Seeing a woman in the pulpit of a church still shocks me a little. Raised Southern Baptist, I was taught women’s roles were limited. We were enlisted mainly to look after the children in the nursery, cook breakfast for brotherhood meetings [and of course clean up afterward] or maybe we played the piano or the organ during service. Seeing a woman set foot on the dais, or even boldly proceed to the pulpit and begin to preach still, to this day, makes me squirm. This is how utterly indoctrinated to Southern Baptist thinking I have been.
My upbringing is behind the vehement protests I utter when a dear friend of mine calls me a pastor. He believes Whosoever is a form of church, and as the founder and editor of Whosoever, that makes me the pastor. I protest because the term makes me uncomfortable. “Woman pastor” was always an epithet where I come from.
In the past few years, however, I have seen more and more women in the pulpit, and I am convinced they belong there. I have been blessed by the words and actions of these groundbreaking women. They are just as enthusiastic to speak God’s word and share the good news as any man I’ve ever seen, including my father, who himself was a Southern Baptist preacher.
Recently, one of the best woman pastors I’ve seen in awhile came to Atlanta. Rev. Janie Spahr has a special gift for preaching the gospel. Tall, thin and very intense, she wraps you up in her arms and takes you headlong into the love of Christ … the love of Christ for everyone. Despite her flair for preaching and her obvious love of the good news, Rev. Spahr does not pastor a church.
Six years ago she accepted a call to become the pastor of Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York. That call was ultimately denied by the General Assemby Permanent Judicial Commission, not because Rev. Spahr is not a excellent teacher of the word, but simply because she is a lesbian.
A little more than a year later, Rev. Spahr was called to lead a movement aimed at making the pulpit open to all who hear the call of God to preach and teach the word. That All May Freely Serve seeks to foster change within the Presbyterian church, and enable all who are called to preach the gospel freely, regardless of sex or sexual orientation.
Rev. Spahr is now known as an “evangelist-in-residence” at DUPC, and travels the country speaking in churches, universities and special events. Everywhere she goes she shows that God does not only call men, or straight people into God’s service, but anyone will hear and answer the call, gay, straight, male or female.
The work TAMFS does is vital. There are many pastors and others who have heard the call to preach the gospel who are muzzled, simply because of their sexual orientation. I know several personally, including Rev. Steve Sabin in Ames, Iowa. Even straight pastors who champion our cause put their ministries in jeopardy. Witness the horrible treatment Rev. Jimmy Creech has received at the hands of the Methodists.
Perhaps Rev. Spahr says it best:
“This is not a lesbian, gay thing. Let me say it so you hear it. This is about our Christian faith. This is a matter of life and death for thousands of people.”
Her words echo those of St. Paul who said in 1 Corinthians 9:16, “woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”
This is a life or death struggle. There are many who hear God’s call and cannot answer because the institutions set up to preach the gospel won’t allow them to. Yet, they are called, and they preach the only way they know how. They start internet magazines. They write books. They start independent churches apart from denominations or, like Rev. Spahr, they work on the fringes of mainstream churches, hoping one day their work will bear fruit, and those called can preach boldly, without reservation, about the love of Christ for all. For when God calls you to preach, Paul knew, ultimately you cannot turn that call down.
It is with gratitude and trepidation that I accept that call, and the title pastor. I do it seeking no personal reward. In fact, when I get out of seminary in a few years, my prospects for preaching at a mainstream church are probably nil. The words of Paul comfort me, however. He tells us the greatest reward in preaching is not to see our will done, but, “Just this: that in my preaching, I may make the gospel free of charge.” [1 Corinthians 9:18]
Let us pray for those like Rev. Spahr who are working for the day when there are no limits on who can give away the gift of the gospel to any of God’s children.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.