Editor's Note: This is one of our Top 20 winners from the 2018 CBE Writing Contest. Enjoy!
“Most likely to become a pastor.”
I was embarrassed, really. How could I be voted that? Sure, I volunteered a lot, but out of everyone in our conservative, non-denominational high school youth group, why me? My concept of what constituted a pastor was very narrow at the time. Women weren't present or affirmed as ministers in my context, so being “most likely to become a pastor,” didn’t make any sense. I was a girl—a quiet girl with no framework for becoming a pastor.
The trivial “Most likely to’s…” of high school yearbooks faded quickly from my mind as I graduated and embarked on a journey of discerning and pursuing my vocation. I kept volunteering, and after a couple years of youth ministry work and trips overseas, I found myself drawn to care for people. In response to the tugging I felt within me, I moved across the country to attend a small fundamentalist Christian college and study theology and counseling.
At this point in my life, I was becoming more and more unsettled with the view that women can’t be pastors but my shift in perspective hadn’t quite worked itself all the way out yet. I was convinced of my call to care for people, but the resistance to thinking of myself as a pastor—ingrained in me throughout my youth and perpetuated by my college professors and peers—continued to guide my steps.
It wasn’t until my final semester of college that I began to sift through the inconsistencies. On the one hand, there was the church of my youth and my college—both of which excluded women from ministry. On the other hand, there were the stories in Scripture, which depicted a God who uses people of all backgrounds—male and female—to further the kingdom.
I started to fill out graduate school applications for counseling and social work programs but found myself hesitating before submitting any of them. Would counseling allow me to integrate my loves of theology and teaching into my daily work? Would I feel as though I was abandoning half of my passions or stepping away from the person I was made to be? Something didn’t sit right.
I began having conversations with family, friends, professors, and mentors. Over the course of a week, I had eight different conversations in which people I trusted suggested, somewhat out of the blue, that I pursue a Master of Divinity. At first this startled me, but as I took a step back and had more conversations about passion and calling, I realized that my loves for theology, teaching, counseling, and restoration actually intersected in the one place I did not expect to find myself—pastoring.
So, I applied. I moved to California to attend seminary and it was a breath of fresh air. I found myself in a place that welcomed me—no more hiding my questions, my opinions, or my calling. Wrestling with Scripture alongside other people, I was finally able to repair the theological inconsistencies of my youth and forge a new way forward.
Seminary was a place of healing and making my pastoral identity, a place of newness and life. I met my husband in seminary—someone who doesn’t expect me to live in the shadow of his calling and plans, but instead empowers me to press into the fullness of my gifts and passions.
After three years of growth and encouragement, I graduated from seminary with burgeoning hope. I applied for a position as a college campus pastor that in many ways seemed like it could be my dream job. I'd be cultivating spiritual formation on a college campus, teaching, preaching, and ultimately doing some of what I value most—caring for people and partnering with God in their lives. And I’d be doing it within an organization and denomination that, in doctrine, affirmed women in ministry leadership.
However, during the hiring process for the position, I got the impression that I, an introverted woman, was just not quite what they were looking for. In a panel interview with high-ranking administrators, I was asked a series of aggressive questions that focused not on the job description or on my philosophy of ministry, but on image, personality, and on my ability to represent the college in a way that was attractive and charismatic. I couldn't help but wonder if they would've asked the same questions of a male candidate; introverted men are often seen as quietly confident, while introverted women are more often perceived as weak and insecure.
Due to the advocacy of my immediate supervisors, I was eventually offered the position, but the tone of the interview process colored the time I spent in the role. The two years that followed were hard. The best days were full of experiences that shaped my pastoral identity—I developed meaningful relationships with students, provided pastoral counseling, mentoring, and grief support, and stepped into exciting opportunities for teaching and preaching.
The worst days were full of distrust from senior leadership, questions about my abilities and contributions, and an overwhelming sense that I wasn't meeting unspoken expectations. Routinely, decisions were made over my head about things that, according to my job description, should have been left in my purview. I was often left out of key conversations in which male coworkers were included. And despite receiving excellent feedback from students and colleagues, I never once received a “thank you” or “good job” from the higher-ups who continued to be overly involved in my work.
As time progressed, it became overwhelmingly apparent that in the eyes of many at the institution, I was not a “pastor.” Unfortunately, this also meant that there would be no opportunity for growth and no continued support of my call and vision for ministry.
The culmination of all these factors was a heavy shroud of stress and doubt. Because I was so seldom included in important conversations and often felt the sting of others questioning my abilities, I began to doubt myself. I wondered if I was cut out for pastoral work, if my ideas or values mattered, if I could really handle a life of ministry, and ultimately, if fighting an upstream battle just to be respected or heard was really worth it. As two years began to come to a close, I was very, very tired.
With the support of close friends and family and the encouragement of my husband, I decided to take a leap. Rather than stay in an organization that affirmed me in doctrine, but not in action, I stepped down from the role. My hope was to reconnect with the church community that had been so instrumental during my seminary formation and to explore other pastoral ministry opportunities.
After an exhausting season, this was the only viable solution that would allow me to be faithful to my calling. This decision was marked by grief—grief over what could've been, what should've been, and over the relationships I had to let go of in order to move on. But, I still felt confident that the decision to leave was necessary to heal and forge a new way forward. My hope was that I could find something that mirrored the best days I’d had—the days of meaningful relationships, spiritual caregiving, grief support, and teaching.
My hope was realized through hospital chaplaincy and congregational young adult ministry. I also pursued ordination in the Free Methodist Church—the church that had been so influential in my seminary growth. As a hospital chaplain, I now have the opportunity to represent the presence of God to those in pain or grief.
This work is the culmination of the passion that’s been brewing within me since I first sensed the nudging of the Spirit to pursue ministry; it's full of beauty and meaning and purpose. I have the honor of entering into sacred spaces with complete strangers, offering comfort and listening, being the recipient of extraordinary hospitality, and speaking with the sick and the dying about their hopes and their fears.
It’s been another breath of fresh air. I’ve come back to a community of supportive, empowering people who welcome my full self, embrace my questions, and push me to grow. I’m finally starting to feel at home in my work and in my calling. I’ve caught a real glimpse of myself unhindered—doing the things that stirred my heart all those years ago. “Most likely to become a pastor” no longer embarrasses me. Actually, it’s finally starting to make sense.
My high school self, with her newfound call to ministry, would never have guessed this is where she'd be now. I wish I could go back and have a conversation with that embarrassed, quiet girl who was voted “most likely to become a pastor.”
If I could, I’d tell her to risk trusting what other people see within her—to press through all that discomfort and uncertainty to the calling that lies beneath. I’d remind her to listen to herself too—to the stirrings of passion and life inside of her along with the unsettled feelings. I’d urge her to follow those stirrings into the unexpected places, because sometimes, this is what “calling” looks like.
I’d tell her to keep asking those hard questions and searching for answers to those theological inconsistencies—especially the ones that limit her, marginalize her, or squelch her passion. I’d tell her to surround herself with the people who welcome her for who she is, rather than disregard or belittle her. And I’d tell her that it’s okay to take the leap, whether it’s out of something perilous or into something remarkable.
In the end, I’d tell her that when the existing framework for ministry doesn’t have room for your calling as a woman, the framework, not the calling, should be questioned.