This post, by Lauren Visser (one of my DMin students at Northern Seminary), finishes off our Good News: Women in Ministry series that ran throughout Christmas week. (I’m not saying, however, that we won’t be back for more some day!)
Here’s Lauren’s story:
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a pastor. I loved God, I loved lighting candles as an acolyte, and my pastor could touch his tongue to his nose. Clearly, all these signs pointed to leading a church. After all, who doesn’t want to be able to touch their tongue to their nose?
As I grew a bit older, I wanted to go to seminary. I really had no idea what seminary was, just as I didn’t have a clear idea of what a pastor was. I simply knew that seminary was a place where people loved Jesus and studied the Bible – so I wanted to go there.
In high school, my sister and I and two other young ladies attended a youth conference. When we returned, I informed the pastor that we wanted to share our experiences. He offered us a “mission moment.” I insisted that we had so much to say, we needed the sermon time. And by “we,” I meant “I.” The two other girls spoke briefly… and then I stood in the pulpit and grabbed that moment.
I’ve been holding on ever since.
It hasn’t been easy, and there are times when I simply wanted to let go. Every year since high school I would pray, “Can I be a youth pastor?” And God would say, “No.”
I attended Augustana College, triple majored (and added a minor for good measure) in nothing related to ministry or theology. Every year I continued to pray, “Can I be a youth pastor now?” And God would say, “No.”
I joined the Peace Corps, backpacked around South America, returned to the States, worked in a corporate job, and volunteered with the homeless. “Now can I be a youth pastor?” And God still answered, “Nope.”
I started leading worship at a small church plant, and I also worked with the youth. I was still working corporately, and I decided to go to graduate school for either counseling or nursing. So I took some psychology classes and prayed my annual prayer, “Can I be a youth pastor?”
When God said, “Yes,” I freaked out. Every insecurity exploded to the surface, like a volcano of self doubt. But You said “no” so many times! I’m not smart enough. I’m not good enough (whatever “good enough” even means).
And with that “confident” attitude… I enrolled in one class at Northern Seminary. Part-way through my second class, God called me to get an M.Div. By the end of that second class, I heard God call me to be a full-time student and “get ‘er done.” Three years later, I had an Master of Divinity with an emphasis in Old Testament studies.
I also had so many mixed experiences with people that I was left wondering if I was truly supposed to be a pastor and if anyone really wanted to work with me.
Some people were overwhelmingly supportive. I can drop a dozen names of incredible people who walked alongside me, encouraged me, and nurtured my gifts.
Sadly, I can also list an equal amount of names of people who denied my call to pastor and actively worked against me. Some protested on the grounds that I was a woman. Others were jealous, while others told me that they simply did not support me. Such negativity came from friends and strangers alike. I still haven’t been able to detect a pattern, although I always hearken back to wise words from my internship supervisor, Glenn Westburg: “Hurting people hurt people.” I try to remember that every time another situation slaps me in the face; because even though I’m prepared for criticism, and I am confident in my call, it still hurts. Every time.
Despite this long and painful journey, I am currently serving in an incredibly supportive church. I work as the Minister of Youth and Young Adults at First Baptist Church of Oak Park with Pastor Harry Parker, one of the most amazing pastors with whom I have worked. While I am technically a youth pastor, my role is more like that of an associate pastor. I preach regularly, help plan worship services, support my lead pastor, and much more.
Being a youth pastor is literally a dream come true for me, and I honestly thought I would be a youth pastor forever. But I’ve never been someone who can sit still for very long, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when God started calling me to move again. I absolutely love working with youth, and I treasure the opportunity to work with young people and help them form a long-lasting and authentic relationship with God. It’s also a safe position. I love it, and I’m good at it. And I don’t have to deal with a lot of the messiness that comes with leading a church. (Yes, youth groups are often known for being messy, but cleaning up shaving cream is nothing compared to cleaning up fallout from contentious relationships or doctrinal disagreements.)
Yet I feel God calling me to something more. Lately, I’ve been discerning whether or not God wants me in an official associate pastor role or an academic teaching role – or even better, both! I’ve been researching ordination criteria, and I continue to work on my Doctorate of Ministry in New Testament Context. Wherever God is leading, I want to be ready.
New paths often bring new challenges, and there are still barriers facing women in ministry. I’ve traveled through a lot of darkness; there has been opposition from inside myself and from people I love and trusted. Yet I remember the army of people who have stood beside me and encouraged me in the darkest moments. I also remember a quotation Pastor Parker shared with me from one of his own experiences when he was questioning his call to ministry. He had heard from a speaker these poignant words: “Don’t question in the darkness what God has shown you in the light.”
No matter how people have responded to me as a female in ministry, whether positively or negatively, the call to pastor has always been bathed in light. I listen to that call, and I move towards that light, wherever it may lead.