Church Planting 6: The Woman At The Pulpit
September 7, 2018
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In the evangelical world, there are very few female church planters. In 2012 only three percent of all conservative churches had women as lead pastors. In large part because one of their key theological beliefs is that women, according to the Bible, are not meant to lead churches. But there are other reasons too — maybe even bigger reasons. This is the story of one woman’s quest to do what all the boys were allowed to do… and how she tried to square what she wanted, with what lots of others said that God wanted.
This is the sixth and final episode in our series on church planting.
Peter Leonard mixed the episode.
Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music.
Additional music by Haley Shaw.
For a list of our sponsors and show related offer codes, go to gimlet.media/OurAdvertisers
ERIC: When Abby Norman was in high school, she had a boyfriend. He was a Christian-- active in the church. And he showed her this book he was reading. It was a book on dating.
ABBY: I think it's called Wild at Heart.
ABBY: I know “wild at heart’ "that could be like really fun and sexy but it's not. It is about how the man's job is to... I want to make sure I get this right ause the metaphor is so gross.
ABBY: God has a great adventure for the man and his job is to like drive the wagon. And the woman's job is is to be is to say yes to the invitation to sit next to the guy who has the adventure on the wagon.
ERIC: Your high school boyfriend was reading this?
ABBY: He’s fantastic I’m so glad we didn’t get married.
ERIC: Yeah. Laughing
ABBY: I would have destroyed him. I'm not exactly like a great passenger on your wild adventure.
ERIC: It’s not like Abby didn’t have any context for this book … She went to church, too. Her dad led bible study there. Her mom sang in the choir. In fact, it was all this context that made the idea of Wild At Heart hit even harder. She’d been hearing this stuff her whole life...
ABBY: The man is in charge and you have to submit to his authority because God is in charge of man and man is in charge of woman and woman is in charge of children
ERIC: And to a large extent… Abby had internalized this. She’d always had a deep faith. The kind that made her to want to lead in church. But what does it look like to have that desire and come up against a torrent of people saying not just that you can’t lead… but that God doesn’t want you to?
This is Startup. The show about what it’s really like to start something new. I’m Eric Mennel. If you listened to our series on church-planters… well, firstly, thank you very much. Go tell a friend about it. Evangelize… if you will.
But, also, you might have noticed that ... while we heard from church-planters of all different ages, races, geographical locations… there was a voice that was noticeably absent… women church-planters.
That’s because, in the evangelical world, there are very few female lead church planters. In 2012 only three percent of all conservative churches had women as lead pastors. In large part because one of their key theological beliefs is that women, according to the bible, are not meant to lead churches… in a lot of cases they cannot even preach on sundays.
And today we’re going to hear what it is like to push through all of that as one woman tries again and again to square what she wants for herself, with what others say God wants for women.
ERIC: When did you first think you might want to be a pastor?
ABBY: When I was 12, I was at church camp. It was my first year ever. It was called Camp Christian.
ERIC: Camp Christian is this pretty idyllic spot, in central Ohio. It’s out in the woods… there’s a big lake and a dock. It was a great environment for a kid like Abby. She was a big personality, had a lot of energy-- she was on the debate team and she was at church at least twice a week for all kinds of events. And every night at the camp, all the kids go to this sort of worship service. They’d sing songs. Listen to a short message. And it was at one of these services where something really powerful happened to Abby.
ABBY: The camp director would tell a story and he said “and some of you will use your voice” and I heard something audibly say to me. Yes. And I was like, oh, okay. I'm going to use my voice.
ERIC: It was an incredibly powerful moment for her. She wasn’t sure what it meant, exactly, but she knew, just knew, that God wanted her to use her voice. So Abby memorized Bible verses. Lead vacation bible school. Tried to do all sorts of things with her voice. But, over time, this discouraging thing started happening at church…
ABBY: I remember distinctly in Middle School youth group. I was the kid representative and they knew that I would come up and lead songs because nobody else would and all of those things and I was very active and they really encouraged me to be a part of the leadership. And then in high school I was literally told, you are so good at all of those things which is why we're not going to have you do any of them because we really need some of these boys to be able to build those skills.
ERIC: Wait What?
