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Answering God's call

Being female is an asset, not an obstacle, when it comes to church leadership. Meet five gifted women who are changing the world around them as they live out God’s call in a variety of ways.

Open to God’s surprises

Laura Mendenhall’s calling has taken her places she never could have imagined

Lauren Mendenhall

Open to what god is doing: As a student, Laura Mendenhall revised her post-college plans in response to a pastor’s prompting. Photo by Derek Wadlington.

When Laura Mendenhall was growing up in Tyler, Texas, even her own pastor, T. Hartley Hall IV, had never seen a woman serving as pastor. Yet as Mendenhall was about to graduate from Presbyterian-related Austin College in the late 1960s, Hall asked her if she would consider going to seminary.

The pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tyler “saw in me the essence of my calling in a way that I could never have named,” Mendenhall says. “I’m 65 now, and I can say pastor is the essence of my calling for my life—and he saw it and named it correctly.”

In a career that includes becoming the first woman to be called as president of Columbia Theological Seminary, Mendenhall has always been open to being surprised by God.

“I’d like to encourage not just the emerging leaders of today but all of us—and myself—to simply be open to what God might be doing, even if what you’re being asked to do is not what you were thinking you’d be asked to do,” she says. “My experience is that God will surprise you along the way and use what looks like a challenge as an incredible opportunity for service and growth.”

Blazing a new trail

In college Mendenhall had considered a career in education, but Hall’s prescient assessment caused her to rethink her plans. “I did go to visit two different seminaries and realized that there were very few women there,” she recalls. “The women who were in seminary were strong, focused and very clear about the direction that they were pursuing. I did not feel strong, I was not focused and I had no idea what I was doing.”

Mendenhall continued her journey of discernment by making a pilgrimage to see Rachel Henderlite, who had become the first woman to be ordained to the ministry by the former Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1965. (The former United Presbyterian Church U.S.A. ordained Margaret Towner as its first woman minister in 1956.)

“She asked me about preaching, and I said, ‘Oh, no, I would never want to preach,’ because I couldn’t imagine me in the pulpit and I didn’t foresee that as part of the calling.”

Henderlite encouraged her to enroll in the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (PSCE). At PSCE (now part of Union Presbyterian Seminary), Mendenhall met and married Chuck Mendenhall, her husband of over 40 years. After graduating, she served as director of Christian education at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Va. Then she and Chuck moved to California so he could pursue his Ph.D.

The move proved significant for her. While serving as a ruling elder at Claremont Presbyterian Church, just outside of Los Angeles, and as associate for education at San Gabriel Presbytery, Mendenhall “began to see Christian education as something more than a classroom experience.”

The desire to expand her leadership skills led her to San Francisco Theological Seminary, where she received her M.Div. in 1980. She then went on to serve as pastor of four successive congregations. And she was the first ordained woman pastor in each of those congregations. “I’m hoping that the women who come along now will think that’s funny,” she says.

She knew those churches were “taking a risk” in calling a woman. But she says they mentored her and gave her “the courage to find my own voice and the conviction that I could have my own way of leadership even though it didn’t look like anybody else’s who had preceded me.”

The gift of fundraising

Mendenhall’s watchword has always been “to be involved in what God is doing in a way that maybe I hadn’t ever imagined would be possible.” Still, she says, it was “really a surprise” to be tapped in 2000 to become president of Columbia Theological Seminary.

“My identity as a pastor was so strong that I didn’t want another identity, but I had to acknowledge that this was part of God’s calling,” she says. She found the administrative work involved in being president of a seminary unexpectedly energizing. One new skill that others recognized in her during her tenure at Columbia was the gift of fundraising.

“I loved it,” she says. “Meeting these amazing people who had so much commitment to God’s work in the world that they were willing to make these extraordinary gifts … was such an inspirational thing to get to do—and I had no idea that it would be fun.”

