She stands at the front of the church and raises her arms in greeting. “The Lord be with you,” she says. We reply, “And also with you.”
My pastor is not tall, about five foot three, give or take—just about my height. She has chin-length brown hair, a spacious smile, and a nose ring. In our Lutheran sanctuary, she wears a robe that goes almost to the floor and vestments that change color with the seasons of the liturgical year.
Lots of people participate in leading the service at my church, men and women. Each week a different person dons a robe and presides as assisting minister, praying for local and global needs. During communion, several of us also hold cups of wine and juice or offer chunks of bread. We read from the Bible behind the wooden lectern, New and Old Testaments. Sometimes I read, wondering if the congregation can hear my heart beating loudly.
But the pastor always reads the gospel, a selection from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. After several years of this, I hear her voice reading the words of Jesus in my head when I read them on my own. When we speak together, her kindness and warmth infuses those qualities into Jesus’s words for me. When she reads Jesus’ words of frustration with the shortsighted visions of his followers and the religious leaders, she uses the same voice I’ve heard when she talks about systemic poverty in our church’s neighborhood or the unlistening ears of members of local government. In these moments, I remember Jesus was a person, and that he had a tone of voice, something I can’t always glean in the text, hard as I try.
It wasn’t always this way for me. I grew up in a series of churches pastored by men with guitars slung around their shoulders, sweater vests, and sometimes bright green sneakers—beginning with my own dad, who pastored the church of my earliest memories. Men knew the way to God, or so I understood. Men were the ones who stood on the mountains and received the words of God, passing them along to the rest of us later on with shining faces. It didn’t trouble me that men were pastors and women were pastor’s wives. I didn’t think about it at all.
After college, I was somewhere I didn’t expect to be: back in my hometown, parted from the boyfriend I’d planned to spend my days learning to love for better or worse. I began to think about where I fit into the church.
I looked around at the women there with me for clues. Some were working with children in the nursery (I have learned this is not my gift). Many were hosting small groups with their husbands, or nursing their children through the service. The students were sitting shoulder to shoulder in the rows they’d claimed. I couldn’t find a place for someone who fit my description: a single woman, no longer a child. I felt unattached in every way.
I joined small groups of married couples and college students. I went to every social event on the calendar, but I couldn’t find a place to settle, somewhere that felt like I fit.
Around this time I became captivated by the story of Martha of Bethany, a seemingly unmarried woman, a beloved sister, who hosted Jesus but wasn’t afraid to argue with him. Her confession of faith is one of the most complete in any of the Gospels.
Martha isn’t alone in the Bible, either. Wealthy Lydia is a patron of the early church. Mary Magdalene joins other women who follow Jesus around, leaving behind the familiar. Ruth provides for her mother-in-law with backbreaking labor in a strange country. The woman at the well tells her whole town about Jesus. These women acted without much protection or oversight from men in their lives. I had more in common with most of them than with the women in my churches, past and present. I knew what it was to seek to use my resources to be faithful, like Lydia; to make the best out of a situation beyond my control, like Ruth; and to do my best to follow Jesus, like Mary Magdalene. It’s likely that none of them expected their lives to go the way they did. Their stories provided a framework for thinking about the unplanned life I was leading.
I met my pastor first for coffee, unwilling to commit to attending a service. I’d recently started calling myself a Christian feminist, and though I was pretty sure about what the feminist part meant, I was a little unclear about how it might interact with my faith. I was pretty sure I believed a woman could be a pastor, but I didn’t know what that would look like. I wondered if my shiny new theology about women was something I could live beyond books. All I knew for sure was that I didn’t belong in the churches of my youth. If a woman was welcome to be a pastor in this church, perhaps I would be welcome as well, just as I was.
For months we met together, walking in the park, pushing her young son on the swings, sipping strongly steeped tea. Over those months I never set foot in her church, but I talked with her about things I’d never mentioned to male pastors of my past, though I wasn’t quite sure why. I was honest about theological questions, loneliness, longing, and the ways I felt I didn’t fit. Before we parted, she would hug me. “Be well,” she would say as she left, and I took it to heart.
That summer someone asked me where I went to church, and without thinking I told them Salem Lutheran. I spent the rest of the gathering hoping no one would ask me more about the church, like what it looked like inside. It was time, I decided, to find out what my pastor did inside her church.
Years have passed now, and I have managed to make my way into her church—our church. We are collected together, many of us ill-fitting. We are a place of welcome for the homeless in our city, for lesbians with a talent for exegesis, for a sweet old dog who sits near his mistress in the choir and thumps his tail in time with the music. Whatever else we might be, we are a group of people reaching for God.
Although many of the pastors of my past were kind, talented, prayerful, wise even, none of them were able to point the way for me in the church like this woman could. So, I am thankful for her—that she is a woman, yes, but also that she is herself. Specifically, she is funny and wise, generous, passionate about making what is wrong in the world right.
When my pastor counsels, prays, and weeps, I see more options of what I might do in our community. I realize that I do not need a husband to build mutually encouraging relationships or a child to connect with the next generation at coffee hour. I see that I don’t need to be a man (or a pastor) to be faithful in prayer or passionate about theology. When she lifts her hands to heaven, I understand that I am not too short to reach up and grasp the hand of God myself, audacious though it may seem. I realize I need not wait to arrive at a place where I am well-suited to devotion, or for someone who is well-suited to give me a boost.
My biology is no accident, nothing that needs to be overcome. There is room for me in the kingdom, just as I am.