Women accept divine calling, create diversity among the clergy
The Rev. Emily Schnabl remembers an encounter she had one day outside the Midwest City Library.
A man looked at the cleric's collar she wore and asked her if she was a nun.
She said it is a common misunderstanding and she told him she wasn't a religious sister but an Episcopal priest.
"Well, good luck with that," the man replied.
Schnabl, rector of St. Christopher's Episcopal Church in Midwest City, said she thought the conversation was funny and she often finds humor in the way some people react to meeting a female minister.
Not everyone is good-natured, but Schnabl said she doesn't contend with the occasional hostile reaction to an ordained woman of God.
"There's really nothing to do there but disentangle myself from the situation as soon as possible," she said.
The Episcopal pastor is among Oklahoma City metro area women who accepted a divine call to become ministers. By doing so, they have made their houses of worship — and their communities — more diverse.
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Along with Schnabl's Episcopal denomination, the United Methodist Church ordains women. Thus, the Rev. Marla Lobo and the Rev. Nancy McCollugh followed the ministry path to become United Methodist preachers.
With female rabbis accepted in the Reform Judaism movement, Rabbi Vered Harris became spiritual leader of Temple B'nai Israel in 2012. In doing so, she became the temple's first female rabbi.
Harris and McCollough said they didn't have to face any obstacles on their path to the ministry.
Lobo and Schnabl said they faced some challenges but overcame them.
Schnabl said she grew up in an congregation that was officially opposed to the ordination of women, even after the priesthood was opened to women in 1976 in the Episcopal Church.
"It took me many years of spiritual direction and experience of leadership in a congregation as a lay person, as a youth group leader, as someone who assisted in worship leadership, with the encouragement of others, to finally admit to myself in the mid-90s, that I was feeling a call in that direction," she said.
Then, while she was seriously exploring ordination, her diocese put a moratorium on the ordination process for reasons unrelated to women's ordination. Schnabl said her spiritual director at the time encouraged her to enter seminary anyway, which was risky without also being in the ordination process.
Her path became clearer when her college church in Champaign, Illinois, welcomed her back and she went through the ordination process with them while in seminary.
Lobo, associate pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church, said she didn't face huge obstacles but rather "lots of small ones."
"Figuring out how to attend seminary, work part time and manage a family with a child at home and an ailing mother was a daily challenge," she said.
For Schnabl, female pastors in the Episcopal Church USA were common when she began to consider her path.
"By the time I was in the ordination process, the Episcopal Church had been ordaining women for almost 25 years so I never felt like I wouldn't be ordained because I was a woman," she said.
Lobo said she grew up in the Methodist Church and although the denomination ordained women, she only saw women who were music director or education directors — "very seldom the senior pastor."
That's different these days, she said.
"Today, we see more women in senior leadership positions, but it is still a disproportionately small number," Lobo said.
That may be why Lobo still gets a wide range of reactions when she tells people she is a minister.
"I get all kinds of different reactions!" she said. "Some are encouraging, others skeptical and still others are simply not accepting. Men, and occasionally women, do not accept my role as a minister and insist on a 'man' to perform a ministerial function, such as a wedding."
McCollough said she didn't face man-made obstacles on her path to the clergy, but in a round about way, a natural disaster caused a life-altering detour that ultimately led to her fulfilling her calling to preach.
She had been content working as an educator in New Orleans' public schools when she began to feel she should pursue the Lord's call to ministry that she had felt in college. Her life as a teacher, mom and United Methodist preacher's wife meant that her life was extremely busy and fulfilling, but she knew God was calling her to ministry as a pastor.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and she and her husband, the Rev. Victor McCollough, came to Oklahoma at the encouragement of friends. In Oklahoma, Nancy McCollough moved forward on her journey to United Methodist ordination when she began classes at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa.
Meanwhile, Harris said she, too, gets her share of surprised looks when people find out she is a Jewish spiritual leader.
Harris said the fact that she is a rabbi is not so surprising once people learn how long it took for a woman to become a rabbi in Europe, 1930, and even longer in America, 1977. Harris said these days, having a female rabbi at her Oklahoma City temple makes sense when one considers that the congregation is 50 percent women.
She is hopeful there will come a day when people won't be shocked to learn that she is a rabbi and that Oklahoma City also has another female rabbi in Rabbi Abby Jacobson, spiritual leader of Emanuel Synagogue.
In Oklahoma City, certainly, people have become accustomed to the idea, Harris said.