ABBY: I know so many women who have this story. They would say, “You clearly love God. And you are so good at leadership. And that is why you will not be leading Bible study. Instead, we are going to make sure that a boy has a chance, because your strong leadership is really handicapping him. He doesn't have the space to explore his leadership skills because yours are too strong.”
ERIC: Like what did that make you think about yourself?
ABBY: That I was wrong. That that was my cross to bear. That if I could just tone it down more than God would use me better…
ABBY: ...that I was in the way. It made me feel like I was sucking up all the oxygen in the room and that I was hurting people by being myself.
ERIC: As Abby grew up… a large part of her believed that she wasn’t supposed to be a pastor. That it wasn’t what God wanted for her after all… that her boldness was off-putting… even harmful… So she decided to use her love of speaking and leading in other ways. She remembers wanting to be a missionary. “This!” She thought. “This is how I’ll use my voice!” But it turns out she doesn’t like blood, so she couldn’t do the medical part of the work.
She studied English and became a teacher… and for nine years she taught high-schoolers. It felt pretty good, like maybe teaching was her calling. She got married, moved to Atlanta, had two daughters and joined a church she really liked. A baptist church.
But as the years went by… that feeling of being called… of believing God did want her to use her voice to lead a church… she couldn’t shake it. So she started blogging … about all kinds of things… She talked about her life as a teacher and what she calls being a “barely millennial.” And that feeling of wanting to share her thoughts and ideas about the church and God kept creeping up. So she wrote about that too. And finally … when she was 28….
ABBY: I finally told my pastor like I think that I might be called... like... to ministry. And he was like, yeah, that's really interesting. Let's pray about that. And then he met with me and my husband and his wife because we could not meet together alone because, you know, that would be inappropriate, whatever. So then he was like, yeah, let's pray about that. And I'll email you.
ERIC: Abby says he never did. We reached out to her old pastor about all this, but were not able to get in touch. Abby says after not getting a response, she got more aggressive… approached him in person.
ABBY: And I was like, listen, I need to know whether or not women are allowed in leadership in the church. And he was like, yes, they are. And I was like how? Like specifically, can women be in the pulpit? And he basically was like, theoretically yes, but the spirit has never told me that that's going to happen yet. But at the time I was blogging and he was literally quoting my blog from his Pulpit. But I was not invited to preach. I just remember thinking I cannot believe that I'm not allowed to preach but my words are allowed to preach.
ABBY: ...it was heartbreaking… We'd been in that church for seven years. but I didn't want to raise my daughters in a place where they might not be allowed to be their whole selves. The thought of it on my child was what made me say, nope. We gotta go.
ERIC: After the break… Abby looks for a sign. And it shows up in the form of… a sign.
ERIC: Welcome back. Abby Norman and her family left the baptist church they’d been going to after learning women could not be pastors.
But Abby was still praying… Looking for what was next in her church life... Where she fit in with Christianity. And then one day, as she was on her way to Target … she saw something.
ABBY: Lo and behold this church literally put out a new sign and it said Eastside Church creative historic inclusive. There it was. I was like, oh God, that's funny. Yeah, you think you're so funny don't you. God was like, yeah, I'm hilarious.
ERIC: So she emailed the pastor of this new church, Eastside… and said, basically...
ABBY: “Before I even step into your church. I need to know whether or not you allow women in leadership. And if you say you allow women in leadership, how many women do you actually have in leadership. And who is on staff? And the nursery workers don't count!”
ERIC: Did you write it in all caps?
ABBY: Uh, no, but I maybe should have because I was really feeling some kind of way. He just sent the most gracious response back. Um, that was like, I'm so glad you asked. We do have women in leadership. Currently, our Board of Trustees is more women than men. I believe in the full ordination of women. And I just emailed him back and was like, okay, I'm gonna visit your church next week. I'll probably sit to the left. I'm a crier. Don't worry about me. And I sat where I said I was going to sit and I wept. And I did that for like 3 months. I would just weep.
ABBY: Cause there would be like women doing the prayers of the people. Women speaking from the pulpit. And women playing the bass! you know, like my kid got to see a girl playing the bass at church, you know? It was really really affirming.
