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December 18, 2019

Why Clarity for Women in Leadership is Essential: An Interview with Rev. Abby Norman

A Q&A with Rev. Abby Norman, who was featured in a Gimlet podcast, Startup, on church-planting, and serves as the senior pastor at New Hope Atlanta, a United Methodist Church that is Verified Clear.

You had tweeted last year, before we launched our Women in Leadership phase in scoring, that “I knew I was called at 28. But my church was purposely opaque about women in leadership. @churchclarity is a gift to us all. I started seminary at 32 and wish I would not have waited.” How was that church “opaque”? 
I repeatedly asked to speak with the pastor about women in leadership or if a woman would ever be allowed in the pulpit. I was told we should get coffee, but we couldn’t do that just me and the pastor. His wife and my husband had to be there, in a public coffee shop so it took months (and a babysitter!) to even start the conversation about what a woman’s role in ministry was allowed to be. Then when I finally sent a very pointed email asking yes or no questions (and again was told we should all catch up as dinner as friends) and insisted my questions were answered I was subjected to a meeting where I was told my pastor was “concerned” because my emails were getting “aggressive.” I was also told I was looking at the situation as a woman, my male pastor was seeing things as a person. 

You were featured in Startup podcast’s series on church planting in Episode 6, “The Woman at the Pulpit.” You shared a story about asking your pastor if a woman could preach from the pulpit. He had quite and interesting response to that. Could you share a little about that experience? Do you feel like your understanding of your church’s policies were more or less clear after that? 

Yes! When I asked point blank if a woman could preach from the pulpit and then insisted it be answered, I was told it wasn’t that a woman could not it was just that the spirit hadn’t ever told the pastor it was time, that perhaps one day it would be time. Basically women could preach in theory, but not in practice. That church has since closed and in 15 years no woman ever preached there.

After that experience, you left and searched for a new church. Before stepping foot into Eastside Church in Atlanta, you emailed the pastor and asked for clarity on women in leadership. Why was this important to you? 
I was pretty burned by the church I had come from. I felt like they had really led me on and wasted my time with promises like “we are still thinking about that” and “we are open to changing” and my favorite “that isn’t a big issue, so we should agree to disagree” (even though the agreeing to disagreeing meant they ALWAYS got their way and I NEVER got mine.) I could not get invested in another community I would have to leave because they were leading me on. It was horrible to leave my community and start over. Also, logistically it was just hard to get me, my husband, my two small girls out of the door on a Sunday, show up somewhere, figure out where to park, figure out the nursery situation, make sure everyone felt safe, to then find out I didn’t want to go to the church anyway! I was like, I have wasted enough years and will not waste one more minute in a church I am not going to be able to stay in.

Now that you’re leading your own congregation, what are the ways you promote clarity in your congregation?  

Well, as a woman pastor I wear a collar every week. I want people to come in and go, yup, that is the pastor. So, that makes it pretty easy to see that women in leadership isn’t going to be a problem. 

I do NOT answer any question with “let’s meet up to talk about that” or “let’s have coffee.” I answer the question, even when I don’t want to or would prefer to avoid it. It is a strange time to be a methodist pastor. Is the church affirming as an institution? We will find out in February! Is my church affirming, we need to put it to a vote and we will. I think I know how that vote would go but I am not sure and I need to be honest about that even if it is personally disappointing. Am I affirming? Yes! Sometimes the answers you have to give aren’t the ones you want to give. As a pastor, I get that that is really hard. As a person who was dodged by a pastor I loved, I understand that I absolutely have a responsibility to be open, honest, and clear.

Note: Since this interview, the United Methodist Church has voted to strengthen its non-affirming policies. To view Rev. Norman's church's policies, see their Verified Clear entry.

If you would like to share your story on how a church's ambiguous Women in Leadership policy has negatively impacted you, please email us.