In 2009, Mendenhall accepted a call to serve as senior philanthropy consultant to the Texas Presbyterian Foundation, an agency of the Synod of the Sun. “The whole piece on generosity had become more and more interesting to me,” she explains. Inspired by 1 Timothy 6:17–19, she wrote curriculum to encourage Presbyterians to “take hold of the life that really is life.”

Tentmaker, team player

The following year, while remaining in her job with the Foundation, Mendenhall accepted a call as designated part-time pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Lake Travis, where her husband, senior gift officer for Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services, is parish associate.

“It’s resurrecting to be a part of what God is doing in this community,” Mendenhall says of the 87-member, mission-oriented congregation that is meeting in an old schoolhouse as it prepares to move into the first building of its own.

“On Sunday morning the church members do everything,” she says. “They get the hymnals out of the closet. One church member takes the Bible home every week and brings it back. I just assumed that everything was my job, but now I don’t feel that way at all. We just feel like we’re part of the team.”

She credits the six agencies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as part of the “team” responsible for the chartering of the Lake Travis congregation four years ago, and the church’s subsequent growth. “The General Assembly Mission Council is working for church transformation,” Mendenhall says. “The Office of the General Assembly advised us all along the way. The Board of Pensions worked with us as I added this part-time position to the job I already had. The Presbyterian Foundation and the Texas Presbyterian Foundation provided materials that guided us. The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation’s The Thoughtful Christian provides the materials for Christian education at a price we can afford and with the accessibility online for a variety of leaders. And what would we have done without the guidance and encouragement and opportunity offered through the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program?”

Being a tentmaker—serving the congregation part-time while supporting herself through her job with the Foundation—has brought additional surprises. “At first I kept thinking that serving this small congregation on a part-time basis was a second-class offering. I am convinced now that it is a magnificent offering and maybe exactly what the church needs,” Mendenhall says. “I’m beginning to imagine that in the future many churches will find that the luxury of having a full-time pastor is beyond their capacity.”

She hopes seminaries will find new ways to train pastors while encouraging them to keep up their skills in other professions as well. “I’m hoping that this can be a time of real openness—that we don’t set boundaries on ourselves or on what we imagine God doing, that we don’t say, ‘I would never consider doing that’ or ‘I couldn’t possibly move there’ or ‘I’m trained to do this full-time so that’s what I want to do,’ ” Mendenhall says.

“I’m hoping that we can support each other to keep other skills alive and nurtured, because God may need those too.”

Emily Enders Odom is an associate for mission communications for the General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Bargaining with God Mary Newbern-Williams begged God to let her stay in California—but God had other plans

Mary Newbern-Williams

Traveling the path of faith: Mary Newbern-Williams says her varied experiences in ministry—at the local, presbytery and national level—have helped mold her into who God has called her to be. Photo courtesy of Mary Newbern-Williams.

Ohio native Mary Newbern-Williams graduated from college, worked in social services, started a family, earned two master’s degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and landed her first call as associate pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Pasadena, Calif.

Once thoroughly settled with her three children into the Southern California lifestyle, Newbern-Williams initiated a little heart-to-heart conversation with God: “Please let me stay in California for the rest of my life. I love it here. I’ll preach, I’ll teach, I’ll be faithful. I’ll do anything you ask—just let me stay here, ple-e-ease!”

So, what did this request get her? A one-way ticket to the national offices of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Louisville, Ky., to work as the associate for racial ethnic schools and colleges. In spite of her determination to stay rooted in California, “It turned out to be a great move,” she admits. “This position helped me understand the national church and its relationship with congregations, presbyteries and synods.”

In her work, she traveled the country to recruit students, interpret and promote the educational institutions, represent the denomination at formal functions and talk about the importance of the Christmas Joy Offering, a portion of which provides much-needed scholarship assistance to racial ethnic students at Presbyterian-related schools.

