Being a female pastor: a story of pain and gratitude

Rev. Rebecca Gresham-Kesner shares her experience of being a woman in ordained ministry.

Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash

I have been serving in ordained ministry for less than ten years. Like nearly all women in ministry, I have stories that will make your jaw drop. When I was seeking my first call, two male members from a church’s nominating committee called me saying they wanted to follow up on a few things. They asked me if I planned to have more children. Strangers have told me women cannot be pastors, and therefore, I was going to hell. My leg was groped during an in-person interview. I have been questioned about my ability to balance my work life and parenthood more than once. I have endured comments about the size of my body changing. When asking for help addressing sexual harassment, I was told that this was something we had to deal with as women, and it was my job to hold firm boundaries.

Over time, I have learned how to protect myself from some of these assaults on my calling and on my womanhood. I have shut down interviews where I was asked about my childbearing status. I am not nearly as timid as I once was. I have tools at the ready for when the comments or unwanted attention come. It is still exhausting and disheartening every time it happens. I could write forever about those things that bring me and my female colleagues down. The experiences are plentiful, and they need to be shared so we can begin to do better, as humans, as churches, as a denomination.

I would never call my gender a burden. While I face sexism because I am a woman, being a woman is essential to who I am as a pastor, and it allows me to minister in specific ways. For instance, in all the places I have served, I have been able to become close with the women’s Bible studies. Many of the women in these studies have never had a female pastor to sit with them and share in some of the very human experiences of being female. I have been able to help women learn to speak up because I could understand in a personal way the challenges they were facing. In speaking about my own pain of infertility and pregnancy loss I have opened doors for countless women to tell me their stories of loss, sometimes from 40 years ago. I have shown young women they can be leaders and pastors. Much of this happens not because I am particularly good at that aspect of ministry, but because I show up and happen to be female. I have been blessed to go to lunch with women’s groups and listen to their stories of joy and pain, of lament and hope, of longing and memory for days in which I was not alive.

I am grateful to share in these spaces with women, to hold space for their stories, to walk journeys of healing with them and for the companionship they have brought me on my own journey. I could not imagine my ministry without the strong women who surround me in all of the church, the regional bodies, the camps, the retreats, and so on. I am grateful beyond measure.