In 1987, I arrived on the campus of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia. I did not know a soul, literally! The dorm I was assigned to was newly built and had not been completed. Students assigned to that dorm had to find a place to stay until the dorm was opened. As students began to gravitate towards one school/dorm official or another, I stood there shocked and frozen. Where in the world would I go? One by one, cars pulled away, students laughing and making acquaintances walked down the campus sidewalks and I just stood there with my suitcases and boxes.
Suddenly, a beautiful dark brown skinned lady with a silver afro approached me and said, “Hi, my name is Sylvia. I’m one of the students from Johnson C. Smith seminary. Do you have a place to stay? If not, you can come to my house until the dorms are ready.” What a blessing and a relief! She took another young lady and I into her home for two months until our dorm was ready. She gave us room and board freely and never complained a word. That’s just Rev. Syliva Wilson! She taught us the true meaning of ministry by letting God use her to assist two young, struggling seminarians and encouraging us to go forward and do our best.
In today’s blog, Rev. Wilson candidly shares the importance of letting God use us in practical ways whether in the pastorate or some other ministry.
Interview with Rev. Sylvia Wilson
Honorably Retired Presbyterian Clergywoman
At what age did you first “hear” a call to the ministry?
“I had an audible call to ministry in my late 30’s. I lived in Kansas City at the time. I was heading to a 4H meeting in Minnesota. We had a bus load of people. Over night we were staying at a hotel. They put 4 adult women in two twin beds. That night was when the call came. I heard God say, ‘Stop worrying about the small things and get on with my business!’"
What did you interpret that to mean?
“That God wanted me to minister in practical ways. I had toyed with the idea of working in the church from working in the Presbytery office. I loved the work, loved the environment and I loved the people.”
Did you share your call experience with anyone? If so, how did they respond?
“After I started crying from being filled with the spirit, and after I woke up everybody in the room, I told them. They were excited. Later I shared it with the Presbytery staff. In our denomination, a call needs to be affirmed by a body. Even when God calls, there has to be an affirmation by another body of believers.”
Did you experience any opposition or negative responses to the sharing of your call.
“None that I was aware of.”
How would you describe your journey into the ministry?
“I would say my journey into the ministry started with seminary – ITC, Johnson C. Smith. It was a series of fortuitous events because I did not have any models of women preachers, especially black women. Even at the age of 40, I’d not seen women preachers. One of my other concerns was that I had been Afro Centric for a long time – I wanted to work in the Black Community, but my denomination was predominantly white. But soon, a new understanding was opened for me. I attended a conference and Katie Cannon was leading an early morning Bible Study.
She at that time was a candidate for the Ph.D. Degree. Her approach to the interpretation of scripture clicked with me even as a novice layperson. Plus she had a big ole ‘fro.’ She was teaching what I came to know as Liberation Theology.
I still did not know a place to go and get training. I looked at seminaries in and around Kansas City. A secretary at the Presbytery office said, ‘Sylvia, have you heard of Johnson C. Smith?’ That’s how I found out about JCS. There was a meeting in Atlanta so I visited ITC and fell in love with it. It was right- It did what I thought God was calling me to do and it made sense to me.”
What role models impacted your perception of ministry (male and female)?
"In addition to Dr. Katie Cannon…
My pastor in Kansas City, The Rev. Dr. Sam Mann. I think the seeds are planted for our call early in life, so Rev. Mann reinforced theological understandings that I gained as a 6 and 7 year old child in a Baptist Church, where the Pastor was Rev. Hollins. Dr. Jacquelyn Grant with the 'Womanist Approach,' that is not as objectionable to men as feminist theology. She expanded my understanding of the groups that were laboring under oppression and discrimination. She helped me to see that we as women are also an oppressed minority. Rev. Ella Busby, a classmate, also modeled for me the importance of remaining anchored and focused upon your relationship with God and the call placed upon your life.”
Have you ever served as a senior/solo pastor?
How many years?
“6-8 years collectively”
Is it your experience that female pastors are strong advocates for other female clergy? Why or why not?
“Yes and No. There are some female clergy who go out of their way to assist those who are younger in the ministry – future generations of female leadership (clergy and lay). On the other hand, I have seen many clergy women who are just as self-centered and pre-occupied as some brethren. There are those who are looking to climb ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (as opposed to the corporate ladder!) We all know them. I think that this is especially a challenge for those who are in denominations with hierarchy.”
What challenges did you face in your role as senior/solo pastor?
“I think the challenges that I faced had primarily to do with not having a model or mentor in general - Not knowing the questions to ask, Just not knowing. I developed the necessary strategies later rather than sooner. My biggest challenges came from a lack of information. . . not attacks. I believe that was the case because I was an older person."
What suggestions do you have to help create greater opportunities for females desiring to become pastors?
"Be open to other possibilities because there are many ways to preach and it doesn’t have to be solely as a pastor. We get so focused on becoming a pastor when that may or may not be our call. There are many ways to serve God’s people in addition to preaching from the pulpit.
In terms of creating greater opportunities for females to be a shepherd of the flock – Number one, we have to prepare ourselves in a variety of ways, theologically speaking and especially for us emotionally speaking, we need to network and we have to spiritually prepare ourselves. Ministry requires a strong spiritual center so that you can continue to hear the voice of God amidst all of the minutia as you consider various areas of interest."
What words of wisdom or advice would you share with women who feel called to become a senior pastor?
"I believe those of us who are called to be pastors are to pastor if it is only a, a few weeks, a few months, a few years or longer. We have an obligation to those who come behind us to give it our best and to love God’s people. I think women are socialized to do that better than perhaps our brothers in the ministry. Pastoring is a place to show the best of who we are as human beings. Show kindness, love and respect. It doesn’t mean being a door mat, but we can demonstrate the fruit of the spirit. Sometimes we set that aside as we go into these official positions – that’s not what Christ did. Use Christ as the model instead of the Bishop!”
What words of encouragement and caution would you give to those who are currently serving in that role?
“Recognize that it is a hard ‘row to hoe!’ We must take care of ourselves – that is imperative. I’m tired of seeing us die, overweight and going into drugs and promiscuity out of sadness, stress, frustration and pain.
God is doing a new thing. Church as we once knew it will not be anymore. In established congregations, the membership is changing dramatically. Communication and expectations are changing dramatically. The old ways of being ‘church’ don’t necessarily fit. We have to pray for discernment of what is coming.
The other side of it is outside of the church. There are Christians who are not associated with any congregation. They want a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and they are willing to work, but they are not going to take the ‘stuff’ that older generations took. They have too many options.
We have to talk with the younger generations, listen to them, take them seriously and we need to push them to give answers that make sense. We’ve got to be patient with them. They’ve got to learn their own lessons- they can’t learn our lessons. We’ve got to love them unconditionally.
Have fun – When ministry is no longer enjoyable there is something wrong. You have got to get some fulfillment out of it. God has no desire to have ministry tear us apart as much as we allow it to do so.” End of Interview
Everyone is not called to become a senior/solo pastor. What is your calling? Has God called you to preach, but not necessarily pastor? Has God called you to serve in some other capacity? What words of encouragement and or advice would you like to share with other clergy sisters? Post a comment or send me an email at email@example.com
Until next Wednesday,
In faith, hope and perseverance,