Moving on

Soon another move was in store. This time, she was called to share her skills in outreach and new church development as associate executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley in Alabama. She was instrumental in reestablishing a partnership with the Presbyterian Community of Congo (following in the footsteps of presbytery namesakes and early missionaries William Henry Sheppard and Samuel Lapsley). In addition, she was part of a team that developed a partnership with a presbytery in Mexico to bring a water-purification system to the village of Santa Catarina. “I really enjoyed being part of the strong mission programs in this presbytery,” says Newbern-Williams.

Next, God called Newbern-Williams to be associate general presbyter of the Presbytery of Eastern Virginia. While there, she plunged into another mission partnership with three presbyteries in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She traveled to the Congo twice to participate in strengthening mission and education partnerships.

And then she was off again, this time to serve as general presbyter of John Calvin Presbytery in the heartland of America. “I was honored to serve this presbytery as a pastor to pastors,” she says. “I got involved in the challenges that face today’s presbyteries. By pooling our gifts and having faith in God’s love and call, we worked together as catalysts for the future!”

In addition, she worked to promote diversity in Springfield, Mo., by serving on city and county panels, the regional council of churches and the state commission on diversity.

Part of her presbytery work involved preaching in various churches. But she realized she missed having ongoing relationships with the members of these congregations.

“I experienced a huge disconnect after preaching in a congregation. I knew I wouldn’t see these people again for a long time. What was that lovely 90-year-old woman I met doing a month later?” Newbern-Williams wondered. “I felt God calling me back to congregational ministry.”

Full circle

Apparently the search committee at Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church in St. Louis heard the call too. Last year, following the 53-year pastorate of the venerated William Gillespie, Newbern-Williams was installed as designated pastor of the congregation. She says she’s excited to be using the skills she’s developed in congregational transformation to help Cote Brilliante’s members envision new ministries. “Cote Brilliante’s leaders have done a remarkable job of keeping the congregation focused on change and the future,” she says.

Newbern-William insists that her story is not unlike most people’s, if they pay attention. “I told God I would be faithful and perfect if I could just stay in Southern California. God said, ‘You’re going to do that anyway; I’m moving you over here and here and here.’ ”

Though she still misses California, she is thankful for the varied experiences that have helped mold her into who God has called her to be. “God has been at work in each phase of my life,” she says. “I have just tried to be faithful in my following.”

Vicki Fogel Mykles, a PC(USA) minister-at-large in Fort Collins, Colo., owns a communications business that specializes in assisting nonprofit organizations with writing, editing, graphic branding, development and fundraising. A version of this story originally appeared on the AllWomen website.

Making up for lost time

Joan Stewart left a banking career to tackle the ‘disaster’ of poverty in West Virginia

Three women smiling

Partners in mission: Joan Stewart, right, with Elizabeth Stone, left, commissioned lay pastor at Mount Hope (W.Va.) Presbyterian Church, and Gracie Stover, center, on Stover’s porch, built by volunteers from First Presbyterian Church, Asheboro, N.C. The porch rockers were donated by Greenwich Presbyterian Church, Nokesville, Va. Photo by Tim Stewart.

In the state of West Virginia, poverty has been endemic for generations. Mountaintop removal coal mining has devastated the environment. Caricatures of the Appalachian people as ignorant hillbillies persist.

Yet West Virginians endure.

Joan Stewart laughs gently when she recalls members of an out-of-state church mission team who claimed they were bringing God to West Virginia. “God was here when they got here,” she says. “God is here. And at the end of their week, I think they’d tell you they took back with them more than they brought.”

It is a scenario that Stewart encounters frequently in her job as executive director of the West Virginia Ministry of Advocacy and Workcamps (WVMAW). Working closely with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and with support from the Synod of the Trinity and the Presbytery of West Virginia, WVMAW offers visiting mission teams the opportunity to practice discipleship by partnering with those affected by poverty or natural disasters. Each year, 40–80 volunteer groups from across the country repair and reconstruct homes, restore playgrounds, clean up parks, stabilize stream banks and lead vacation Bible schools. Along the way, the mission groups have opportunities to build relationships with West Virginians and perhaps break down some stereotypes.

