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North Georgia women feel called into the clergy
Three Gainesville women fill pastoral positions
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The Rev. Wendy Cordova, pastor of evangelism and lay ministry, stands in the main sanctuary at Gainesville First United Methodist Church last week. - photo by NAT GURLEY

The Easter story might not be told the same way if it had not been for three women discovering an empty tomb some 2,000 years ago.

According to the Gospel of Luke in the Bible, the women ran back to the disciples to share what they had witnessed and led others to learn of the resurrection of Jesus.

Since then, women have filled several roles within the church, though the level of responsibility varies depending on the beliefs of the denomination and the individual church. In more recent years, women have taken on pastoral positions, leading to nearly 18 percent of clergy being women, according to a 2011 U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics report.

Unlike with other, more secular careers, clergy often say they feel “called” or “led.”

The Rev. Evelyn Johnson, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Gainesville, has been a pastor for nine years. She said she’s known since 1972 she was called to spread the gospel, but it took time for her to see how her career would develop.

“It’s a calling,” Johnson said. “It was not something I was in pursuit of. It was not something I could run away from. I had to stop and explore to see what it was I was being led into doing.”

While women ministers are helping to develop the spiritual lives of their congregations, many also try to maintain a balance in their own homes and families.

Johnson said in the early days of the ministry she relied on Sunday school classes and Bible studies as she balanced the demands of raising her family and spreading the gospel.

The Rev. Wendy Cordova, pastor of evangelism and lay ministry at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, keeps photos of her 9-year-old daughter Iliana Cordova around her office.

As a single mother who works odd hours, Cordova said learning to find a balance was a struggle at first. She began her career in ministry while in college and was later ordained in the United Methodist Church in 2004. Cordova has worked for Gainesville First United Methodist Church for seven years.

“I love what I do and I definitely feel called to do it,” Cordova said. “It’s a blessing. But it’s a lot. It’s exhausting. It’s a very taxing job. I put everything I have into ministry and trying to balance that and give my daughter everything she needs from me and trying to take care of myself as well will probably be a lifelong challenge.”

Cordova said she’s not unlike other working mothers but is fortunate to work in a field where she can go and pick her daughter up from school every afternoon.

“It’s hard because she has to work a lot,” Iliana said, spinning in her mother’s office chair after school Tuesday. “Usually she has to bring me. The good part is whenever I come (to church) I get to do whatever I want. I know everyone and everyone knows me, for some reason.”

Iliana said she might one day want to work in a church, like her mother, but doesn’t think she’d like to be a pastor.

“I think we should chose our own paths,” Iliana said. “She chose this path, but I might choose a different path. My mom says I’m good with animals so I was thinking I could be like a dog trainer or something.”

Cordova smiled and said Iliana has been known to tell her classmates they can do anything they want and “even boys can be pastors.”

While Iliana and other young people might have female role models in the pulpit now, some pastors felt they had to carve out a path for themselves because they lacked a female role model as they began their careers in ministry.

Johnson said she turned to the history books to find a role model. The story of Jarena Lee, the first woman preacher in the AME church in the 1800s, became an inspiration to Johnson as she began to follow her calling.

“I never saw a female minister growing up,” said The Rev. Ruth Demby, associate pastor of missions and outreach for First Baptist Church in Gainesville. “If you’ve never seen that, it’s hard to imagine yourself as one.”

After working at a summer camp in Atlanta, Demby said she realized she wanted to work in ministry. She decided to go to seminary and was ordained in the Baptist church in 1996. Demby worked with a number of missions and outreach programs while her children were young. She has been working on staff for the church for five years.

While Demby didn’t have a female role model to look to as she began her career, she said she did have male pastors helping her along and sought out churches accepting and affirming her call to serve.

Studying the Bible also helped Demby as she followed her calling. She said she feels fascinated by looking at how Jesus related to men and women.

“He was just so grounded,” Demby said. “He was not confined by the norms of his day. As you study Jesus’s interactions, especially in the light of his historical context, it’s extremely encouraging and very, very liberating for both men and women.”

Though acceptance is more commonplace than in years past, not everyone agrees women should serve in pastoral roles.

Johnson said sometimes people don’t want to accept the treasures of hope and love “are not represented in any gender.”

“It’s not easy because we’re coming up against ideas, ideologies and perceptions, but I had to know who I was and who I was representing,” she said. “That made it easier to bear.

“I don’t look at myself as being a woman. I just look at myself as a servant. I know what I am, I know I’m a woman. But I’m a servant of God, a pastor who shepherds God’s people.”

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