The Reverend Dr. Jane Florence and Pastor Kirstie Engel were following different paths before their calls to the ministry.
After 11 years at a church in Omaha, Florence came to Saint Paul United Methodist Church in July as that historic 1800-member congregation’s first female senior pastor. She joined Associate Pastor Kirstie Engel who was a “first” herself when she arrived at St. Paul a few years earlier. Whether by coincidence or design, all-female leadership for the church at 12th and M streets is living up to the church’s progressive reputation.
Next May marks Florence’s 20th year on the pulpit. Being a high school teacher opened doors for her to become the principal of a Christian school in Texas. Leading a regular Wednesday morning chapel service at that school became the highlight of her week.
“And, through a series of mystical revelations so to speak, I came to understand that’s what I was supposed to be doing,” explained Florence.
She was a churchgoer, but in a conservative and literal tradition; she wanted to go a different direction.
“I trotted off to seminary with two daughters in tow and began a second career,” she said. Her marriage did not survive her career change. “My husband married a school teacher, not a preacher, and chose not to go on the journey with me. It was bizarre and dramatic. But he’s a good person and I have no ill feelings toward him.”
St. Paul’s is intentional about remaining a downtown church, and that makes it unique. It’s also socially responsible with the tradition of a strong pulpit and long-tenured senior pastors such as the Rev. David Lux, who retired in June after 16 years.
“My experience coming here has been wonderful,” said Florence. “It is exciting to see a place with new eyes and envision where we might go in the next 10 years. I’ve had a very warm reception, and I’m grateful. People have been eager to hear what I might bring, and so far it’s been a smooth transition.”
Engel’s chosen path
Mechanical engineering had been Pastor Engel’s chosen path. During her senior year at Wichita State, her inner voice was telling her that though she’d gone far, she was unfulfilled. After a “horrific divorce,” Engel and her two young daughters returned to her family home in Winfield, Kansas. Seeing her first African American female ever at the pulpit preaching at her home church would change her trajectory.
“I really felt that was something I should be doing – I could lead people, I could teach people,” she said.
Engel accepted her calling to the African Methodist Episcopal Church and studied for a year. She returned to Wichita as a single mother and started attending a large United Methodist Church. It took her six months to summon the courage to talk to the senior pastor about her call to the ministry. The response was enthusiastic. From accepting her call to her ordination took five years.
Engel chose the opportunity to be St. Paul’s associate pastor over other potential senior placements.
“The more I learned about St. Paul’s, the more appealing it was. The congregation had never had a female pastor nor really diverse leadership.”
The church wanted a young, energetic pastor who could reach out to the college kids at Latitude across the street. “When I got here, I had a red carpet experience.”
“I think Lincoln is the best-kept secret,” she added. “I was just blown away when I came here. My [second] husband and I are an interracial couple, and we feel right at home. I would be heartbroken if I ever had to leave Lincoln. There’s something special here besides St. Paul.”
Both pastors are thankful for their life experience before entering the ministry, and the time they spent sitting in the pews.
“Working with Kirstie is just great – I truly appreciate her gifts,” said Florence. “It’s wonderful to hear her story. She is very aware, and wants to make sure we are moving together.”
There are 1,306 total clergy in the United Methodist Church Great Plains Conference; 458 total female clergy. The Methodist Church started ordaining women and giving them full clergy rights about 1957. Most people, though, still think male when they think of clergy. For women in that role, it can be a challenge.
“Some people – not at St. Paul’s – have told me a woman should not be the senior pastor,” shared Florence. “Often the problem is God has been imaged as a male and therefore men were imaged as closer to God, and the voice of God is expected to be male-sounding. People tell me how much they appreciate a female perspective and bringing a different voice to the scriptures.”
“St. Paul seemed ready for a change, and I had both women and men celebrate having a young, energetic black female pastor,” said Engel. “I waited for the other shoe to fall, but that never happened. My biggest challenge has been the cultural piece. Black worship experience and preaching, which is where I come from, is so different. It’s like a beautiful dance. I had to make adjustments in my rhythm and delivery, and still figure out how to be authentic to who I am.”
She’s prayed and dreamed about her role at St. Paul. “It’s ended up becoming the pastor of the spiritual, but not religious.”
Florence and Engel agree that people will eventually get past the “woman pastor” label – it’s just not happening fast enough.
“Some people told me they intentionally brought their children to the church in Omaha where I was the pastor,” said Florence. “They wanted their girls to see that women could be leaders in a large organization.”
Added Engel: “I really admire Jane as our first female senior pastor – I think she’s a courageous leader. I think we can get past the woman pastor designation if women who choose to be in leadership roles embrace their authority and their voice. I found you have to have a thick skin. I’m not going to lie, I get some crazy looks when I go into the hospital or preach at a funeral where people don’t know me. I push through that discomfort and still own my pastoral authority.”
The season of joy and happiness
The always-important Advent/Christmas season seems to have added significance this year when so much public discourse involves lack of respect and tolerance. As it is found in scripture and all narratives of the Christmas story, Florence chose “Be Not Afraid” as the Advent theme and focus for the sermons. “I think those words are especially timely for us these days. I try to connect Advent to what’s happening in the world,” said Florence.
“I want us to remember the reason for the season is something we should be excited about every Sunday,” said Engel. “There is a buzz that happens in the church this time of year. I’m really anxious for Jane’s first Christmas Eve service. Her take on worship is quite beautiful. I know it will be lovely.”
Christmas is not a joyful time for everyone. For people who are not fa-la-la and jolly, there will be a Blue Christmas service this year to offer some comfort and care.
The future looks different
Looking ahead, Florence hopes we envision religion in a different way.
“I think there’s validity for spirituality over religion,” she said. “That’s why I can at times be harsh on religion – in some instances it has become an empire and something Jesus would have opposed. I hope we can change that.”
She’s excited to see how St. Paul’s grows in the coming years.
“Since we are a downtown church, one of our goals for 2019 is to embrace and foster relationships with our downtown community. We have to find out some of the needs – whether it’s a daycare center, or something else – but truly engage. We’re also talking about a spiritual center for people who are not religious, but who are spiritual. We have the space to increase our offerings for a diverse group of spiritual practices.”
In the near term, many in the Methodist faith are awaiting the vote in the 2019 General Conference about LBGTQ people. “Basically, we cannot ordain or marry any LBGTQ people,” said Engel. “From my perspective, our churches are ready to express love for all people.”
“I think all of us are always in process of becoming,” observed Florence. “To have the opportunity to interact and share with others as they’re becoming is a great honor and a privilege.”