ERIC: One of the reasons Eastside was open to women as leaders is that it’s a Methodist church. This is something we didn’t get into much during the church planting series, but it’s pretty important. A lot of evangelical church plants come from or are funded by more conservative traditions… like Southern Baptist. They largely won’t allow women to preach. BUT, there are other denominations for whom that is less of an issue. The word people use for those denominations is “mainline.” Methodists… some Lutherans… some Presbyterians… Obviously there are nuances here, but, historically, many mainline churches have had women pastors for a long time.
So Abby, now going to a mainline methodist church… decides to do what she did at her last church… Take the risk, and tell her pastor what she has been feeling for all these years.
ABBY: I said, hey, I think I might be called to Ministry and he was like, yeah, let's get coffee. He was willing to sit with me across the table person-to-person. Pastor to congregant and take seriously what I was saying God was saying to me. And immediately he was like, oh, of course, you're called. How soon can we get you to Seminary?
ERIC: Wow. what was that like? How did that feel?
ABBY: I still am undone by it. It made me feel like I wasn't crazy. Like the 12 year old girl who heard God say she was going to use her voice was not wrong.
ERIC: A few months later, that same pastor invited her to preach on a Sunday. So that morning, Abby put on a pair of red skinny jeans and a T-shirt that said “y’all need Jesus” ... stepped up to the pulpit…
ABBY: Like Tim said, My name is Abby Norman…
ERIC: And she delivered a sermon asking what God makes of past sacrifices… what God makes of the kinds of effort she’d been putting in for years.
ABBY: That god honors the fervent prayer of a 15 year old who spends hours begging god that her life would mean something. That God would honor the sacrifices she made.
ERIC: It went really well. The congregation was responsive… There are moments when she’s almost bantering with them….
ABBY: And y’all. If you think I’m intense now, please imagine me at 15.
AUDIENCE: Ha ha ha
ERIC: And so, a few months later, Abby took the step she'd been wanting to for so long. She enrolled in Seminary. She kept giving guest sermons at her church, she worked hard at it for about two years... and actually... just the night before we spoke... she had been licensed to serve as a pastor in the United Methodist Church....
ABBY: ...one of the newest Pastor in America!
ERIC: And her first assignment… A small church, just south of Atlanta… More than 100 years old… its numbers had been dwindling over the years down to now just a few handfuls of regular attendees. Older folks, whose families had largely been going to the church for generations. And the district superintendent of the Methodist Church, came to Abby with an idea.
ABBY: He said, you know, this church is not going to survive. So what I want you to do is turn it into a church plant for the summer.
ERIC: After almost two decades of searching and not being taking seriously… here she was… being asked not just to pastor… but to basically try and restart a church.
ERIC: She was thrilled about it. It felt new, and exciting. And what she decides to do is maybe not the most obvious move for an entrepreneurial type with a big personality… She decides to ask questions… and just listen. She walks through the neighborhood around the church and does this sort of informal survey. Her church is called “New Hope,” and so she starts asking people… what would hope look like for you in this hood… and one person tells her people just don’t look at each other around here anymore. Nobody makes eye contact… we feel so distant. And so Abby decides this is going to be one of the bedrocks of the church… creating community.
She draws up plans for a coffee shop… She calls up an architect and asks about building tiny homes on the church’s land -- homes that can be used as transitional housing. She is exploding with ideas for ways to breathe life into this church.
But… It’s not like Abby has upended the whole infrastructure of modern christianity now that she’s in charge of a church. In a lot of ways, the voices asking if a woman should lead are still there. Some in her congregation admitted to being skeptical when she showed up. Sometimes contractors helping around the church will ask her husband, not her, for his opinion on things at first.
There can be a loneliness when planting a church as a woman. Abby looked online to find other women church planters, but found very few doing it themselves. Even talking about her work, this thing she loves, doesn’t always fall on sympathetic ears…
ABBY: Women in society aren't given the opportunity to be totally consumed with their passions. if a man cannot stop talking about his work, he's passionate and driven.
ABBY: ...but like if you're too passionate and too driven. And you're a woman then they call you a BLEEP. Yeah, am I allowed to say that?
ERIC: You're the pastor!
ABBY: Yeah, sometimes I wear my clerical collar just to remind myself that there are no swears.
ERIC: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
ABBY: But I'm not in the Pulpit. So I'm fine.
