Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Becoming Pastor Katie

This is (one angle on) the complicated, messy story of my journey to Duke Divinity School, where I will begin my studies next month.
Photo by Keith Kissel
We are yawning through our Sunday school or confirmation class and we are debating what societal roles are acceptable for women. I have no desire to join the military so I could care less when we debate the role of soldier, and I am fairly certain we are going to have a woman president within a few years, so that part of the discussion seems superfluous. But when we get to pastor, I pause. I have the sense that this question matters beyond our class today. Matters to us. To me.

My teacher shows us a Bible verse: Women should be silent in the churches. And another one: I do not permit women to teach or have authority over a man. My friend protests, but I am looking at the words right there, and I take the Bible so seriously, and I can’t see a way to wriggle around it.

That night, I ask my mom what she thinks. She tells me some of her best friends are lady pastors, and if they are sharing the gospel of God’s love in Christ, she can’t see why God wouldn’t approve.


I have volunteered to share my testimony—the story of my incredibly unexciting spiritual journey to age fourteen—in church. I walk to the front of the congregation, grab the microphone, and talk about learning to pray, learning to trust God rather than popularity or success at school. At the end, I tell them that I want my whole life to be about serving God.

The people in the congregation smile proudly at me as I look around the sanctuary. Afterwards, a few come and tell me they enjoyed my speech.

The official teaching of our church is that women can’t preach. But it doesn’t seep down far into our culture. This feels like a good thing. Women serve and lead in almost every ministry. They are elders, they read the scripture, they serve communion, they speak in church, they lead youth group, they teach Sunday school to adults and to children. I have always felt free. I have never felt limited.

It’s just that when I start to think about serving God with my life, and what that will look like, the idea of being a pastor never occurs to me.


At camp every summer, I live with a community of girls for two weeks, and my I get my yearly quota of deep, spiritual conversations. On Sunday mornings, women and men speak in front of the whole camp, sharing their life stories. In Bible studies, my lady counselors blow my mind with new ideas about living life for God. During rest periods, I creep over to counselors’ bunks and ask for wisdom, and these women encourage me to grow.

It is one of my deepest, loveliest summers—a summer of stars and brownies and skinny dipping and late-night whispers—and I am exploring in this place that is expansive, open. I have started to question some of the teachings of my church, especially the political ones. “What do you think,” I ask my counselor, “about women being pastors?”

“Well,” she says slowly, “I don’t know for sure. But I do wonder whether women have the necessary qualities to lead a whole church.” She stutters a little. “I mean, personally, I haven’t gotten as much from women pastors as I have from men.”

I breathe in thoughtfully, nodding. For the moment, it makes sense. I haven’t gotten as much from women pastors either, I think. It is a safe phrase to hide behind when the Bible is ambiguous—this pretense of personal experience. For several years, it becomes my line.

But the truth is, I have never had a woman as an official pastor to “get” things from.

And yet most of my spiritual development has been guided by women.


I am twenty-three and working in the nonprofit field, serving God with my life by loving the poor. I enjoy my clients, but something is missing in my relationship with them, something about sharing stories and doing life together and delving into the big questions.

John has been teasing me for a couple years now. He says I need a job where I can talk about faith; therefore I should become a pastor’s wife. He says this flippantly, to mock established roles and bring lightness to heavy conversations.

When he says it, I laugh. The idea that I could take the word wife off of the phrase and then claim pastor as my calling, still doesn’t register.

Until one night I am reading Bonhoeffer, and something in the words on the page leaps out at me, and echoes of the past months reverberate around me, and I realize that pastor is a word for the things I feel most called to.

After a few excited, sleepless nights, I tuck it away. I know my personality; I am an Enneagram Type One whose deepest fear is of being ethically wrong, whose deepest hope is to be so good that I am beyond condemnation by anyone. I am still a tiny bit afraid to make waves, to become something that could possibly be against God’s plan, something that could draw confused looks from my more conservative friends.

I keep working in nonprofit, and then a church job literally drops in my lap and I think, Okay God, point taken, I will try it and see what happens.


In June 2012, Rachel Held Evans hosts a “Week of Mutuality” on her blog, which is a glorious bombardment of posts designed to make the case that the Bible supports equality for women in the church. I eagerly tune in each night, learning about women apostles and Greco-roman household codes and an end to patriarchy. I devour everything, and the last strands “women should be silent” are removed, and the last whispers of “I’ve never met a good woman pastor” slip away.

At the end of the week, I feel utterly free.

A few days later, I have this transcendent moment in a glorious church. I confess to God all my fears of being wrong or controversial or inadequate. The organ is echoing in my heart, and the desire to follow this small voice is now greater than my fears, and I know it is time to take the next step.


  1. Kirsten OliphantApril 2, 2014 at 3:37 PM

    This is such a hot topic, and such a heavy and hard one especially for women who have great natural gifts and struggle with where it's appropriate to use them. I think this is often way too easily glossed over by those who believe women shouldn't be leaders of churches and I just saw a silly meme that cut me on Facebook from a guy I know like that. I still feel kind of unsure of this whole arena and read voraciously and just let things settle. But I WILL say that no matter what, I think that it's great that you are embracing what you feel is your calling and that you have struggled through to some conclusions here. What a big step! Can't wait to hear where God takes you. I also love the way you frame and write graciously about such a divisive subject!

  2. Thank you, I appreciate it. I am also excited to see where God takes me...because I still have no idea what is ahead. It puts me in a place of humility and in great need of reflection and prayer, which I think is a really good thing.

  3. Have you ever read Psalm 68:11? I thought my church was the last bastion of male dominance from the pulpit ;). One of the first articles I ever wrote that got published (some 23 years ago) was entitled "I'm NOT the Parenthesis of My Husband"--so you can see I've struggled with the male-only mentality in churches for a long time. I do know that I think that pastors as a group (whether male or female) are overworked and misunderstood and parishioners often overstep boundaries and the children are the ones that suffer (the proverbial preacher's kid syndrome). After all of these years of study and and contemplating and seeing life, I've come to the conclusion that God calls people. He's color blind and gender blind and only sees what gifts he has bestowed upon his glorious creation and he is saddened when we don't use our talents in the way he has given us to use them.

  4. Thanks Anita! You are so right about pastors and overwork --and sometimes isolation as well. In fact one of the "fears" that I mentioned confessing that day was that I didn't want my kids to be "preacher's kids." It's hard to resist a call though...whether that's a call to pastoral ministry, writing or whatever!

  5. Thank you so much for your kind words, Karla, and thanks for reading. Blessings to you.

  6. I love the way you told this story, Katie. Thank you so much for taking me on the journey with you. Looking so forward to seeing what the next steps are!

  7. Thank so so much for reading, Cara. I appreciate your kind words :)

  8. Thanks, Becky. Love that analogy of walking out on the waters.