Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"God Has Another Plan: Interview with The Reverend Peg Nowling"

“My life is but a weaving
Between my Lord and me.
I cannot choose the colors
He works so steadily.

Oft times He weaves in sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper
And I, the underside…”

The above poem speaks to the surprising beauty that God weaves with the various “threads” of our lives, creating our “tapestry” of ministry. Our featured clergywoman today, The Reverend Peg Nowling, Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lafayette, Indiana describes her journey which was full of surprises - filled with joy, tempered with reality, peppered with pain and strengthened with God’s grace. We are especially grateful for Rev. Peg’s willingness to share her journey even as she prepares to get married this week! Her words of encouragement and caution are filled with wisdom and maturity. Be blessed by her testimony below…

Shepastor Interview with
The Reverend Peg Nowling
Senior Pastor, First Baptist Church
Lafayette, Indiana

At what age did you first “hear” a call to the ministry?

Not until I was in my late 30s. Before that I felt the call to be a wife and mother. Then divorce changed my life. My story is that I was helping our pastor and his wife move from the parsonage in a difficult ending to his ministry. Standing in their garage I heard this: “Someday you will go through this.”

I was not unaccustomed to hearing God, but I had no plans to marry a pastor so this wasn’t going to happen to me. I saw the pain my pastor and his wife were going through and thought, “NO WAY!” I forgot about that until I was sitting in orientation at seminary.

My call came gradually, I think. God often does that with me, gives it to me in pieces so I can chew on it and swallow. In 1987 I went back to college to be a teacher but soon discovered that wasn’t my thing. My boss encouraged me to do what I had always wanted to do so I decided to head to law school, a dream since high school.

As I got closer to taking the LSAT I was overcome with a sense of wrongness. By then I knew my law career would be my ministry and I was captivated by separation of church and state law. I sought some counseling and applied to seminary instead.

Did you share your call experience with anyone? If so, how did they respond?

Yes, I did but it was more about helping me understand my call as opposed to “this is it!” I didn’t have many role models for being a woman pastor.
My parents didn’t know what to do with me. Another relative said I was going to hell for going into ministry. But overall, I remember affirmations.

How long did it take after acknowledging your call to becoming licensed and or ordained?

Not long really. I was licensed during my first year of seminary and ordained five months after graduation from seminary.

How would you describe your journey into the ministry?

Lovely and challenging. Inner city ministry is rewarding work but when I arrived I had no idea what I was doing. But they were patient and taught me. Changing from an active lay person in the region to a seminary student/minister was full of affirmations too. Indianapolis is a great region for women to be affirmed so I was lucky there.

I was blessed by doing my field education in a United Methodist inner city parish where I got into the trenches quickly. I remember that not everything was perfect or easy but my memories seem to be in the “Go get ‘em” category as opposed to “NOOOOO.”

What role models impacted your perception of ministry (male and female)?

Mary Day Miller, now in Fredricktown, OH, may have been the first solo/senior pastor I met and she became a friend and mentor. She came out of the Southern Baptist tradition so my entrance into ministry was much easier than her.

One of my senior pastors at the UMC parish was Jim Mulholland, one of my best friends still today. Jim’s passion for city ministry was infectious and determined. He taught, guided, prodded, pushed and loved me into the person I am today. He is truly one of the best advocates for women in ministry around and without his influence I am not sure where I’d be today.

Judy Fackenthal, pastor of Garfield Park Baptist Church in Indianapolis, has also been my dear friend and role model. She is another city pastor who understands the challenges of the people we are serving. She is of great support in dealing with churches in difficult situations. She also understands how to love people and there have been times I’ve desperately needed help in doing that!

My soon-to-be husband has been a role model for 15 years and more so all the time. He is a good pastor and a wonderful human being. I have learned from him about ministry and life. We read each other’s sermons each week for critique and affirmation. He is one of my biggest encouragers.

Over the years, my role models have changed to meet the needs of the time. I have leaned on people who manage conflict well at certain times, or people who preach well…..etc. I have a great number of role models!

What is your current area of ministry? How did you become who you are (multifaceted question I know!)

As I write this I am winding down my 9 ½ year ministry as the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lafayette, Indiana. I am getting married on October 22 to the Rev. Dr. W. Kenneth Williams, pastor of First Baptist Church of Rochester, NY where I will move. There I will be learning how to be married after 28 years of singleness, easing into the role of pastor’s spouse, and redecorating his home to make it ours. I will teach the Baptist polity class at Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School in the spring semester and I expect to take training to become an intentional interim minister. And I will write! God has said “Write!” It remains to be seen if God has said, “PUBLISH!”

Getting to who I am today is a long and winding road. By the third year of seminary I knew I was called to pastor but I also had a strong sense of wanting to teach so I thought I’d pastor a few years, then pursue a Ph.D. in ethics. But I never did.

I am a work in progress. This new adventure on which I find myself is a fascinating one. I never wanted to be a pastor’s spouse and yet here I am. I’ll learn but I will also carve out my own niche in Rochester.

Is it your experience that female pastors are strong advocates for other female clergy? Why or why not?

