I remember watching the movie Deep Impact as a teenager, seeing Morgan Freeman in the role of leader of the free world and thinking to myself, "Whoa, the office of the presidency can be held by someone other than a white dude?" I always technically knew it was possible; after all, the requirements listed in the Constitution don't mention race, but it was still shocking to see a black man as president of the U.S. I guess that's what happens when you've never seen something before, whether in fiction or real life.
I had a similar experience several months ago when I met an incredible, brilliant, inspiring pastor ... who also happens to be a woman. As an evangelical Christian who has attended church most of my life, I have not been told explicitly that women can't serve as ministers, but I have never seen a female in that role. In the churches I've attended, women teach Sunday school to children, coordinate potlucks, sing backup during worship, but they never stand in front of the congregation to deliver a sermon and they don't perform baptisms.
When you grow up seeing this dynamic play out Sunday after Sunday, you start adopting it as gospel. You start to believe that this is the way things are supposed to be.
And then, one day, you open your Bible, do a thorough, historically anchored reading of the actual gospels and realize that Jesus was a feminist.
I won't get into all the biblical examples of Jesus uplifting and honoring women — that would take much too long — but I will say that during a time when women were basically considered to be property, Jesus saw and treated them as equals. And that's what being a feminist is all about.
I know that some conservative Christians have co-opted the term feminist and turned us all into angry, bra-burning, man-hating baby-killers, but as Sarah Bessey, a Christian blogger and author of the book Jesus Feminist puts it, "At the core, feminism simply means that we champion the dignity, rights, responsibilities, and glories of women as equal in importance to those of men, and we refuse discrimination against women. That's it."
After my first encounter with a female pastor, I set out to learn more about the role of women in the church. I found several denominations with a long history of affirming and upholding women in ministry and I learned that there are many women in Charlotte whose names are prefaced by "Reverend" and "Pastor."
"Part of the reason it took me longer to understand my call to ministry is that I did not have any female role models in ministry growing up," said Katherine Kerr, associate pastor for pastoral care and congregational life at First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. "It's not that I didn't think it was possible; it just never really dawned on me that it was something I could do." Kerr, who enrolled in seminary when she was in her early 30s, ended up finding role models in other women her age who had also followed their calling to join the clergy.
While she recognizes that there are many denominations that do not support the ordination of women based on different interpretations of scripture, Kerr told me that she has been incredibly lucky to have never encountered any opposition from her family or her church. When those outside of her congregation have challenged her decision to be a minister, she prefers not to engage in arguments about specific Bible verses with them. "I'm doing what I believe in every ounce of my being that God has called me to do," she told me.
And in doing that, she is shaping and changing hearts and minds — from a 60-year-old man who didn't believe in the ordination of women until he heard her preach, to the young boys and girls in her congregation for whom seeing a woman minister has become commonplace. As she puts it, "To see women in robes leading worship every Sunday morning says something to the children at the church that nothing else could."
Unfortunately, there are still too many children (and adults) sitting in church pews across our country, and particularly in the South, who have never been exposed to women in the clergy. Popular culture and the media also do a terrible job of showcasing women in these roles. I would love to see more fictional characters who are female pastors shocking youth into realizing that yes, a woman can lead or be a leader in a church. I would love to see the real life women ministers we have get more attention in the news. I would love to see all of this because, as Kerr reminded me at the end of our conversation, "serving God is larger than gender."