The unique gifts women can bring to the role of pastor

by Bill Tammeus

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My congregation has just done something currently impossible for a Catholic congregation to replicate: It has voted to call a woman as our associate pastor. She'll be the fourth woman to serve in that capacity in our congregation's 150-year history.

My job here is not to tell the Catholic church it should ordain women as priests, though that would be my position if I were Catholic. Rather, I'm going to try to give Catholics a sense of what having female clergy can do to create a full and wholesome approach to ministry.

First, our pastor nominating committee -- elected by our congregation -- was well aware from the beginning that it would not be reviewing applications from only men. This immediately meant a more inclusive process -- and not just for the three women who served on committee, but for the three men, too. After all, it required the male committee members to be attuned to the possibility that our next associate pastor, unlike the recently retired person who had held that job, might be female.

So committee members were working on an even playing field with each other when it came to gender considerations. And it's helpful not to have power differences among people working toward the same goal.

Next, when Kristin Riegel joins our staff this summer, she will have all the theological and pastoral authority our male pastor has, except that she won't be head of staff. What happened when we brought on to our staff our first female associate pastor when my daughters were young will happen again: Girls throughout the church will be able to imagine that one day, they might be called to ordained ministry in this way. Neither of my daughters became pastors. They're both educators. But it was, nonetheless, helpful to them to recognize that being a pastor was not outside the realm of possibility.

To have as open a future as possible is a great gift to children. When my mother was growing up in a Presbyterian church well before our denomination ordained its first female pastor in 1956, Mom's most realistic possibilities for careers outside the home were teaching and nursing. She wound up doing a bit of teaching along with other jobs that slowly opened up to females, but the possibility that she might become a pastor was simply out of the question for her as a child. It's not out of the question for the many little girls in our congregation now.

Female pastors sometimes have brought to our congregation gifts different from those of male pastors. One was deeply into hymnody and opened our eyes to the breadth of hymns available and to their ability to marinate us in theology. Another spent part of an earlier career in theater work and brought that dramatic sensibility to her preaching, especially in sermons aimed at children.

I'm not suggesting that male pastors can't be nurturing and empathetic, but when my nephew was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it was our female associate pastor who understood most clearly that some of what I needed was simply her presence -- without lame theological explanations for what happened, without cliché words of comfort we often offer thoughtlessly. Merely her silent presence.

We men, including male pastors, often just want to fix things. Female pastors, in my experience, are less interested in fixing things than they are in listening to what people in pain have to say about what hurts.

It's not that female clergy are better than their male counterparts or vice versa. It's that they're different. And in a congregation like ours and a denomination like ours in which women can be ordained to the same ministry as men, we are more likely to get the full range of pastoral skills and approaches possible. I am sure I would miss that terribly if I ever were to join a Catholic congregation.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at]

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