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A Higher Calling

Rev. Stephanie York Arnold, senior pastor at First Church in downtown Birmingham

Female pastors are breaking through the stained glass ceiling in Birmingham churches.

Written by Lindsey Osborne  Portraits by Beau Gustafson

Like any young person, Rev. Stephanie York Arnold often imagined the future—and when she did, she saw herself exactly where she is: serving as a pastor of a church. “Since I have been working in ministry in 1999, I have felt called towards being a senior pastor,” says Arnold, who is now the senior pastor at First Church Birmingham, a new role for her after eight years in another position at First Church.

Arnold’s appointment as a pastor is notable not only because she’s in a prominent role, but because she’s a female pastor in a culture that has a history of restricting women from leading. But times are a changin’, and women like Arnold are leading the way for female spiritual leaders in the religious sector. “I never had a female pastor,” says Arnold. “I finally met one when I was 17 years old.” For Arnold, pastoring a congregation—which includes teaching and caring for its members, as well as making important decisions for the church as a whole—seemed like a natural fit for her. “I always loved talking. As a matter of fact, I often got in trouble at school because of it,” she says. “My first grade teacher told my mom that she should not be too upset over my ‘talks too much’ on my report card or my constant activity. She told my mom, ‘Carol, one day it will be her greatest gift.’

“This story was told to me all my life as my folks would instruct me how to use this gift of talking to my best advantage,” she continues. “It seemed natural to me to want to use my gifts in the place that I loved and cherished best. When I was 18 years old, I told my senior pastor that I didn’t think I would ever want to be a senior pastor…just a youth director. He laughed at me and said, ‘Yes, you will. Because you will believe you can do it better!’ His words have haunted me for years. I feel uniquely called and equipped to serve as the leader of a congregation…just as I would if I were a man. For  gender does not define my role.”

Though Arnold’s role is not the norm, there seems to be a shift occurring in the Church (and I use that term to refer to the Christian Church as a whole, not any particular church). According to a Christianity Today article titled “Study: Female Pastors Are on the Rise,” one out of every 11 Protestant pastors is female, a number that has tripled in the past 25 years. So why were women in the Church restricted—and why is it changing? The answer, in short, is that the Bible, the leading guide for Christianity, can be interpreted any number of ways, and that can lead to division among people who actually believe the same foundational ideas. In fact, that’s the reason there are different denominations—it comes down to different interpretations of key passages that guide the secondary and tertiary issues of Christianity. There are several passages of Scripture that, if read in a particular way, can seem to discourage formal female leadership in the Church. (It’s worth noting that almost all Christian churches encourage women to be involved and even teach in some capacities—many just don’t invite them to participate in the highest levels of leadership.)

Rev. Cat Goodrich, pastor/acting head of staff at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Birmingham.

Rev. Cat Goodrich, pastor/acting head of staff at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Birmingham, actually didn’t imagine herself here; she initially went in a different direction. After studying religion and political science at Austin College in Texas, she attended seminary in Boston but worked for a nonprofit. “I grew up in church and was involved in leadership as a young person but for a long time I didn’t think I was called to ministry. I studied religion in college because I’m interested in what motivates people to do what they do,” she explains. “I spent a summer when I was in college working on the U.S.-Mexico border with a binational ministry that supported migrants (among other things). It was the first time I saw people of faith speaking out about an issue of injustice, and I realized that my work would be at the intersection of church and the world—with people of faith seeking to make the world a better place. But in (my work with nonprofits), I felt like something was missing. My work wasn’t grounded in theology and praxis. So, as time went by, I really felt drawn to pastoral ministry—to the opportunity to work within a congregation, preaching and teaching and building relationships rooted in our common identity as children of God.”

Goodrich calls the hesitancy to name females to the high leadership positions within the Church the “stained glass ceiling.” “Why do people believe women shouldn’t preach? Why is it unusual for a downtown church like First Presbyterian to have two female clergy?” she asks. “I think the answer is two-fold: One, because some people read Scripture as prohibiting women in leadership. And, because as an institution, the Church reflects the world around it in many ways, including welcoming and celebrating the leadership of women.” What that means is that the Church, for all of its good intentions, is certainly not exempt from the same biases that women experience everywhere else. “There is a gender pay gap of 20 percent in our country, and that exists in the church as well,” Goodrich says.

