Answering Call to Preach Can Be Hard For Women

By Cheryl Jenkins,
American Features Writer


Hattiesburg American Saturday, September 20, 1997

For Anita Benton, things at her church are fine just the way they are. Hearing the Sunday morning sermon delivered by a male pastor is what makes her feel comfortable. She wouldn't want it any other way. She wouldn't feel comfortable with a woman in the pulpit. Uneasiness about a woman pastoring a church is not uncommon. Many female ministers face some opposition to their decision to accept "God's calling" to preach. "Personally, I feel more comfortable with a male pastor," Benton said.  I've always believed that men were the head of the household, and since the pastor is the head of the church, I see that person as being a man as well."

According to the book, "And Blessed Is She: Sermons by Women," women who preach aren't widely recognized in mainstream Protestantism as the equals of male preachers. Because there appears to be very limited opportunity for women to preach, most have had to struggle to find a place in American churches where they can have any significant ministerial role.

But by the grace of God I am what I am; and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. Therefore whether it were I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed. --I Corinthians 15:10-11

Retired minister, the Rev. Catherine Arrington of Laurel knows firsthand the challenge that women who want to deliver the Word face. Fifteen years ago Arrington struggled with a reoccurring dream that she says convinced her she was being called to preach. "Before this dream, I had believed that women should not preach," Arrington said. "I had always said I didn't want to be a woman pastor.  "I went to church a while before I told my pastor that I wanted to preach. He talked to me and my husband and asked me what was holding me back and I told him that I didn't think women should preach."

Arrington's pastor called on her to pray during a Sunday service. A little timid at first, she did what was asked and at that moment knew that she must answer her call. After going through the proper procedures to become a minister, Arrington was given her first appointment as a part-time local pastor in the Methodist church.

"I had been filling in for pastors when they would go on vacation or had other engagements before I got an assignment." Arrington said, "When I became a church leader, some members didn't want to accept me." Arrington said members did not voice their opposition to her, but instead expressed their concerns to the minister who was in charge of her appointment at the time. She remained there until she was assigned to be an assistant pastor at another local Methodist church. That was her last assignment.

"I feel like I was discriminated against," Arrington said. "I felt like those in authority could have done more at the time." Today, Arrington said things are a lot better for women pastors. She attributes the shift in attitude to a younger congregation more willing to accept change. That change, though gradual, has made the road a little easier for some women ministers in the area.

The Rev. Connie Mitchell Shelton of Hattiesburg and the Rev. Mattie D. Gipson of Laurel know about the hardships many women pastors go through, but their experiences so far have been positive ones. Shelton co-pastors with her husband at Court Street United Methodist Church in Hattiesburg, Cross Roads United Methodist Church in Moselle and Batson United Methodist Church in Petal. This is her first assignment since ordination in 1996.

Gipson is the pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Laurel.  This is also her first pastorate. She attributes her decision to accept her calling to preach to support from another female pastor and other male pastors at her home church.

"I had a female pastor at my church in Oxford 10 years ago," Gipson said. "There was some opposition to her, amazingly from older women in the church. She encouraged me to go into the ministry." Shelton said most of the opposition to women in the ministry stems from some interpretations of the scripture.

"In the United Methodist Church we don't see any verse or passage as standing by itself. It must be interpreted in the whole," Shelton said.   Both agree that women are offering effective ministry.  "Women bring something unique to the pulpit," Shelton said. "They are more willing to offer personal disclosure and to be vulnerable."

"Sometimes the soft side works," Gipson added. "People will talk and confide more often with women."

Gipson said that people are coming to realize that women are being called by God and are accepting that.

Hank Winstead, current Hattiesburg district superintendent, said that there are presently four women pastors in the Hattiesburg district with assignments and one-third of the students at their seminary are women.

Winstead said the United Methodist position on women pastors is from Galatians 3:28, "There is neither blip nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."

The Rev. James McRee said he has always fought for women ministers.  Female pastors have made strides he said, but they still have further to go.

"It limits God to say that he doesn't call women to preach," McRee said. "Women have played a vital role in the church throughout history.  Moses' sister was a leader, women were prophets in the Old Testament. If they were prophets, they can certainly be called to preach today." The Rev Fairley, senior pastor at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in

Hattiesburg, said after years of believing that women should not be pastors he has since changed his views. "I took what I was taught being raised in a Baptist church," Fairley said. "It then became an issue when women started coming to me and saying they have a calling to preach."

Fairley said presently there are 13 women ministers at Mount Carmel. "When Jesus was on the cross, women ministered to him," Fairley said. "It's how we take the Word. When the scripture refers to the man as head of the house and leaders of the church, some people take those scriptures and use them for convictions of exclusion. God is a God of inclusion."