Born in West Virginia herself, Stewart left the state as an adult and swore never to return. She lived in North Carolina and worked in the banking industry for many years. A mission trip to Mexico with St. Andrews-Covenant Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, N.C., changed her life.

“I realized I couldn’t be who I was and do what I was doing and still be Christian,” Stewart says. “I felt like so much of my life had been wasted time.”

But she found hope in God’s words to the prophet Joel in the Old Testament: “I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten” (2:25).

These words eventually led her to Union Presbyterian Seminary and then back home to West Virginia in 2003. She served as pastor of two congregations, but her heart remained with mission work. In 2006, Stewart became executive director of WVMAW, organized in 2001 after record flooding and mudslides destroyed homes throughout the state.

‘A God story’

“Mission is putting worship into action. It’s not what we do; it’s who we are in Christ,” says Stewart. And it doesn’t take a natural disaster like flooding to expose needs. “The perpetual disaster of West Virginia is poverty.” 

Stewart encourages volunteers to put down their hammers periodically and get to know the families whose homes they’re rebuilding. Then they get to meet someone like Gracie Stover.

As valedictorian of her high school, Stover received a full scholarship to attend West Virginia University. But her father became terminally ill, and she remained to care for him as he was dying. Now, 20 years later, she is still at home, caring for her mother, who has dementia, and for three younger siblings with disabilities. Until last fall, Stover’s family lived in a house with a leaky roof and no hot water. The house had an inside toilet but no shower or bath. No one ever visited the family. Stover had struggled to keep her family together, rather than in nursing homes, but felt she’d failed.

“The locusts had taken everything from her,” Stewart says.

When Stover learned about WVMAW’s work, she requested only that the roof of her family’s house be patched so it would no longer leak. As volunteers from First Presbyterian Church in Asheboro, N.C., and Greenwich Presbyterian Church in Nokesville, Va., worked on the house, they were touched by the situation of its occupants. They fixed the roof and rebuilt the crumbling front and back porches. They collected $500 and purchased gift cards so the Stovers could buy clothes and shoes. A group was scheduled to return this spring to build a bathroom, with hot water and a shower.

The volunteers also gave Gracie Stover a Bible, which she carries with her everywhere. She has stayed in touch with several volunteers by mail.

“She never had anybody for years. No one set foot in that house. Now she has friends. It’s been a God story from beginning to end,” Stewart says.

Far-reaching impact

WVMAW’s work has had an impact not just on individuals but on whole communities. Cleaning up in McDowell County after the 2001 floods, WVMAW volunteers realized that the mud was mixed with raw sewage. 

“There was toilet paper hanging from the trees,” Stewart says.

It turned out that McDowell County had severely limited wastewater treatment plants; 67 percent of all wastewater was piped directly from homes into rivers and streams. Only 8 percent of homes had approved septic systems.

 So WVMAW joined with the county health department and other organizations to form the McDowell County Wastewater Treatment Coalition with the goal of developing a countywide plan for treating wastewater. The coalition is working to clean up local rivers and streams, to make affordable treatment systems available and to improve the living conditions of the county’s citizens.

Stewart also leads seminars throughout the state on disaster preparedness and response. But it’s the relational nature of mission that she values above all in
her ministry.

“Joan is one of those exceptional people who seems to just pick up on and see the hand of God at work in other people,” says Jim Robinson, acting stated clerk of the Presbytery of West Virginia and chair of the board of WVMAW. “She always says, ‘I get to do this!’ For Joan, this work is not a task; it’s a privilege.”

Kimberly Burge is a freelance writer who divides her time between Washington, D.C., and Cape Town, South Africa.

All in the family

Like her great-grandfather, a minister in Korea, Charlene Han Powell is claiming the biblical narrative for her own generation

Charlene Han Powell

A Legacy on two continents: Charlene Han Powell, associate pastor for Christian education at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, is inspired by her Korean and ministerial heritage. Photo courtesy of Charlene Han Powell.

