A Year of Firsts
The year 2020 brought us many firsts. It also was the first time in my life I’d ever been a member of a church with a woman as senior pastor, and it turns out that woman was me!
It all happened kind of by accident, me becoming the designated senior pastor of University Baptist in Austin. In August of 2019, the church had found itself with no pastor. The contract of the intentional interim had run out, and the church’s associate pastor had recently resigned. It had been a challenging couple of years since the retirement of UBC’s longtime Senior Pastor, the Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune. The church was nowhere close to calling a new settled senior minister, and the members were tired and discouraged after a contentious interim period.
At first my role was limited to pulpit supply, which I offered for about five months until February of 2020, when I took on the more comprehensive role of designated senior pastor. I essentially became a second interim for the church, but I also was the first woman ever to serve in this senior role. I thought I was heading into one kind of crisis—a church in need of a healing and stabilizing presence to ferry them forward. It turned out that we all were headed for another crisis that no one had anticipated—the COVID-19 pandemic, of course—but the basic need for healing and stability was the same.
Although many, many gifted and skilled clergywomen had served UBC as associate ministers, it was not lost on me that having a woman in the senior role was different. But UBC also had never had a pastor during a pandemic, and the need to pivot and adapt and connect and survive took most of my focus, not the shattering of glass ceilings.
This is how things have happened in the past at UBC. When the church became a welcoming and affirming congregation in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t because they intentionally sought to wade into controversial waters. They simply ordained a gay man as a deacon, not terribly concerned about his sexuality, but convinced that he was called and qualified. It became a big deal when other Baptists began kicking UBC out of their conventions and associations, thereby precipitating a defining moment when the congregation had to stake its claim as a community where all God’s beautiful LGBTQ+ children would be celebrated.
Women In Ministry Are a Big Deal
When I was a young adult, I recall an older male clergyperson remarking, “I support women in ministry; I just don’t think they should make a big deal about it.” As best I could tell, by ‘big deal’ he meant all the usual things men would do when they felt called to ministry, things like going to seminary, becoming ordained, and seeking a call in a church or other ministry organization.
Remarks like this have a way of marking us and not for the good, even when they aren’t meant to harm. Though I began discerning a call to ministry in high school, graduated from seminary in 2007, and have been serving professionally as an ordained minister for almost 14 years, it took me until the year 2020 to really start believing that I am called to senior ministry roles. It took me doing the job to truly believe, deep down in my bones, that I can do this job. That IS a big deal, and I suspect I am not the only woman who has felt this way.
Marian Wright Edelman said that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Turns out it also is true that if you can be it, you just might start to see it. What’s more: Other people might start to see it, too. In January of this year, UBC—a church that had been divided about a year and a half before—voted unanimously to call the Rev. Natalie Webb as its next Senior Pastor, the first woman to serve in this settled role in the church’s 112 year history. As one of my colleagues remarked when I was reflecting on this historic shift, “You’ve normalized it for us, having a woman as Senior Pastor.” I hope that’s true, and it takes nothing away from the fact that Natalie earned the job because she is an immensely skilled pastor, scholar, and preacher.
The colleague who said this, also a woman in ministry, understands that even in moderate/progressive churches where the ordination of women is theologically and theoretically supported, the actual nomination of women to senior roles is still a stumbling block. Her comment prompted me to recall another congregation that had engaged in a pastor search several years ago and had committed to considering female candidates. Ultimately the church did not call a woman, which in and of itself was not the great disappointment, although I indeed was disappointed. What dismayed me most was a comment from a member who expressed that they had “tried to hire a woman, but couldn’t find one who was qualified.”
I have little patience for this argument anymore. Qualified women are virtually everywhere, in seminaries and pastor searches, waiting to be taken seriously. I felt I personally could have named five or ten “qualified” women candidates for this church to consider. It’s true that a church seeking a pastor may discern that God is leading them toward calling someone of another gender, but let the reader understand: There will always be a qualified woman available.
My time at UBC is coming to end at the end of March, and I know UBC is ready to move out of a liminal space and into a more settled future. Aren’t we all? The reality is that we all are in a liminal space as a nation and a world, navigating what hopefully is the beginning of the end of the most restrictive forms of pandemic life. Yet even when the pandemic is over, we will be recovering from this collective trauma for years to come, and research is showing that we need women at the highest levels of leadership as much as ever. A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review revealed the following:
Perhaps the most valuable part of the data we’re collecting throughout the crisis is hearing from thousands of direct reports about what they value and need from leaders now. Based on our data they want leaders who are able to pivot and learn new skills; who emphasize employee development even when times are tough; who display honesty and integrity; and who are sensitive and understanding of the stress, anxiety, and frustration that people are feeling. Our analysis shows that these are traits that are more often being displayed by women. (“Research: Women Are Better Leaders During a Crisis,” 12/30/20)
It is so affirming to see this research in print, and it rings true to what I know anecdotally—that it takes courage, creativity, and perseverance just to exist as a woman in ministry. Courage to follow the call when others question it, creativity to use our gifts when others don’t immediately recognize them, and the perseverance to keep going during setbacks and times of crisis. There will be many painful long term effects from the pandemic, but what a happy accident it would be if churches came to see the excellence of women clergy for what it is—extraordinarily normal.
Amelia Fulbright is the designated senior pastor of University Baptist Church in Austin, Texas.