The ordination of women is an issue that has created division among the leaders of the Church for many years; some denominations have approved the ordination of women for decades, like the United Methodist Church, which voted in favor of it in 1956. Others, like the Baptist Church, still don’t. It all depends on how those passages of Scripture are interpreted (some key ones are 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34. Others that could support female ordination include Galatians 3:28 and Acts 18:26.) “I see the Bible as a complex document compiled over many centuries and bound by the culture and biases of the times in which it was written,” Goodrich says. “So the household codes we find in the New Testament—passages in Peter and Paul’s writings that prescribe the roles of women as subservient and secondary to those of men—are indicative of hierarchical Roman culture and nothing more. As I read Scripture, I see that people were created in the image of God, and that God called many women to be instrumental in building and sustaining the early Church.”

Despite changing norms led by the likes of Arnold and Goodrich, female leaders are still the minority in the Church. “Women make up 60 percent of the members in my denomination, but only 38 percent of ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament are women. Eighty-four percent of female pastors in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) have experienced some form of gender bias or discrimination according to a denominational study from 2016,” Goodrich says. She went on to explain that Birmingham is the birthplace of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), a split from PCUSA. And that split, which became official in December of 1973, was in part a result of disagreement over the ordination of women, which makes this a particularly interesting topic in the Magic City.

Still, Goodrich says that while there have been those who let her know they’re against her in her position simply because she’s a woman, the overwhelming response has been positive. “It’s always a shock when I run into someone who denies my call; I’ve been berated by a parking lot attendant at the hospital, a taxi driver, people who call the church to teach me the error of my ways—and there are always those people who stop by the church and assume I’m the secretary because of my age or gender,” she says. “But I’ve been blessed with strong female role models and colleagues in ministry; a gift of being a third-wave feminist, I think, is that there were courageous women who went ahead of me and blazed trails within my denomination and in the churches I’ve served in and schools where I studied so that I never had any doubt about what might be possible for me as a woman in ministry.”

Arnold, who is ordained as part of the United Methodist Church (UMC), agrees. “I sense shifting tides with our culture and, yes, within the Church too! Thanks to the #metoo movement and the #timesup movement women (and men) are naming the patriarchal and sexist narrative that has been woven into thread of the human experience,” she says. “That narrative has never served us well because it has denied the full equality of more than half of the human race. Speaking up and telling the truth of our stories has empowered women and is educating our world. The Church is no different. While the UMC has ordained women since 1956 (and John Wesley even appointed some women to local congregations), full equality and parity is not yet a realized vision for our church. However, we are further along than some of our brother and sister denominations who still quote Scripture as reason I should not preach. With women and men claiming our identity as United Methodist, who clearly name men and women as equals in every way, we are beginning to see resolutions about parity in appointments and salaries for women, more women appointed to senior pastor roles, cabinet positions, and bishops. These things matter because they signal to our culture and our congregations a love that is not defined by cultural norms or comforts, but one that originates with our Creator claiming each of us as ‘very good’ and created in the image of the Divine.”

As Helen Clark, UN development program administrator says, “Girls can do anything. We do do anything and we expect to be treated as equals.” For these female pastors, showing the world that this is true is as simple as showing up to their jobs each day. “So every day, I do the same things any male pastor would do,” Arnold says. “I visit the sick, I return emails, I move tables and climb ladders to help set up rooms for meetings and worship. I teach Bible studies, I lead staff meetings, I analyze budgets and make sure bills are paid. I marry people, I bury people, I baptize people. But more than anything else, through all I strive to do, I love. I love my family. I love my staff. I love my congregation. I love those outside our church. I love our community and city. I love those who have a cynical eye for the church. I love those who love the church. I love those I agree with and I deeply strive to love those I don’t agree with. At the end of the day, whether I am a male or a female clergy person really shouldn’t matter…if I can love and teach others to accept love and give love, that is all God, who is Love, hopes any of us might do.”