When Rebekah Abel Lamar visited Government Street Presbyterian Church for the first time in 2019, she walked down a long hallway adorned with portraits of the church’s previous pastors. Dozens of men stared back at her. Later that year, Lamar became the first female senior pastor in the church’s nearly 200-year history. Despite meeting nothing but enthusiasm upon her arrival, Lamar felt the weight of her historic appointment all the same.
“I had to come in and tell myself, ‘Here are all these people who have led this church so faithfully, but I’m going to have to do it differently because of who I am,’” she said. “I can only do this the way I’ve been called to be a leader.”
In February, Lamar hosted a roundtable discussion with a group of nine other ordained women who lead in Bay-area churches or ministries. Sitting around a large table in the church’s library, the women shared their experiences with serving in ministry. The big takeaway? They couldn’t believe most of them had never met. The women reveled in their shared calling despite their many differences — theological, denominational, political, racial and socioeconomic.
“It’s always the men forming pastoral ministerial alliances and such,” said Shree Shaw Lovett, who serves as an evangelist at Apostolic Church of God Rapture Preparation Center in Mobile and is Alabama Coordinator of the National Day of Prayer Task Force. “I love that God is breaking all those walls down and bringing all of us together in the same Spirit.”
After the discussion, emails flew in, everyone scrambling to plan another gathering.
“That was the most fun,” wrote Lydia Knizley Johnson, Missioner for Development with the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. “I’m completely serious that I want us to all get together and hang out and continue in friendship.”
Equipped to lead
Although it is still rare to find churches led by women, female clergy are becoming more common. According to researcher Eileen Campbell-Reed, in 1960, 2.3 percent of U.S. clergy were women, and in 2016, that number rose to 20.7 percent. At the roundtable, the pastors discussed what unique gifts women bring to leadership roles in religious communities.
“I think women are naturally great managers and directors,” said Mary Alice Mathison, Missioner for Mobile with the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast and part-time associate at St. Luke’s, Mobile. “Historically, women have had to take care of a lot within family households, and I think we bring that with us — some of the things we are culturally taught we should do are also great gifts in ministry: being able to manage, direct and multitask.”
The women talked at length about being themselves in their leadership roles, allowing their femininity to be a part of who they are. It’s tempting for women who lead in any capacity to lean into the traditionally masculine parts of their personalities, but around the table, the pastors celebrated how their vulnerability, sensitivity and open-mindedness have allowed them to connect with their congregants in ways that can be more difficult for men.
“We are compassionate and sensitive by nature, and that draws us to be more open-minded to situations and to see things from the eyes of others,” said Jessica Durr, who has served as pastor of Metropolitan AME Church in Mobile since 2017. “The sensitivity we possess compels us to be sensitive to the needs of our congregations.”
Lamar said being a woman has, at times, allowed her to overcome people’s deeply held assumptions about what to expect from a church.
“If people have an idea of what the church is, particularly if it’s a negative one, just the fact that I’m not what they expect allows me to get past that a little bit,” she said. “I have found that to be a real gift.”
Juggling roles, finding meaning
All of the multitasking these women do — most of them are wives, mothers and even grandmothers — can lead to some humorous moments as well as powerful epiphanies.
Kathy Jorgensen, who has served at Dauphin Way United Methodist Church for over 50 years, is a mother of four and grandmother of five. She’s the kind of mom who buys virtual reality headsets so she can play online games with her adult children because that’s what they enjoy. So, it’s unsurprising that each year, she puts together elaborate themed Easter baskets for her grandchildren that reflect their interests.
“One year, I was specifically looking for anything that was related to Curious George, the monkey, for their Easter baskets,” she said. “So that was on my mind all weekend. On Palm Sunday, I was praying in front of the church, and I said, ‘Jesus rode in on a monkey.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my, I just said ‘Jesus rode in on a monkey.’”
“I immediately corrected and said, ‘donkey’ and looked around — no one in the congregation was laughing. So, I thought, ‘Oh it’s OK, no one heard it. Everything is fine.’ But after I finished my prayer, I turned around and the whole choir was stifling laughter. And to this day, I have not lived it down.”
Anna Fulmer Duke, associate pastor at Springhill Presbyterian Church and mother to a 1-year-old boy, reiterated that spirituality is found everywhere, not just inside a church building. Juggling multiple roles — pastor, mother, friend — encourages her to find meaning in the ordinary tasks of life.
“Sometimes we think we have to find God’s presence in church pews, but when we bathe our babies, we can remember our baptism or think of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet when we wash those little toes,” Duke said. “When we eat a meal or enjoy a cup of coffee together, we remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.”
Ministry in Mobile
The 10 pastors come from vastly different backgrounds, many from places far from Mobile. Some grew up in the area, left for college and returned to accept a position at a church. All of them expressed gratitude to have found themselves living and working on the Gulf Coast.
“I haven’t been here for long, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Mobile, it’s that people here know how to throw parties,” said Alexandra Hutson, associate pastor at Government Street Presbyterian Church. “People here have this special energy and enthusiasm about them.”
Johnson, who grew up in Mobile, possesses a deep fondness for the area. “Those parties are how we express our belovedness to one another,” she said.
Lamar commented on the community’s connection to water and the unique beauty of Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
“You know, in the 1500s, Spanish explorers sailed into what we call Mobile Bay, and they called it the Bay of the Holy Spirit,” said Pam Hanes, an ordained minister who has led Pam Hanes Ministries for over 30 years. “How blessed we are not only to live near the water and have the Holy Spirit in us — but we also get to live around the Bay of the Holy Spirit. I think that’s so special.”