Women of the cloth

CNJ staff photo: Andy DeLisle The Rev. Bonita Knox preaches at Trinity Lutheran Church. Knox uses the baptismal font to perform baptisms and “to remind people to live wet in their baptism.”

By Tony Gutierrez: CNJ staff writer

The Rev. Bonita Knox, 50, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, said she rarely encounters problems leading a congregation as a woman.

Many religious bodies began ordaining women as a practice in the last 50 years, like her branch, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest Lutheran body in the country, formed by the merger of three other branches that all began ordaining women in the 1970s.

Knox said while her denomination recognizes ordained women, “it’s a tougher issue when the woman comes to the parish as the pastor. If the person came from those little pieces that have merged, there’s not much of a problem.”

Knox added there are not many problems because the policy has been in place for more than 30 years, but when problems arise, they come from people who did not grow up Lutheran and are from traditions that do not ordain women.

Other women who lead Clovis congregations share Knox’s view.

Capt. Tammy Ray, pastor of the Salvation Army, said her denomination has been ordaining women since its founding in 1865.

“For us, it’s such a normal thing,” Ray said. “My own family has been part of the Salvation Army six generations.”

Ray said in the Salvation Army, husbands and wives hold their ordinations individually, but are required to be ministers if they are married. Ray and her husband, Kevin, are Salvation Army captains. She said many times people assume only her husband is a pastor and some people may choose not to attend to the church because it allows women pastors.

“People start to respond not that I’m a woman pastor, but (that) my husband and I (are) a team in ministry,” Ray said. “Some people will talk to me as a pastor while others prefer to talk to my husband. More than anything, it’s not (as if) people don’t believe women should be on the pulpit or in ministry. Most people say, ‘Oh, it’s a little different,’ and move on.”

The Rev. Brenda McField, a children’s minister at Faith Christian Family Church, has never felt gender was an important issue.

“In the perspective of the world of my field, I don’t feel different,” McField said. “It never dawned on me, ‘You’re taking a male role.’”

McField, who has been in the early childhood field for about 20 years, said there are no distinctions in gender roles in ministry at Faith Christian. While she can fill all the roles of any minister, such as visiting people in the hospital, officiating at weddings and funerals and preaching, she said she was called to minister specifically to children.

“On Sunday service, when Pastor (David Swann) is doing his thing, I’m doing mine,” said McField, who leads a separate children’s service during the regular Sunday service. “We all have different roles we fill.”

The Rev. Michael Perko, Canon to the Ordinary for the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, said out of 100 dioceses nationwide, only three do not ordain women to the priesthood, though they do ordain women to the diaconate.

“The odds of someone getting a clergy person they would not like to have in terms of gender is relatively minor, because they have a huge hand in selecting our clergy,” Perko said. “While there’s controversy in certain dioceses, women are accepted in the Episcopal Church. Women clergy in the diocese are acceptable and licensed to function as priests.”

The Episcopal Church began ordaining women in the 1970s. Individual parishes can choose whether to accept clergywoman, Perko said.

“Put your energy into the people who are supporting you,” Knox said. “When you get pulled aside in the grocery store, someone says to you, ‘You don’t know me, but I’ve been watching you the last three years,’ and they say, ‘You go girl!’ That’s a great feeling.”