From what I know about pastoral ministry, I think I can honestly say that it’s one of the most challenging jobs out there. In our denomination, where the emphasis is on congregations calling leaders instead of a hierarchy appointing them, pastors must often feel that they have several hundred bosses, and there are bound to be conflicting opinions about what should be done in any given situation. Pastors also see people at their most vulnerable – when dealing with conflicts, grieving deaths, etc., and pastors are in turn vulnerable in supporting them, as well as in other aspects of ministry, such as preaching. While there aren’t too many of our generation who are brave enough to take on this complex and challenging job, I know a few who are. One of them is my friend Alicia Good, who is currently doing a Master’s of Divinity degree at the Toronto School of Theology. I asked her to share about her decision to become a pastor.
What drew you to pastoral ministry?
I really believe that the church is a transformative place that can change us and empower us. As a young teenager, I became involved in the church and met God there, and wanted to help others have that experience. It’s been a long process, and a lot of different people have played different roles – my parents, others who have mentored me, said, “you really have a gift and I can see you as a leader.” I got really discouraging comments from other people too, but the people who knew me best were able to encourage me in a meaningful way. You have to know who you are and know which comments really ring true – and take them with a grain of salt.
Being a pastor is not an easy job. What are some of the hesitations you have about entering pastoral ministry?
Paying off my student debt – mine and my husband’s – is probably one of the things that kept me out of pastoral ministry until now! I’ve also heard a lot of stories from people that have had really bad experiences in ministry and that’s scary. I get nervous about experiencing conflict and being criticized. Being a pastor is not just a 9-to-5 job – you’re involved with these people, your family is involved – conflict is different in that setting than at a secular workplace. I can feel insecure and feed too much off of people’s praise or criticism. Also, your spiritual life is under a microscope – as inspiration for other people or as a role model, but if it’s not where you want it to be at, that can be scary. And just the reality of trying to find a job during a recession, at a time when the church is struggling financially and the denomination is experiencing cutbacks is difficult.
What advantages or disadvantages do you think your gender has for the job?
I think there’s an advantage and disadvantage to being unexpected, being a woman who’s relatively young. People wouldn’t peg me as a minister, but in an age when society has lost trust in the church – with scandals such as abuse by priests – people may find it easier to trust a woman. On the other hand, people don’t usually credit me with having authority. They may question whether I have the ability to deal with a crisis or make decisions as a leader. I think being a woman makes it harder for people to see that.
There have been concerns within the Mennonite church that young adults are reluctant to choose pastoral work as a career. In your view, why might this be?
Because of the horror stories that they’ve heard from other people. Of the people I went to Bible college with, very few are going into ministry. Financial reasons are part of that – people wonder how they can support a family on a pastor’s salary. I don’t think it’s a faith reason – I think it has more to do with the nature of the job. People I know who intended to go into ministry and didn’t – I don’t think it’s because they lost faith. It’s just that people may struggle with their own spirituality or relationship with God, or question their faith, and they think that because of those questions, they wouldn’t be good candidates for ministry. I think that other people get burned out. They are put under too much pressure too quickly or they have a negative experience in the beginning, and then would hesitate to keep going. I think people sort of get one foot in and then hesitate about continuing.
Have you come across the argument against women holding teaching or leadership positions in the church? If so, how do you respond?
That is the single largest factor as to why it took me several years to enter seminary. It’s also why I chose to get a three-year degree in youth ministry, rather than a four-year degree in Pastoral Theology during my undergrad. Although my congregation was encouraging of me as an individual to develop as a leader, I didn’t see any women preaching sermons or even teaching adult Christian Education sessions in my teenage years. As a consequence, I wasn’t sure if there was room for me to be a leader in the church. I had to wrestle through this and come to a stance on the issue, which is that I believe that encouraging women in ministry leadership positions is both consistent with biblical theology, and is supportive of allowing half of the human population to use their gifts as God leads them to. I was part of a denomination for several years which did not support women in ministry as primary leaders, and my experience in that tradition was that women received less pastoral care and counselling than men, less mentoring and leadership training (of any kind) and were ultimately viewed as being less able than men to serve God. Several talented and capable young women friends my age left the church because of it. Part of my decision to leave this denomination and return to the Mennonite Church was because women are encouraged as leaders in our faith tradition, as they also were by the early Anabaptists. I think that in our generation, if women are not being encouraged to prayerfully consider the same leadership opportunities as men, we are not being faithful to our calling to be a missional church which invites all of God’s people to participate.