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Discerning the role of women in church: Only two of city's 31 lead pastors are female

The Rev. Kristi McLaughlin.

Getting through seminary is tough enough, but for some women, there's an added challenge.

They sometimes encounter male professors who think the ministry should be limited to men.

Kristi McLaughlin said it happened to her at what is now Sioux Falls Seminary.

"We knew," she said in a recent interview. "We would know which professors were not really supportive of women being pastors. You just kind of worked through the class, and you worked as hard as anybody else."

McLaughlin is now pastor of the Congregational United Church of Christ in Mitchell, a city where female lead pastors are outnumbered 29-2, according to a count by The Daily Republic (one additional local church is currently without a pastor). The only other woman who serves as lead pastor of a Mitchell congregation is Maj. Linda Jones, of the Salvation Army.

The low number of female pastors locally is reflective of the numbers nationally. Only 5 percent of the senior pastors at Protestant churches were women in 1999, though that figure grew to 10 percent in 2009.

During that 10-year period, the focus of popular debates about clergy qualifications continued to shift from gender to sexual preference. Today, debates over gays in the clergy get most of the attention.

But in rural, conservative enclaves such as Mitchell, the thought of a pastoral search committee considering an openly gay candidate is still a foreign and futuristic concept. In such places, arguments over women's roles are far more likely.

The arguments often arise out of church policies. The Daily Republic surveyed pastors or other leaders of 28 local churches (the newspaper was unable to reach the four remaining churches) and found that 11 of them, or 39 percent, do not allow women to serve as a lead pastor. Six of the 28 churches surveyed -- 21 percent -- prohibit women from serving on their church council. Some of the policies are set by local congregations, but most are the result of a denominational edict.

McLaughlin said she's "not very sensitive" to her minority status, but it has contributed to her inactivity in the local Ministerial Association.

"I'm not here to try and convince the other pastors in town that my call to be a pastor is legitimate," she said. "I'm here to serve this community, and I'm here to do it to the best of my ability. And if God can use that in a way beyond my intentions, then God will do that."

McLaughlin acknowledged that, even if she tried to change some male pastors' opinions about women in the ministry, she would probably fail. The logic that underpins both sides of the debate is rooted in Scripture, and both sides firmly believe that their own interpretation is correct.

'She must be silent'

While surveying local pastors on their church's policies concerning women, The Daily Republic also asked them for their own opinions.

The pastors who think the ministry should be limited to men include many Baptists, those from conservative branches of the Lutheran and Reformed denominations, a Mormon, a Jehovah's Witness and a non-denominational pastor.

Most of those pastors view Scripture as being very clear on the issue. The passages they cite most frequently to support their position are from 1 Timothy, which is a letter containing instructions on church organization that some scholars say was authored by the Apostle Paul.

"I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent," says 1 Timothy 2:12.

In 1 Timothy 3, it says that an "overseer" must be "the husband of but one wife." Many proponents of limiting ministry to men view the use of the word "husband" as deliberately gender-specific.

Larry Parvin, pastor of CornerStone Baptist Church, expressed that view.

"When it says 'husband of one wife,' I don't see how that can be a lady," he said.

Also in 1 Timothy 3, the male pronoun "he" is repeatedly used to describe overseers and "deacons."

Parvin and most of the other pastors who share his opinion were quick to say that they do not view women as less important or capable than men. They view men and women as having separate roles of equal importance.

"Women are supposed to, according to Scripture, be a wife and raise their family," said Carroll Torberson, pastor of Grace Baptist Church. "I don't think that's a lower position at all. I believe women are especially honored by God to have the position that they have."

The pastors of that viewpoint said most members of their churches know the official position of their church and agree with it. For the most part, it's considered a settled issue.

The issue sometimes arises, though, when visitors inquire about joining a church.

At Mitchell's Ascension Lutheran Church, where female pastors are prohibited by decree of the Wisconsin Synod, Pastor David Reichel has seen a few people walk away when they learned the denomination's views on women.

"We get to that point in our study, and all of a sudden they're not interested anymore," Reichel said. "What the world says and what society says conflicts with what the Bible says, and they want to go along with what the world says. That's disappointing."

'Daughters will prophesy'

Pastors on the other side of the debate also claim to know what the Bible says. Some of those pastors acknowledge the male-only language in 1 Timothy but say a more careful reading is required.

According to Steven Piper, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, supposed Biblical prohibitions against women in the ministry "are specific to a set of circumstances and a specific place, culture and time."

