pastor, but she had no model. At 18, she preached her first sermon under the camp’s auspices, and she went on to major in religion at Florida Southern College before attending Duke Divinity School.
Today, Warren is the role model. Living conditions are harsh in Florida City, a community that is largely a Haitian and Hispanic mix. The traditional and customary roles for women, many of whom become single mothers as teens, involve work on farms or in the hospitality industry.
“More and more this area has become like an urban city in a suburban setting,” says Warren, who is herself proof that young women today can choose alternative paths.
“Seeing a young, single, professional female has made them think, ‘Wow, there are other options than having babies and depending on my husband, who may be selling drugs most of the time, to take care of my babies while I’m at work,” she says.
And while 4-year-old Cassandra is playing pastor, older girls at Branches are determined to graduate from high school and perhaps eventually from college.
“I would like to call it incarnational ministry,” says Warren. “We teach and preach and all of those things, but I think the biggest transformation comes when we are in relationship with the people we live around and decide to be with them no matter what—just like Jesus is with us.”
Maria Mallory White is a freelance writer who has worked for Business Week and U.S. News & World Report. A graduate of Candler School of Theology, she is an African Methodist Episcopal minister.
For more information about findings on women in ministry from the National Congregations Study, see Mark Chaves’s articles: Why are there (still!) so few women clergy? and Gender, lay leadership and fancy rhetorical footwork on Faith & Leadership.