But just as significant, Simmons joins a ministerial leadership team that already has three associate pastors who are also women.
That makes the 1,320-member congregation near Charlotte, N.C., one of only three Presbyterian churches in the denomination with four ordained women ministers on staff, according to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Research Services office. But unlike the Davidson church, there are no female heads of staff at the other two congregations. The other two are: Fourth Church of Chicago and First Church of Bellevue, Wash.
DCPC is also the fifth largest church in the PC(USA) to be headed by a woman pastor or co-pastor, the Research Services office said.
For Simmons, her new call as pastor of DCPC was a matter of the Holy Spirit at work.
“I am actually rather overwhelmed at the way the Holy Spirit works in the life of the church,” Simmons told the Presbyterian News Service. “It really gives me hope that the church is doing what we say in our Brief Statement of Faith that calls women and men to all ministries of the church. This congregation has actually lived up to that calling.”
Simmons, 55, was raised on a dairy farm in Hopkins, S.C. She succeeds Allen Brindisi, who died in September 2006 after a battle with cancer.
The church, located on the campus of Presbyterian-related Davidson College, has had a series of interim pastors since then. But Simmons admits being called as the permanent replacement came as a surprise to both her and the North Carolina congregation.
As Simmons pointed out, when there’s already a woman serving as associate pastor, congregations looking for a new pastor frequently will call a male candidate for the top job.
“It’s pretty bold and daring,” Simmons said of the decision to call a woman to lead a clergy staff that already had three ordained women. “I think one of the things that has hindered congregations from calling women to be the heads of staff is there’s been the concern that you would want to
balance it out [with regard to gender] because there are already women associates.”
But the decision to extend a call to Simmons was not based on gender, according to members of the church’s pastor nominating committee (PNC). They said Simmons was the best choice — male or female — among the 300-plus candidates they considered during a year-long search.
Todd Duncan, the PNC’s chair, said the committee discussed the gender concern head-on before concluding that its charge was to call the best candidate and that Simmons’ qualifications were undeniably a perfect fit for the church.
“After a couple of weeks of talking about it we said, ‘You know, Lib is so darn good we just can’t let the gender-balance question [be a factor],’” Duncan said. “For our pastor we want the right person and we’ll deal with the gender issue if it comes up from the congregation, and it has not.”
Stephanie Glaser, a committee member who also serves as the church’s communications coordinator, said the PNC was won over by Simmons’ abilities, not her gender.
“One thing we heard about Lib over and over again was that she was the total package,” Glaser said. “That she was an outstanding preacher, a compassionate pastor, a skilled administrator. She’s a great teacher and someone who has a lot of personal and spiritual depth. … I think we all found that to be true and abundantly so.”
Simmons previously served as pastor at University Church in San Antonio, Texas, where membership grew 76 percent during her 14-year tenure. She was also key in bringing together different faith groups in San Antonio, where she is credited with creating the Source of Light Center, an interfaith education center.
Before moving to San Antonio she served churches in Jacksonville, Fla., and St. Louis. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., and received her master of divinity degree from Columbia Theological Seminary, also in Decatur.
“We felt a strong sense of call by the Holy Spirit guiding us all the way through, and very deliberately the Holy Spirit called us to Lib, and thankfully called Lib to DCPC,” Duncan said.
Simmons worshiped with the Davidson congregation for the first time on April 24 and preached her first sermon there on May 4. Her call was approved later that month by the Presbytery of Charlotte.
Simmons said she is excited about her new job and called DCPC a “very strong congregation.”
“I do think they are very connected with a new pastor coming and charting the future and those kinds of things,” Simmons said. “But frankly my job here is to be a pastor to everybody. The novelty of my being a woman minister, it’s kind of a novelty at the beginning. I think it seems pretty
normal now for everybody or for most people. My calling really is just to be as faithful a pastor to this congregation and to be as faithful a disciple of Jesus Christ as I can possibly be.”
Shelli Latham, DCPC’s associate pastor for youth and missions, said Simmons’s transition as the church’s pastor and head of staff has gone very smoothly.
“Lib is collegial, she’s a team player and is really working to allow us to continue to use our gifts,” Latham said.
Latham, 34, said she feels fortunate to be part of the all-female ministerial leadership team. She said the reluctance of many churches in the PC(USA) to consider more female ministers as heads of staff really limits possibilities for women as they mature in their ministry.
The church’s other ordained ministers are Kathy
Beach-Verhey, 37, associate pastor for campus ministry, and Julie Hill, 48, associate pastor for membership and congregational life.
Davidson College Church, like Davidson College, was founded in 1837 and has been the spiritual home to many of the college’s presidents, faculty, and students over the years. The congregation has grown 37 percent in the past decade and is now the 13th largest PC(USA) congregation in North Carolina.
Samuel E. Roberson, executive and stated clerk of Charlotte Presbytery, called DCPC a “symbol of one place where the glass ceiling has been broken” and where women clergy do not necessarily have to be balanced by a male clergy.
“They were able to call a female head of staff because that was the best person for them to call even though they have three clergy women,” he said. “I think it’s symbolic. I think it shows progressive vision on their part and integrity of the pastor nominating committee by calling the person they believe God wants to lead their congregation.”