"If you spend the time and interpret Scripture correctly, there really is not a general prohibition against women in the ministry," Piper said. "I know there are those who would disagree with me, but historically, over a good number of years, a good many denominations have come to agree on that."

There are other relevant passages in Scripture besides Timothy, some pastors say, that support the right of women to join the ministry.

McLaughlin cited Acts 2:17, which says "In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy ..." She also cited Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

As for the 1 Timothy passages, McLaughlin referenced a dispute among theologians about that letter's true authorship. Some scholars say it was not written by Paul, but was instead written by one of his admirers to refute Gnostic practices of the day that included teachings by women about salvation through knowledge.

"It's important to realize that we interpret Scripture in its accurate, historical context," she said. "And it's very difficult to take stories and the history and the culture of Scripture and take pieces of it and plant it, so to speak, into our own time."

Catholic perspective

Another school of thought is the one espoused by the Catholic Church. Larry Regynski, the priest at Holy Family Catholic Church, said the traditional Catholic limitation of the priesthood to unmarried men stems "not from a functional understanding of priesthood, but from a symbolic understanding."

"We're not saying that men can do things better than women," Regynski said. "That would be a functional argument. The Church sees the priesthood as symbolic of Christ himself as the head of the Church."

Andrew Swietochowski, the priest at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, said questions about why women are not allowed in the priesthood should be directed to the pope, not a parish priest.

"It's not my opinion that matters," he said. "I follow the teachings of the Church."

When asked whether they think the Catholic Church will ever open the priesthood to more categories of people -- or whether they think such an action will be forced by a shortage of priests -- the two men gave divergent answers.

Swietochowski said simply, "I cannot discuss what I cannot change."

Regynski said it's possible, because he views the all-male priesthood as "a matter of discipline and church law" rather than a doctrinal principle. But he doesn't think change will come anytime soon.

"I think it won't be in my lifetime," he said. "Change in the Church is like turning an aircraft carrier around in a bathtub. It can happen, but it usually happens slowly and carefully."

'Some latitude'

Some local pastors have the challenge of serving a local church while disagreeing with the stance of the church's denomination on women in the ministry.

Dean Ulmer, of First Reformed Church, and Keith Nash, of Mitchell Wesleyan Church, are each faced with that situation.

Ulmer said the branch of the Reformed Church that his church is affiliated with allows women in the ministry and on church councils.

"I don't fully agree on everything they do with women in the ministry," Ulmer said of his denominational hierarchy.

Furthermore, Ulmer said, he thinks debates about women in the ministry are among the divisive controversies that "Satan uses to destroy rather than build the Church up." As such, he'd rather the issue not be discussed.

"It's not a burning issue for me," he said. "I'm more concerned about whether a person has salvation in Christ. That's the important issue."

Nash said his denomination also permits women to be pastors and serve on church councils. But he is "somewhat out of step" with that position, he said.

"I personally believe that there are certain God-given, distinctive roles that are intended, from the beginning and the dawn of time, from God's perspective, that women are intended to fill and men are intended to fill."

That said, Nash acknowledged the widely varying interpretations of Scripture and said that, because a male-only ministry is not a "bedrock fundamental of the faith," there should be some latitude within Christianity for conflicting opinions.

"At the same time," Nash said, "I believe there is a right way and a wrong way on this issue, a right answer and wrong answer, and I follow what I perceive to be the right answer as best as I can discern it."

'Change is hard'

One thing many of the pastors seemed to agree on is the unlikelihood that debates about women in the ministry will ever be fully settled.

Still, some hope that the issue will someday be settled so Christians can focus more on other aspects of their faith.

Like Ulmer, Liam Mueller, rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church, thinks debates about women in the ministry are harmful to Christianity. But Mueller is firmly in favor of women in the ministry and hopes Christians can adopt that position and move on.

"Anytime we're not focused on doing the mission of the Church, which is to reconcile the world to God, we're messing up," Mueller said. "As a Church, we're to feed the poor, help the helpless -- do God's work. Anytime we're not doing that, it's a mistake. A discussion or a debate over women or gays in the clergy is harmful, because it means we've lost our focus."

Mueller believes Mitchell will see more female pastors eventually, as the wave of cultural change spreads in from the coasts.

That may be so, but 61 percent of the churches surveyed for this story already allow women to be pastors. Yet, the number of lead pastors who are women stands at two.

McLaughlin said that's probably because Mitchell is a conservative, theologically fundamental town that's also influenced by "Midwestern nice." Even if people think their church's policy on women in the ministry should be changed, she said, many people are unlikely to raise the issue for fear of causing a rift.

"Change," she said, "is hard for everybody."