Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, November 3, 1997

Female pastors tell about their roles


As she gets ready for church on Sunday mornings, Pastor Sherri Sandoz listens to the "Lutheran Hour" on the radio.

"I love the choir music," she said. A choir is how Sandoz views women in ministry.

"Without the women's voices, the choir isn't complete, but when you bring them in you enhance what is already there."

Sandoz is the pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church in Lester Prairie. Her counterpart at the Evangelical United Church of Christ in Lester Prairie is Rev. Kay Welsh.

Within the American Lutheran Church, women pastors are in the minority, having ordained women for only the last 26 years. Women have been ordained in the UCC several years longer.

There are differences, of course, in the way men and women minister to their parishes. There are also similarities.

"Compassion is compassion," Sandoz said. "People know when you are being sincere."

"I think the key difference," Welsh said, "is that compared to men our age, we draw more on our personal experience."

"Women also do well at networking" - seeking out the help and advice of others - Sandoz said. "Men don't network as much, but I think it's because they're more likely to try and handle everything themselves," she said.

Welsh agreed. "I have a whole list of people I can call if I need something," she said.

The entry into ministry was second careers for both Welsh and Sandoz.

Welsh was 50 years old when she entered the seminary. She recalled one profound experience that set the stage for becoming a minister.

"My husband and I were in a remote place in China and we went to Easter service. It was held in a store front and it was jammed with people. The ministers had been through the Cultural Revolution and they were still here."

Welsh also had a woman pastor for her mentor and her mother-in-law was very supportive. She received her master of divinity degree from United Theological Seminary and was ordained in 1988 at St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Plato.

St. Paul's was also her first church, where she was an interim pastor for seven months.

"They taught me everything I know," Welsh said.

Sandoz was the director of quality assurance for Big Stone Canning and living in New Prague when she knew God was calling her.

She received her master of divinity degree from Lutheran Seminary in St. Paul, but prior to entering the seminary, she had to prove to an admissions board that God had called her.

After graduation, Sandoz waited to be called by a congregation.

"The call process is a very spiritual process. Each person's gifts and talents are matched with the needs of a church," she said.

"My call came after lots of prayer. I thought I would be in Minneapolis because that is my home synod," Sandoz said.

Instead, her gifts and talents met what was needed at Bethel. "Because of my husband's job, we needed to be near the cities. Lester Prairie was the answer to many prayers."

To accept Sandoz as their first woman pastor, the congregation voted. Only three voted nay, but Sandoz is sensitive to those who may be uncomfortable having a woman pastor.

"Those nay votes are highly important," she said.

Instead of staying in one place, Welsh chose interim ministry. She is part of the Interim Ministry Network, of which any ordained minister can be a member. St. Paul's in Plato was her first church. Most recently she spent 20 months at a Mennonite church.

Welsh is an accredited interim specialist, and has skills in helping congregations through transitions from one pastor to another.

Within that framework "I help congregations come to terms with the past and seek a new vision for the future," she said. "I try to develop the leadership that is already there."

Welsh also helps congregations through grief and conflict management.

Her work offers Welsh new experiences, but has the drawback of difficulty in keeping relationships intact.

"I have my friends from before I was ordained. They keep me honest," she said.

The place and respect that churches have in a small town is greater than in the larger cities, Welsh and Sandoz agreed.

"In the small town, there is still a level of trust and respect for ministers. Wednesday night is still church night. That's still a priority," Welsh said.

Sandoz added in some of the larger churches, the authority is switching from the pastor to the congregation.

"Twenty-three percent of clergy are in the process of being fired," Sandoz said, "but this change is not shaking up the small churches as much as the large," she said.

It is the first funeral, Welsh and Sandoz said, that can make or break that trust and respect in the eyes of a small town.

About a year ago, Sandoz reported to work on a Saturday. On Monday one of her parishioners died. It was that time that set the tone for how her congregation would accept Sandoz.

Except for "the glass ceiling" within each of the religious organizations - Welsh and Sandoz said it continues to be difficult for women to advance beyond parish ministry - their effectiveness as pastors and the response they receive from the congregations isn't much different than that of male pastors.

Each has gifts, Sandoz said, "but I don't know if they really are so different."

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