Women are in spaces that were traditionally filled by men. This includes the clergy for some religions. A few northern Illinois female faith leaders shared what it’s like for them to be in a position that some reserve for their male counterparts.
Violet Johnicker is the pastor of Brooke Road United Methodist Church in Rockford. Johnicker said her father was excited about and supported her to decision to be a minister and her mother understood the life because she herself was a preacher’s kid.
Johnicker’s maternal grandfather, Reverend Warren Seyfert, was a minister in the United Church of Christ in the 1970s. He died when she was 10 years old. She explained that she attended seminary school after researching his story. She said she emailed the librarian at the McCormick Theological Seminary, the school where he studied, and was given 35 pages of her grandfather's advice.
“And so, I'm just, you know, crying into my laptop. So thankful for this gift of my grandfather's words," she said. "And it turned out McCormick Theological Seminary was having a visit weekend, a couple of weekends later. So, I went, I checked it out, I fell in love.”
Johnicker decided to go to seminary school while she studied for her master’s degree in public policy at Adler University in Chicago.
She shared that the Methodist tradition has accepted women pastors for years and she’s never experienced any pushback in her position. She admitted that those outside of that tradition have questioned her. She talked about a time when she officiated a funeral.
“And I literally did the whole service and gave a message -- said the prayers and did everything,” she said. “And someone came up to me at the end and asked if I was a Catholic nun or what I was doing there.”
Rev. Fabiola Grandon-Mayer is the Rockford district superintendent of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church. She knew she wanted to be a pastor at the age of 17 but says her parents wanted her to study something else. She went to school for accounting. Grandon-Mayer shared that her parents told her that God's calling is forever. So after she finished school she told them that God was still calling her to preach.
Grandon-Mayer oversees 63 area churches. She grew up in Chile when many women were not in leadership positions. She came to America about 12 years ago. Grandon-Mayer acknowledged that women in clergy may deal with certain stereotypes.
“Like, ‘Oh, she's a woman pastor, so oh she will be good with children because she's a woman, or but she will not be good in finances.’ So, there are stereotypes,” she noted. “And or like, ‘Oh, she's a woman, so she will bring treats for meetings.’”
Rabbi Binah Wing is the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Rockford. Wing is Rockford’s first female rabbi. She explained that she’s always had a passion for her religion, but she realizes that there are differences that women pastors endure. For her they’ve been small comments about her hair or the even the outfits that she wears.
“I have colleagues though who have endured sexual harassment, really inappropriate comments,” Wing shared. “People who are told by the congregation, ‘Oh, you shouldn't wear clothing that looks like 'x, y and z' thing.’”
Wing said although women have been rabbis throughout the years, there are still things that they must fight for like equal compensation and making sure that hiring is fair. Wing said women need to advocate for each other and she mentioned a group called Women’s Rabbinic Network.
“So, this is a place where women can really be honest and support each other. And that's been a great outlet as well,” she explained. “What's kind of interesting in a way, was that for a while, for a long, while, really I wasn't a part of the WRN, I thought, you know, women don't really need their own special group.”
Martha Spong is a Pennsylvania pastor, author and clergy coach. She co-founded the group RevGalBlogPals. This is a group of female faith leaders from different denominations who come together and create a community for each other. Spong shared that the blog is a vital connection for many women pastors.
“You go into a small town, you're maybe the only woman pastor they've ever seen. The other pastors are male, they may not even think that women should be pastors,” she said. “And that's pretty lonely.”
She said as a female pastor, there were times where she felt she wasn’t granted the authority to do some things.
“And one of the ways that I won their trust was by understanding the budget and taking an interest in how they took care of the building,” she explained. “And that that was true in the second church I served as well, they were even stuffier about it, in the beginning.”
She said she knew she had arrived when a guy who was always concerned about the church’s bottom line called her "boss."
Many faith organizations have allowed women to preach for decades but there are some people who don’t agree with this concept.
Alfred Johnson, an associate pastor at a covenant church, said women should not be faith leaders. Johnson comes from a Baptist tradition. He admitted that he does socialize and has meetings with female faith leaders but shared that he will not willfully go to hear a woman’s sermon. He has gone to funerals that were officiated by a woman pastor.
“I cannot see a biblical reason for calling for a woman in the preaching, pastoring, ministry,” he stated. “I could not find it in the scriptures. If it’s there after 20 something years, it's still eluding me.”
But Johnicker suggested that the more you dive into Bible passages the more you learn about the specific community that the Apostle Paul was writing to.
“It's very interesting to me that the passages about women being silent in church are quoted much more often than many of the other culturally and context specific things that Paul says," she explained. "In that same book, First Corinthians where Paul tells women to be silent in services, Paul also tells people not to take a wife, it's really better to just stay single.”
Spong points out that it was women who told the disciples that Jesus was resurrected.
"It's not the men who get that message first. It's the women. So, they're the first evangelists, the first proclaimers of the good news, and that's good enough for me,” Spong said.
Sonji Collins, pastor of the House of God Church in Rockford, said there are several examples in the Bible where women led.
“Hannah, and all the other women in the Bible, if they can teach their sons like Timothy and Titus, if they can bring them to God, why can't a woman bring a man to God?”
Collins said God’s original design was for men and women to rule the earth together and that women can work in any capacity if God calls them to do so. But, like with many professions the acceptance of this -- across the board-- is still a work in progress.
- Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.