As we were leaving our roles as the first co-moderators of the General Assembly (2016-2018), our roles also changed in terms of our ministry contexts. Denise shifted from serving as pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, Maryland, to serving the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) as coordinator for racial and intercultural justice. Jan shifted from serving as associate executive presbyter of Chicago Presbytery to general presbyter of Charlotte Presbytery in North Carolina.
It’s not unusual for former moderators to move to a new call after their term ends with the General Assembly. In fact, there are very few former moderators who have stayed in the positions they were serving on the day they were elected.
We were very visible not only because we were the first co-moderators, but also because it was the first time that the moderator’s microphone at General Assembly was shared by two women. And this was especially notable because 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of ordination for women in what is now the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
From the particular perch we enjoyed as co-moderators traveling throughout the United States – and Thailand, Cuba, Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Italy – we saw extraordinary women in a variety of ministries in our denomination and in many other denominations. We saw them lead congregations, mid councils, camps, nonprofits and – of course – as Presbyterian Women.
As part of a nine-day itineration throughout the state of Michigan in 2017, Denise spent time with Desiree Lawson, who at the time pastored Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Flint, Michigan. She led a diverse community of believers in the work of providing clean water to and advocating alongside their neighbors. Lawson’s dedication to the Flint community in the aftermath of its now-infamous water crisis was evident, and her story can be seen in the documentary produced by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, “Flint: The Poisoning of an American City.”
Also in 2017, Jan attended the World Council of Churches’ Consortium on the Ordination of Women Deacons in the Roman Catholic Church in Bose, Italy. She joined representatives from Baptist, Lutheran, United Methodist, Episcopal, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox and other Reformed traditions — most of whom were clergywomen, except, of course in those denominations who do not ordain women. Even the Roman Catholic representatives said that it’s just a matter of time before their policies change in terms of the ordination of women to become deacons.
Many of the women at this consortium were “the firsts” in their respective ministries. Julie Kandema is the first female vice president of the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda (PCR). Rola Sleiman is the first woman ordained in the National Evangelical Synod of Lebanon and Syria. Moumita Biswas is the first woman to serve as executive secretary of the National Council of Churches in India.
And yet, at this gathering of some of the most gifted clergywomen in the world, one of our Orthodox brothers said – out loud – that women can never be ordained because “only men are created in the image of God.” Imagine a room of 25 church leaders – 23 of whom were female – collectively dropping our jaws. Women have made great strides in ministry. And there are also occasional steps backward.
In spite of the fact that women have been ordained in the Presbyterian Church as ruling elders and Ministers of the Word and Sacrament for decades, our denomination still needs a Women’s Ministry Division of the Presbyterian Mission Agency to ensure that all women are receiving leadership training, that young women are finding opportunities, that women of color are obtaining support and that there is gender justice for all women. Denise sees these needs up close and firsthand in her new position serving both the Compassion, Peace & Justice Ministries and Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries in the PMA, as she continues to travel the country providing anti-racism and cultural humility training through an intersectional approach. Sexism, heterosexism and racism are by no means separate issues and cannot be approached as such. They are interrelated.
And as a mid council leader, Jan continues to work with Pastor Nominating Committees who have no intention of interviewing female candidates, much less calling them. While in National Capital Presbytery in Washington, D.C., and Chicago Presbytery, Jan noticed the difficulty that women of color in particular have in receiving calls to serve churches. Predominantly white congregations rarely call women of color. Predominantly African American congregations rarely call women of color. Predominantly Asian American congregations rarely call women of color. And this is true in spite of the fact that some of our most gifted leaders are women of color. Although we are finding improvements in this area, there are still many congregations of all demographics who will not consider calling a woman from any demographic.
In Charlotte Presbytery, for example, there are no female heads of staff in multiple-staff congregations at this writing. This particular presbytery – blessed in a geographic area with lots of Presbyterian Christians and quite a few large congregations with more than 500 members – currently counts only three women as full-time solo pastors and two women as interim pastors. There are two called and installed female co-pastors serving with male colleagues. But of all the big-steeple and medium-steeple churches, not one is currently served by a female head of staff. The largest group of women fall into the “minister at large” and “validated ministers” categories. We trust this will shift in the future, but this is the reality at this moment.
According to the Presbyterian Foundation, more Presbyterian women were ordained from 2007-2016 than men. And yet, according to the Board of Pensions’ “Living by the Gospel” study (released in January 2019): “Over the last 10 years, there has been a distinct gender disparity as to the provision of benefits in the PC(USA). Women outnumber men ordained, 1,547 to 1,403, but men have obtained benefits at a far greater rate — 76 percent to 62 percent. Although there are areas of progress, the gender distinction in compensation is clear.”
Clearly God is calling women into professional ministry. But the largest congregations are not calling women as readily as they are calling male pastors.
Nevertheless, we are heartened by the women who have been called to head of staff positions in congregations with at least one associate pastor in the past year. Amantha Barbee and Jessica Patchett were called earlier this year to Oakhurst Presbyterian Church and Central Presbyterian Church, respectively, in the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. Brandi Casto-Waters was recently called to Faith Presbyterian Church in Cape Coral, Florida (Peace River Presbytery). Meg Peery McLaughlin was called to serve as co-pastor head of staff at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (New Hope Presbytery). Terry Hamilton-Poore was recently called to First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham in Alabama (Sheppards & Lapsley Presbytery). Susan Sytsma Bratt is the new head of staff of Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Mequon, Wisconsin (Milwaukee Presbytery). Katy Rigler is the new head of staff of St. Barnabas Presbyterian Church in Richardson, Texas (Grace Presbytery). Christine Chakoian was recently called to Westwood Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles (Presbytery of the Pacific). And, fortunately, there are many more moving into head of staff positions throughout the country.
And, in a fitting end to our term as co-moderators, we were blessed to pass the moderator’s cross to two other gifted and capable women: ruling elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and teaching elder Cindy Kohlmann.
A day will come when female pastors will no longer be any form of novelty and when church members will refrain from commenting to their friends that “they have a woman minister!” as if it’s a rarity. There are still congregations in our denomination who have never called a woman for any pastoral position in their entire church history. But that fact – actually – is becoming novel.
Denise Anderson is the coordinator for racial and intercultural justice at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with her family and can often be found trying out one of their many delicious restaurants. Jan Edmiston is the general presbyter of Charlotte Presbytery in North Carolina. Together they served as co-moderators of the 222nd General Assembly.