Charlene Han Powell knew that she had a Presbyterian minister in her background: her parents kept a photo of him in their northern California home. Although American-born, she knew that she was of Korean descent. But neither of these facts made much of an impression on her until she became a young adult. And she had no idea that any of this would influence a future career in ministry.

“I always knew there was something different about me, but I didn’t spend much time thinking about it,” she recalls. “It wasn’t until I attended the University of California, San Diego—where 51 percent of the students were Asian—that I began to embrace my Korean heritage.” As she developed friendships with Korean exchange students and eventually studied in Korea, she explored her ethnic roots in earnest.

After earning her B.A. in religious studies, Han Powell enrolled in the Master of Divinity program at Princeton Theological Seminary. One afternoon, as she was settling into the East Asian Library to study, she was startled to see a familiar face in the midst of a wall of photos. “It was the same photo we had in my home, of my great-
grandfather Suk-Jin Han!” she exclaims.

She knew that he was one of the first Presbyterian ministers ordained in Korea. However, she was surprised to learn that he served as moderator of the first Korean General Assembly, in 1912. Present at the genesis of an important evangelistic moment, Suk-Jin Han was a pioneer who helped establish the Presbyterian Church of Korea.

As she continued digging into her Korean and ministerial heritage, Han Powell discovered that late 19th-century Protestant missionaries assisted the new Korean Christian community by providing tools for their faith development. They produced a Korean-language Bible translation, for example, and established theological schools. “Koreans maintained the heritage and traditions of Christianity,” she says, “but claimed the stories and narratives in ways that made them their own.”

A pioneer in her own right

Now, much like her grandfather, Han Powell is claiming the biblical narrative for her generation as associate pastor for Christian education at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. She is the first woman of color to accept a call at any of the city’s “tall steeple” Presbyterian churches.

Han Powell has a particular interest in youth and young adult ministries. “I am fascinated with this stage in a person’s life,” she says, noting that this younger generation “has seen the world change with the invention of the Internet. The ability to exchange and receive information so rapidly has enabled my generation to be constantly informed about what is going on in the world.”

This constant stream of information, however, “requires us to listen to the voices that we disagree with, test and challenge what we hear and be in dialogue constantly,” she says.

Last year Han Powell participated in an intensive Auburn Theological Seminary program that brought together Christian and Jewish students to share their perspectives on faith and the world. Informed by this experience, Han Powell is weaving multifaith dialogue and cultural awareness into her educational ministry. She designed a program with area rabbis, imams and ministers to facilitate better understandings among the three Abrahamic faith traditions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Through panel discussions and a film series, each faith group was able to share values, address misperceptions, show common connections and highlight distinctive characteristics. More than 200 adults participated.

“It was exciting to see the lightbulbs go on,” Han Powell says. More dialogues are being planned for the coming year.

Han Powell thinks often of the ancestor in the family photo who helped establish a new church on a different continent in a previous century. As she crafts her own theological enterprise, she is becoming a religious pioneer in her own right. It’s more than enough to make a great-grandfather proud.

Vicki Fogel Mykles, a PC(USA) minister-at-large in Fort Collins, Colo., owns a communications business that specializes in assisting nonprofit organizations with writing, editing, graphic branding, development and fundraising. A version of this story originally appeared on the AllWomen website.

Untraditional educator

Finley Sutton brings the healing message of the gospel to children and teenagers whose lives are marked by brokenness

A woman with children

Called to teach: Finley Sutton was called to be director of Christian education for a small Presbyterian congregation on the campus of Thornwell Home for Children, in Clinton, S.C. Photo by Mark Krause.

In 2007, Finley Sutton was called to be director of Christian education for a small Presbyterian congregation on the campus of Thornwell Home for Children, in Clinton, S.C. Three years later, the church closed. But to her surprise, Sutton is still there—working with the children at Thornwell.

“Of course, my job has changed a lot,” she says. “I’ve had to be kind of creative since the church closed.”

