“Grandma’s a pastor? I want to be like Grandma!” The words out of the mouth of my four-year-old granddaughter have led me to believe God will continue to use women to advance the kingdom of God. King David prefaces his account of creation with “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger” (Psalm 8:2, NIV 1984).
Like many women serving in ministry, I wondered if God really created me to become an ordained minister. Or was God’s call on my life a misunderstanding on my part? After all, I am a woman. Yes, I graduated from seminary with a master’s of divinity (MDiv). Yes, I tried to defend 1 Timothy 2:12 for an additional master’s in biblical studies (MA). Yes, I acquired a doctorate of ministry (DMin). I did all this after serving God as a wife, mother, grandmother, and professional educator. Wasn’t that enough?
Was it God’s plan that I become an ordained minister and lead a church?
To answer this question, I turned first to the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, I found that male and female were designed in the image of God, to rule together over the world, not one over the other. I found examples like Deborah, Miriam, Esther, and Huldah who led God’s people with his blessing.
In the New Testament, I found that Jesus upheld the dignity of women and that Paul ministered alongside women. Paul defied current societal practice by listing Priscilla’s name before her husband’s (Rom. 16:3, 2 Tim. 4:19. Luke did the same in Acts 18:18, 19, and 26), by calling for mutuality in marriage (1 Cor. 7:14), and by publicly honoring both male and female leaders of the church (Rom. 16).
The practice of my faith is deeply rooted in Scripture, yet like the Pharisees, I did not realize how deeply I was rooted in my own tradition. I struggled for eleven years with my place in ministry as an unpaid, unrecognized, associate pastor in a Baptist church. I even reasoned that since I am a woman, I should not insist on being paid.
Over the years I listened to stories from other women in my denomination. Women can be ordained, but for many reasons, few complete the process. Some are not ordained because their pastor or members of their church believe ordination of women is not supported by Scripture—a theological issue. Some are unaware of the process—an organizational issue. Some do not get around to it—a priority issue. Some believe ordination is unnecessary—an ecclesiastical issue. Of the women who were ordained, few have found employment as a pastor. Most work as chaplains or in non-profit organizations. Many have regular jobs while doing ministry in their spare time voluntarily. Is this how we honor the ones God calls?
I am not blaming men. On the contrary, most men in my denomination encourage women in ministry. Men struggle as do congregations. Even though my home church supported me in seminary, I was told that many members could not envision any woman as a pastor of their church. The members who felt this way were women, yet curiously some of their husbands felt the opposite. The deacons were divided. Some felt a woman might offer better pastoral care than men. Their decision was not about me personally but their theological misunderstandings over gender.
Throughout history, both men and women have proven to be outstanding leaders. Good leaders need to display positive leadership skills with integrity. Good pastors need to practice the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23). None of these are gender or role specific. We are all living stones, and stones have no gender (1 Peter 2:4–5).
At the core of this issue is sin: the sin of not recognizing a woman called by God; the sin of idealizing the opposite sex; the sin of putting good looks above character or skills; the sin of thinking a pastor must be in his thirties with a wife and two children; the sin of lust; the sin of pride; the sin of passivity; the sin of remaining ignorant of the Scriptures; the sin of keeping tradition when God may be calling his people to be led by a modern-day Deborah; and the sin of not preaching the Scriptures that call women to serve as leaders and teachers. Above all is the sin of not constantly acknowledging that from the creation of the world, both male and female were created in the image of God!
However, before I could consider becoming a pastor, I had to recognize these sins in myself. I still I had great difficulty believing God had called me to lead a church.
Though my husband actively insisted I be ordained, I still struggled with taking that final step. Though my family and friends actively affirmed my call to ministry, I was reluctant to follow through with ordination. Though my ordination professor pulled me aside to tell me I would be an excellent pastor, I still doubted. I kept telling myself that my desire to attend seminary came from wanting to know God, not to become a pastor. I even used my age and my earlier divorce as reasons not to be ordained. The sin of omission and commission lingered in subtle, obscure ways, but God kept steering me back.
In the end, I completed ordination to keep the path open for the women God will call in the future. I continue to serve as needed and thank God my calling is affirmed by both men and women who affectionately call me “Pastor Marilyn.”
God’s call is affirmed every time a minister asks if they can quote “The Reverend Doctor Marilyn Bennett.” I laugh. If these men only knew how much I fought against this title.
Can women teach and have authority over men? This is the wrong question. Are women being called by God to preach and teach? My granddaughter would shout “YES!”
“Grandma’s a pastor? I want to be like Grandma!” Out of the mouths of babes!