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A Mile in Her Shoes: Highlighting Female Pastors in Rural Churches (part 1)

Janna Lu & Grace Leone

If we want to understand the rural church, we need to take into account the the call and experiences of the many female pastors who serve them.

With that in mind, we reached out to female pastors from several denominations to get a sense for how they discerned God's call to ministry and the shape that ministry has taken. They graciously took the time to answer our questions.  

Call to Ministry 

The pastoral life, for men and women, is one of response to God's call. But accepting God’s call to a certain vocational walk of life typically involves surprises and challenges. Often, accepting whatever God has ordained is not as easy as simply saying yes and doing it. One must learn how to lean only on God’s understanding and his voice alone. Doing so opens doors that God has positioned in place to work through us, reaching others and benefiting his Kingdom. 

The pastors we talked to all had something to say about their own experience with God’s calling in their lives.  

Called into ministry at a young age, Pastor Dawn Sherwood was told by her parents that it was a man’s profession. Twenty years later, in the middle of a Music Education degree, she discovered that ministry in the Presbyterian Church had been open to her—and other women—long before she had been given the call. “Many detours later,” she recalls, “I realized that those ‘detour signs’ were God pulling me back to the call I had received so many years before. Even though I am a third career pastor, I have found that every branch of the path I have traveled thus far has prepared me for ministry. It took a long time, but I finally realized that I had to let go of my own agenda and let God guide me in His time.” 

If we want to understand the rural church, we need to take into account the the call and experiences of the many female pastors who serve them.

Mother Elizabeth Ivell of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Franklin, PA, shares a similar experience. God called her to ministry through a powerful sense of belonging to the church and the community surrounding it, as well as an interest in theological and liturgical issues. She recalls, “after I survived a suicide attempt as a pre-teen, I had a dream about an angel helping me give birth to a new me. I felt God was giving me a new life and I wanted to dedicate it to helping people find God. I spent a lot of time volunteering with my church and the community also discerned that God was calling me to ministry.”

Pastor Bobbie Hunt, serving at Irwin Presbyterian Church, had a different experience. “I am a second-career pastor by accident,” she states. Her husband had a tri-state music ministry, and she would MC his concerts. She went to seminary to train as a lay pastor to be able to help her husband in this role, but he passed away suddenly at the end of her first semester. “My original purpose no longer existed at that point,” she recalls, “but I completed the course program. With every plan I had for what the future would hold gone, I was all the more open to the leading of the Lord.”

She began to get calls to fill the pulpit and ended up at Irwin after they called her for two Sundays in 2015. “Initially they called me for those two Sundays by accident, not realizing I was a female. They had never, in 150 years, experienced a woman in the pulpit. No pressure.” 

Pastoring in a Rural Region 

Following the call to ministry and pastoring in a rural area has its own challenges and opportunities. Mother Elizabeth comments on the way the setting of a rural town adds something to her experience in ministry: “My first parish was in Houston, Texas. In a big city, there is an anonymity when you are out and about that is completely erased in a small town. The change of resources—usually the lack thereof—is always something to learn to work with, whether financial, physical, or with people themselves.” 

Pastor Hunt emphasizes the importance of the rural lifestyle, and how it helps her connect with the community. “I am familiar with agriculture, hunting, fishing, and running my own business. I can converse reasonably about things that interest men and women. I also do my share of dinners and work calls. The rural culture has a strong work ethic which can include getting your hands dirty. People soon realize that my roots are the same as theirs.” 

In the end, it is for our benefit, and His glory. He loves us. I believe I have found my place. It is in Him.” 

Val Schubert, Bridgepoint Church

Pastor Sherwood shares her own experience of how different ministry can look in a rural setting. “We must search for the mission field and find creative ways to reach our neighbors who are spread out, far away from even their closest neighbor. In an urban setting, the mission field is right outside the church doors. The discernment process is the same in both settings. Each church needs to discern who and what God is calling this church to serve. Working with other churches is a necessity in both rural and urban churches.”  

Centered on Christ

Ultimately, whatever and wherever the calling, a personal relationship with God is at the center. “My calling is to my relationship with Jesus,” Pastor Val Schubert of Bridgepoint Church in Tarentum, PA, states. “Within that relationship, He has given me a love for His word. Therefore, God trusts me to effectively preach the gospel. If God says, ‘this is the place I have for you,’ we need to just accept that. In the end, it is for our benefit, and His glory. He loves us. I believe I have found my place. It is in Him.” 

Janna is a writing intern for the PRM and a junior economics major with a writing minor at Grove City College. She is the Vice President of Student Mission Fellowship and Marketing Director of Kingdom Week. She grew up in Singapore but calls Turkey home now.

Grace is a writing intern for the PRM and a senior English major with writing and design minors at Grove City College. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.