The shift has challenged Sutton to find new ways of cultivating Christian discipleship among the 72 children and teenagers currently living at Thornwell. Many of them are not orphans but come from homes disrupted by abuse, drug or alcohol addictions and other issues. At Thornwell, they live in cottages and are cared for by rotating teams of adults. Sutton helps provide resources for these cottage parents to nurture the students in the Christian faith.

Bible classes and service projects

Thornwell Home was founded after the Civil War by a Presbyterian minister, William Plumer Jacobs. Sutton seeks to continue that connection with the institution’s deep Presbyterian roots while finding creative ways to connect the gospel message to the lives of the children.

 “I used to organize a Sunday school, and that took a lot of time,” says Sutton. Now that the campus church has closed, Thornwell’s students are attending two other congregations in Clinton—Bethany Presbyterian Church and Shady Grove Presbyterian Church.

“I think that it has been a really good thing for them to be able to go elsewhere, because it gives them the opportunity to be in a setting where the congregation is caring for them,” says Sutton. The congregations have “bent over backwards to provide things for the kids,” she says, “like adding Sunday school classes and even providing a girls club for the students.”

Before arriving at Thornwell, Keith,* a middle-school student, had never been outside of Laurens County, S.C. Sutton recalls that when he and the other middle school students went on a retreat to Black Mountain, N.C., last fall, “he was beside himself with excitement.”

“Most of the children, when they arrive, have not been taught about the Bible,” she says. Sutton tries to remedy that by teaching a class called “Learning to Use My Bible”—and Keith is one of the most eager learners. “I don’t believe Keith has ever had his own Bible,” she says. He told Sutton, “I am going to prove to you how well I can do this work.”

“And he has done just that,” she says.

By participating in service projects, the kids at Thornwell learn the importance of “giving back” to the community. Each year, they research various charities and decide where Thornwell’s mission funds will go that year.

A different setting

Candace Hill, coordinator of educational ministries for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), follows the work of educators across the denomination. “What has impressed me about Finley,” she says, “is that she comes to our trainings to hear about denominational resources, about what it means to be Reformed, but then takes that to her work as a DCE (director of Christian education) in a group home and asks, ‘How can this be adapted for my context?’

“I know that she comes with a different eye to listening and interpreting resources because she is using them in a nontraditional setting,” says Hill. “She inspires me.”

For many years, Sutton worked in churches part-time so that she could be involved in the congregation where her husband, David, was a pastor. But when the couple moved to South Carolina for David to take a call, Sutton realized that with their two children grown, the time was right for her to seek her own full-time call.

 “Thornwell has been a place where I have been able to use the experiences from my life—they’ve come together here,” she says.

But Sutton insists, “This ministry is not about me. Not at all. I wish I had time to tell you the stories of all of our kids.”

Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer and pastor living in Baja California, Mexico.

Cultivating generosity

The six-session study Enough: God’s Blessings in Abundance by Laura Mendenhall is part of the PC(USA) adult curriculum, Being Reformed: Faith Seeking Understanding. To order, call (800) 524-2612. Order online, download sample sessions or get more information

Give to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

A grant from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) helped launch the West Virginia Ministry of Advocacy and Workcamps (WVMAW) in 2001. In 2004, PDA helped fund an alternative wastewater treatment system demonstration project in Big Sandy, W.Va. PDA enables congregations and mission partners to witness to the healing love of Christ by caring for communities affected by catastrophic events, both in the United States and overseas. Learn more about how you can help

Sister support

The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion: Surviving and Thriving in Ministry, by Melissa Lynn DeRosia, Marianne J. Grano, Amy Morgan and Amanda Adams Riley (Alban Institute, 2011). Four female Presbyterian ministers share stories from their own experiences inministry, offering practical advice on everything from self-care to social life to dealing with difficult people.

Learn more about PC(USA) educational ministries

Educational Ministries—Find resources, best practices, tools for equipping leaders and links to support networks and organizations.

Congregational Ministries Publishing—Learn about Presbyterian curriculum options for all ages from Congregational Ministries Publishing.

Christian Educators—Find resources for those called to the church’s educational ministry.


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