Female pastors are few but important

CorrespondentSeptember 27, 2013 

Joanne VerBurg had three simple words for Carla Gregg, one of the few female pastors serving in western Wake County: “Tag, you’re it.”

Last month, VerBurg retired after 25 years as the senior pastor of Covenant Christian Church in Cary. When she started, she was a sort of pioneer for female ministers in the area.

“There were only a handful of females serving in large congregations back then,” VerBurg said. “Women were ordained primarily to serve with their husbands in the mission field.”

Men still far outnumber women in churches’ ministerial roles. About 10 percent of pastors in Protestant churches in the United States are women, according to a 2009 survey from Barna Group, a faith-related research group in California. That number had doubled since 1999.

The survey also showed that the average age of female pastors is 55, and that they are generally more educated than their male counterparts.

Here, three local female pastors share their stories. None had set out to become a church leader, and all had to work through barriers to become a pastor.

“The eastern part of (North Carolina) is more conservative theologically and not as apt to call women to serve,” said VerBurg, who initially planned to become an education curriculum writer.

Gregg, meanwhile, planned to use her degree in American Studies. As a gay woman, she also wanted to pursue a same-sex relationship.

Gregg said a female mentor encouraged her to pursue life in the church.

“If God has called you to this relationship and called you to this ministry, then there will be a place for you,” Gregg recalls her mentor telling her. Gregg is now the senior pastor at Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Cary.

The Rev. Dr. Classy Preston thought she would become a missionary.

“Growing up in Alabama, pastors were men. Women were the evangelists who spoke from the floor,” said Preston, senior pastor at Pleasant Grove Church in Cary. “God has used my life to open doors for other women.”

The Rev. Joanne VerBurg

Background: Age: 65; born in Cleveland, Ohio.

Education: Master’s of divinity degree from Lexington Theological Seminary.

Job history: She served 25 years as the senior pastor of Covenant Christian Church.

Career-changing moment: It occurred while she was at Ohio State College on a Kappa Phi retreat.

“Being with the deaconesses living out their ministry was encouraging,” VerBurg said. “I had a sense of calling.”

Her work at Covenant: When VerBurg was hired at Covenant, the church had 30 members who were expecting a male pastor.

“When we asked Joanne what the congregation would say if they hired her, she just laughed and said they would be surprised,” said Debbie Miller, a charter member of Covenant who served on the pastor search committee. “The best thing about Joanne is she encourages us to be our best, not just at church activities, but outside of church too.”

The church now has more than 240 members with an active mission outreach program.

“I always felt called to live out (the) vision God gave me in those early days, and now everything I ever dreamed has come to be,” VerBurg said.

What’s next: VerBurg plans to move to the North Carolina mountains and become an interim pastor. In retirement, she plans to serve on a ministry commission for regional churches.

“When a need presents itself, I try to figure out how to help,” said VerBurg, who has dedicated herself to community work, including volunteering for Dorcas Ministries, The Carying Place, mission trips and more. “It’s been a good gig.”

The Rev. Carla P. Gregg

Background: Age: 37; born in Charlotte.

Education: Master’s of divinity degree from Duke University.

Job history: She has served as senior pastor at Good Shepherd United Church of Christ for about two months.

The early years: Gregg got a taste for preaching in high school when she was asked to give a message on Youth Sunday.

“It was a small Presbyterian church and the message was on drugs,” recalled Gregg, who lives in Durham with her partner and daughter Mia.

Growing up, Gregg spent a lot of time with her grandmother, who was active in her church and mission activities.

“She taught me that faith is important, but I never imagined I could become a pastor,” Gregg said.

She went on to Salem College and completed an internship in which she learned from women in the church.

“The diversity of the options, wonderful relationships and opportunity to be a part of important events in others’ lives drew me in,” Gregg said.

Her work at Good Shepherd: The church had been searching for a pastor for more than a year.

“As we evaluated Carla’s credentials, we were very impressed with her background, but the real breakthrough came when we interviewed her and witnessed her in the pulpit,” said Bob Beti, chairman of the church deacons and a member of the church since 1995. “We were struck by her engaging personality and her obvious spirituality.”

Gregg isn’t the church’s first female pastor. Good Shepherd has had two male pastors in its 25-year history.

“It would be unfortunate if we or other churches missed out on the services of women like Carla, simply because of her gender,” Beti said.

The Rev. Dr. Classy Preston

Background: Age: 62; born in Mobile, Ala.

Education: Master’s of divinity degree from New York Theological Seminary and doctor of ministry degree in pastoral care and counseling from the Graduate Theological Foundation.

Job history: She has served as senior pastor of Pleasant Grove Church since 1998.

Career-changing moment: It occurred while Preston was a member of a church in Ohio. “I wanted to be a missionary and was told to become a pastor,” she said. “There is such power in having someone ask you to serve.”

Path to the pulpit: Preston spent years in the business world, including six years with Progress Energy. She served four years as president of Communities in Schools of Wake County.

“I’m in the best season of my life,” Preston said. “Everything I learned in the corporate world and nonprofit world has allowed me to see a different view of what I can do to make a difference.”

Her work at Pleasant Grove: Preston is the first female pastor at the church, which was founded in 1865 and has moved five times since the first service was held under a bush arbor at Adams Crossroads in Morrisville.

When Preston agreed to serve as senior pastor, the church had 12 members and less than $20,000 in the bank.

“Under Dr. Preston’s leadership, the church has grown steadily in every way: membership, discipleship, community and global involvements through mission focus, and programs centered on children and youth,” said Billie Redmond, a church member for 12 years.

Weidle: liza@lizaweidle.com

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