She Leads with Confidence: Profile of a Pastor at Midlife

by Sarah Lindsay | December 07, 2020

I met the Reverend Karen Miller in June of 2017 at the end of the first service I attended at Church of the Savior, the Anglican church where Karen is associate rector. During that service, for the first time in my life, I sang a hymn with pronouns revised to include women and men and heard a sermon preached by a woman.

Then I met Karen, her priests’ stole draped over her shoulders, radiating confidence. I knew I had found a home. Over the next year, Karen became my mentor and then my boss as I joined the Savior church staff. Karen’s experience and wisdom has encouraged me and many others. As a woman who has come more fully into her leadership gifts as she’s aged, her story offers both inspiration to other leaders and a challenge to the church to fully incorporate the gifts of women at all ages.

Discovering Her Leadership Gifts

Karen leads with such confidence and competence that it’s hard to believe she ever struggled to see herself as a leader. But it took time and work for her to recognize, and then develop, her skills in this area—although others around her could see her leadership potential. In high school, an activity leader noticed Karen’s potential and began placing her in charge of various events, including a banquet for a few hundred attendees.

However, when Karen married her husband, Kevin, they worshiped in a church that discouraged women from leading. This church culture steered Karen towards seeing herself primarily as a wife and mother, submissive to her husband and certainly not involved in church leadership. Still, her bent towards leadership was clear to Kevin, who began his own theological journey that would lead him to accept women’s full equality in the church. As Kevin and Karen together shifted in their views, they decided in the mid-1980s to move to a Vineyard church where Karen could use her skills in church leadership.

Over the next thirty years, Karen served in several churches, earned a master’s degree in social work, and became a supervisor in a counseling center. She eventually helped plant a church and worked at the denominational level in the Anglican Mission in North America.

In every position, Karen’s leadership skills were quickly evident to her supervisors. At the Vineyard church where she first began leading, she developed ministries and mentored other leaders as the church grew from under 100 to over 250 people. When Karen and her husband moved to a church in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), she oversaw an expanding staff as the church grew rapidly to over a thousand attenders.

In 2017, Karen was finally ordained as a priest in the ACNA at age fifty-seven, soon after she and Kevin became rector and associate rector at Church of the Savior. For the last three years, Karen has led and pastored this congregation while also coaching and developing leaders, especially women leaders in the church.

Facing the Challenges of Being a Woman in Ministry

Karen has had strong support from her husband since early in her marriage. Her supervisors quickly recognized her leadership abilities, and they gave her significant responsibilities, opportunities to develop new ministries, and the freedom to coach other leaders. Still, in nearly every position she held both inside and outside the church, Karen hit the (stained) glass ceiling.

She was passed over for a promotion by one supervisor who assumed that, as a wife and mother, she wouldn’t want the workload. She was denied ordination in two different churches because she is a woman. Even as her own confidence and skills grew over the years, she remained limited by the views towards women in the churches where she served and led.

Early in her journey, Karen felt a clear call to lead in the church along with a word from God: pioneer. As she faced challenges and discouragement, she clung to this call and drew encouragement from it even as she remained in churches that were not fully egalitarian in their views. And she thrived in her various leadership roles, even amid the unique challenges she faced as a woman in church leadership.

But after her many years of pioneering in an Anglican church where women were barred from certain leadership positions, Karen still deeply desired to be ordained as a priest within this denomination. Ordination meant moving to a church where women could lead equally and, finally, gaining the freedom to use her gifts fully as a priest and rector. Now, at age sixty, Karen is thriving at Church of the Savior; she explains that she now feels “like a bird set free to fly.

Changes, Lessons, and New Challenges

The challenges Karen faced in her first Vineyard church position in the 1980s did not change much in ensuing years or in ACNA churches. But despite the constant external limitations, Karen continued to learn and grow as a leader. She honed her skills, developed her spiritual life, and worked on increasing her resilience. She relied on the support of mentors, groups of women in similar jobs, and many biographies of other women in leadership.

When she turned fifty, Karen loved it. She explains that now, “I know who I am. I know who I’m not. And I no longer need to apologize for myself.” And even as she continued to, in her words, “befuddle men” by being a competent and successful woman in church leadership, her own confidence in herself and in her call grew and solidified.              

She even began to feel that, as she aged, her gender was no longer quite as much of an obstacle. Karen’s churches still did not allow her to be ordained, but she also felt that she was taken more seriously and had more room to speak freely than she had as a younger woman.            

Even so, Karen began to feel the impact of prejudice against her age. She was encouraged to move aside “to make room for the younger generation to be able to lead.” Karen loves raising up new leaders, but her years of experience and her hard-won wisdom are equally valuable where she serves.            

Now, at sixty, Karen is thinking about her legacy: what does she want to leave behind? She continues to lead in her congregation, affirming and listening to the people under her care. But she’s especially passionate about coaching and mentoring other leaders. Having been helped along her journey by other women a little ahead of her, she’s using the wisdom she gained as a pioneer in ministry to give others, particularly women, a boost in their own journeys.      

Advice to Younger Women

Karen encourages women beginning their own leadership journeys, inside or outside the church, to “really know who you are and what your gifts are. Work on your inner junk and grow in your skills.” Developing confidence and resilience comes not only from the outer work on skills and competencies but also from the inner work of healing and spiritual formation. In this work, Karen also urges women to develop a deep dependence on God so that they can lead and rely on God to open doors.

As part of this inner and outer work, Karen sees coaching, mentorship, or spiritual direction as crucially important. Learning from the wisdom of others is an invaluable aid, as is finding a support group of women in similar circumstances. In addition, she cautions women against nurturing anger and resentment. Anger may give us a surge of energy towards change, but it cannot sustain us in our work over time.       

Encouragement for Women Leaders at Midlife

Karen urges other women at midlife to enjoy what they are doing and if they aren’t, to find a place where they can excel. Finding these positions allows women to continue offering their wisdom and insight to others—something that can become more difficult as women age.

This is why Karen left her leadership position at one ACNA church and moved to another: she knew that she needed to serve in a church where she could be ordained and fully freed to lead and pastor a congregation. This move also freed Karen to consider the legacy she wanted to leave.

Coaching and mentoring leaders have always been Karen’s passions—she has her own coaching business, Strengthen Your Leadership, in addition to mentoring church staff. But as she has begun considering her legacy, this work has taken on new importance for her. And she encourages other women at midlife to begin considering their own legacies: what do they want to leave behind in their families, communities, and workplaces? While not everyone is as passionate as Karen about coaching, she also encourages older women to mentor younger women, raising up a new generation of leaders.

A Challenge to the Church

As is clear in Karen’s story, she has remained a committed servant and leader in the church, despite the sexism and discouragement she faced. For any member of her congregation, her care for the body of Christ is hard to miss. But part of that care is also the willingness to challenge trends that minimize the role of women, especially of older women. Karen says, “we need the next generation of young men and women to be raised up to lead the church. However, do not put the older women out to pasture. You still need to have them in the mix because they bring more wisdom and discernment.”

Karen has weathered years of sexism, and now ageism, in the church. But as she herself demonstrates, limiting people because of their gender or their age deprives the church—local congregations as well as the larger body of Christ—of unique perspectives, important insights, and valuable wisdom gained through experience. And so let us, as the church, show by our actions that we value the wisdom of women at midlife and beyond by ensuring that they have space to grow, thrive, and leave a legacy.