I think most are superficial advocates. By that I mean they believe that women should be in ministry if the call is there. I also think we don’t rally around each other enough. (The same can be said of men here.)
It is often hard to get women pastors to make time for each other. We pastors get so caught up in doing ministry we do not make ourselves a priority nor do we make supporting each other a priority.

What challenges have you faced in your role as a clergywoman?

Every time I think that the battle may be won, something happens to remind me how far we still have to go. In the past year I was fired from a wedding because grandpa wouldn’t come if a woman pastor was involved; I was not asked to participate in the funeral of a member I knew well because of gender. Sometimes I stand up in worship and see people get up and leave. They didn’t read my name on the sign, I guess.
It never ends but it doesn’t define me either. I’ve grown tougher skin over time. Ministry is hard work. If you can’t handle conflict, find another profession.

Churches are frightened these days about their future and they want us to make it better when, in reality, we need to change to get better. Many don’t want to change. They want to turn back the clock and bring back the people who left the church over the last squabble. It is hard to be all things to all people and read their minds. It is tough work, really tough, but so rewarding.

What suggestions do you have to help create greater opportunities for females desiring to become pastors (what can others do to help open doors for female clergy)?

I would love to see each area/region have someone in leadership of a WIM group. It can come out of Minister’s Council, but it needs to be present. We can do so much more together than we can on our own.

What words of wisdom or advice would you share with women who feel called to the ministry (pastorate or other ministries)?

One of the things we noticed in field education was that we were getting students coming to seminary to be healed rather than to be healers. (Not the majority but increasing numbers.) We understood that students don’t always know what they were being called to, but they should come to the M.Div. program grasping that they were called to be healers in a hurting world.

If you are not really clear that pastoral ministry is where you are being called, audit a few classes at a seminary instead of jumping headlong into a time-consuming and costly degree program.

You can be a minister without being ordained and the world definitely needs more and more people willing to be lay ministers. Churches cannot afford to pay everyone to do everything.

Having said that, if you are called, surround yourself with men and women who will encourage, affirm and challenge you. You will do yourself no favors by having people around you who only say nice things. Find people you trust to be discerning and honest.

Each year I gave this Fredrick Buechner quote to my students:
“Vocation” comes from the Latin vocare (to call) and means the work a [person] is called to by God.

“There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of society, say, or the superego, or self interest.
“The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. If you find your work rewarding, you have presumably met requirement (a), but if your work does not benefit others, the chances are you have missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work does benefit others, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you are unhappy with it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your customers much either.”

“… The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Frederick Buechner,
Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC

You can be called to ministry and serve well without going to seminary or quitting your day job. But if you do feel called to professional ministry, know that it will be the hardest and yet most rewarding experience.

What words of encouragement and caution would you give to those who are currently serving in a ministerial role?

When “she” talks about the ‘good old days,’ it is much more than a filled church. It may be when her husband was still alive and coming home each evening at 5:30 p.m. from work, when the kids came home for lunch and she ironed all their clothes….that sort of thing….life with meaning and purpose. She didn’t expect to be widowed at 55, live to be 90 with her children scattered all over the country and they seldom come home.

We can’t change their worlds but we can listen and try to understand. We must continually work to not own their pain and try to fix it. Follow your heart and God’s guidance and be the pastor YOU are called to be instead of what your congregation thinks they want. You can’t give them what they want but you can give them what you have to bring. Bring it with love, understanding and good conflict mediation skills and forge ahead!

Have a life. Your own life, not the church’s. You cannot constantly be pouring yourself out without putting something good in. We cannot be pastors to healthy churches if we are not emotionally and physically healthy. Take care of yourself!!!!!

Is there anything else you’d like to share that you believe would help other clergywomen along the journey?

If I have learned anything from my own experiences, as well as the experiences of those I interviewed on my sabbatical, it is this: Don’t whine. Find a trustworthy outlet in a friend or therapist to vent, yell or scream but little is achieved by whining about the hard knocks you are enduring. I’ve done it and it doesn’t work!

I interviewed a college president, seminary president, two state legislators, pastors and business women and while they had all been through hard times, they didn’t whine about them. Life hurts and it isn’t fair. Sometimes the problems we endure are problems all clergy endure and we shouldn’t make every hardship about gender. Some of our best advocates are men and our harshest critics women, but men go through “crap” too.

I suggest everyone have a pastoral counselor or therapist. I discovered this during one of those hard times and began driving 2 hours each way, once a month to see her. She continues to be part of my support system even though I haven’t seen her monthly for almost two years. I check in every few months and she did our premarital counseling. She is my friend and confidante for life! She makes me look at myself honestly and warmly. She has helped me find my good qualities when I couldn’t see and the ones to work on when I was in denial. You can’t do ministry alone.

Has God surprised you by changing the course of your life for ministry? Have you experienced God’s “weaving a tapestry” of joy and sorrow as you serve in the ministry? We want to hear from you! Post a comment or send me an email at

Until next Wednesday,
In faith, hope and perseverance,
Pastor Chris

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