Alison, can you tell us a bit about your journey into pastoral leadership?
Like many women, I moved into pastoral leadership hesitantly. My mother was a pastor at a time when the church was largely hostile towards women in ministry; it was not a situation I envied. Although I was studying theology, writing Bible studies, preaching, questioning how we did things as a church, and journeying with people towards change, it took several requests from the church, and a long process of God breaking down my internal resistance, before I could formally accept the call.
What would you say are the barriers (and blessings) to your ministry as a woman?
Although they rarely realise it, many people cling to an idea that ‘normal’ pastors are straight white men. This means that those of us who don’t fit into that mould are seen, first and foremost, as the perceived ‘difference’ to that mould. So I am seen as a woman not a pastor, and asked to talk about being a woman in ministry rather than just my ministry. The unspoken assumption is that neither I nor my experience are ‘normal’.
And so, for example, the men in my local Baptist ministers fellowship go away together to men’s conferences and retreats, because that’s what ‘normal’ pastors do; and I am excluded from the shared experiences, conversations and networking. I love the local blokes, but I have had to maintain a pastoral peer group in Melbourne to ensure I get the support I need.
To give another example, when I was ready to leave South Yarra the only work I was offered was with playgroups. Now, I love little kids one-on-one, but a group of them leaves me cold; it would have been a disaster both for them and for me. People who know me call me a pastor-theologian: I am a thinker, writer and preacher. But because I am a woman, others do not see these gifts; they just assume I should work with kids.
Ironically, having no formal opportunities has had its advantages. It opened the door for the Holy Spirit to prepare a people and a place for me here in Warrnambool. I am now the sole pastor of a four-year-old church plant of 50-60 regulars, including many children and teens. In this context, I have enormous freedom to try things which have never been tried before; to follow the Spirit’s lead; and to serve an intergenerational cohort of people, many of whom previously had very little connection with church. This ministry is a great blessing and joy.
In what ways do you see God’s hand at work in your ministry now?
When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well, he promises living water that will never run out. For me, one of the signs of God at work is an endless well of creativity bubbling up from within, which shapes and inspires my ministry. I am constantly dreaming up new paths through the desert, writing extensively, and in so doing watering other people’s faith. When I began Sanctuary, people described their faith as dry, desiccated, dormant, even non-existent (they came for their kids). People are now stronger and more confident in faith, and some young people are seeking baptism. Online (since COVID-19), I see many people, including many pastors, accessing our website, and borrowing and adapting things for their own circumstances.
As you reflect back on your own leadership journey, what advice would you give to women starting out on theirs?
In our society, there is enormous pressure on women to be inoffensive and to conform to other people’s expectations; this can be doubly true in the church. But your task is not to conform, make everyone happy, or be super-nice. Instead, your task is to love God and people, keep your eyes on Jesus Christ, follow the Spirit’s leading, and be true to your call.
For some, this will go sweetly. For others, this will upset a few apple carts and lead to conflict, even crucifixion. If this happens, know that this is normal. Healing in the gospel invariably leads to conflict, and journeying with Jesus means heading towards the cross: but on the other side of the cross you find life. So stick with him; keep dwelling in the Word; keep praying; keep loving your enemies—and make sure you have a couple of trusted colleagues who will journey with you through thick and thin!