ERIC: But, for all the challenges, there are some upsides to leading as a woman…
ABBY: hello… aaaaah!
ERIC: For example… during our interview, she got a knock on the door
ABBY: squirt guns!!
ERIC: A fedex delivery woman was dropping off a package of squirt guns for an outreach Abby was hosting later that month… a big super soaker party she hoped would bring people out in the Atlanta heat.
ABBY: yeah, you should come!
ERIC: And so as she was taking the super soakers...
ABBY: I had to invite the fed ex woman to our party because that’s what being a church planter is all about.
ERIC: you literally just invited the fedex woman to the party?
ABBY: Yeah, and she was like, where is it? And I told her and she said that's my neighborhood and then I told her the time and I think she might actually come
FED-EX WOMAN: Bye!
ERIC: And This interaction has become part and parcel for Abby.
ABBY: You know church planting is highly relational. Right? I mean like the woman from FedEx knocks on my door and says, hey got this package and I say, oh it's squirt guns. I'm having a party. You should come! like woman to woman… that was a lot less creepy.
ERIC: Yeah, yeah..
ABBY: than if I were a man.
ERIC: if the woman from FedEx had dropped off a bunch of squirt guns at my apartment and I had been like oh what happened to squirt gun party, do you want to come? Ha ha
ABBY: yeah she should say no.
ERIC: She should definitely say no. Yeah, ha ha right.
ABBY: She should say no and also I have to make a quick phone call about this house.
ERIC: Right, right. Right, right.
ABBY: There are some advantages.
ERIC: And for Abby, those advantages extend beyond just the relational parts. She thinks the very image of having a woman leading a new church signals something… a shift from the way people tend to think about church… And it’s a shift she thinks is needed if the church is going to grow and continue having a place in modern life.
ABBY: Because people who are attracted to church plants are people who want something really different, and people who are often burned by the church. And just having a woman as a pastor, as the pastor, is a great starting sign that like oh maybe this church is different.
ABBY: Like I am so confused about people who are wringing their hands because the church is dying. Like we worship a savior who died and rose again, like dying is good news people. Something is about to show up like let something else grow there.
ERIC: Abby and her advisors want New Hope to have around 30 people attending when they relaunch and to grow a little more over the next year. Abby feels good about that. It’s like all that pent-up energy, from years and years of being told that her talents were a liability... can be released on this one, tiny church in north Georgia.
New Hope’s official launch, by the way…. is this Sunday... September 9th.
ERIC: This episode was produced by Simone Polanen, Angelina Mosher, Bruce Wallace, Kimmie Reglar and Sindhu Gnanasambandan.... Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Editing by Lulu Miller and Sara Sarasohn... Peter Leonard mixed the episode. Music by Haley Shaw. For full music credits, visit our website, GimletMedia.com/startup.
Special thanks to Tim lloyd and to Darrell Bock with the Dallas Theological Seminary.
I’m Eric Mennel.
If you aren’t already subscribed to StartUp… go to Apple Podcasts, or whichever app you use and hit subscribe.
You can follow us on Twitter @podcaststartup. Where you will get information about our next season. A quick hint, it’s about one woman who is fighting to upend an enormous bureaucracy … and the children who are at the center of her movement. Until then, thank you for listening. See you soon.
ABBY: Have I told you about my goat Yoga idea?
ABBY: Ok so we have a lot of Kudzu. The best way to get rid of the kudzu is goats.
ERIC: Yeah they eat it.
ABBY: You can rent the goats, but we don’t have any goat rental money. But I can get the goat rental money by offering goat yoga to pay for the goats that would come eat the kudzu. Or you can get goats pretty cheap on Craigslist, but I haven’t been able to convince everyone we need permanent goats yet.
ERIC: My roommates and I in college thought about doing that so we wouldn’t have to mow the lawn anymore. We found a goat online for like… I don’t know… $150.
ABBY: No $150 is way too much. You can get the little ones, the males that are neutered, they’re worthless.
ABBY: So they’re like $40.
ERIC: You can get a goat for $40?
ABBY: A little one.
ERIC: It feels like the theme of this interview is that males are worthless.
ABBY: laughs... I’m just saying, you can get ‘em cheap.