Women Preachers of Maryville
Updated: May 26, 2019
By Abigail Crew
MTSU/Seigenthaler News Service
The Rev. Dr. Emily Anderson strolls into Vienna Coffeehouse in Maryville looking like any other caffeine-seeker. She wears red glasses that frame a smiling face. She orders her iced coffee and sits down to enjoy.
Nothing about her screams preacher.
But that’s what she is, a woman in a position that’s been predominantly held by men for centuries.
And in Maryville, she’s one of a handful of women who have held pastoral positions in mainline denominations, some for decades. In fact, the cumulative years of service given by these women pastors is almost 80 years. Their long tenure in the pulpits of some of the town’s largest churches indicates that Maryville’s religious community is unique.
“It’s all about relationships,”said Anderson, pastor to 1,200 members at New Providence Presbyterian Church.
Anderson has been pastor at New Providence Presbyterian for nearly two decades. One of her the church’s projects she’s most proud of is a “hospitality ministry”called The Welcome Table, which has been feeding and nurturing between 250 and 300 people once a week for about 11 years.
“We have some people who come because they’re hungry for food, and some people are hungry for friendship,”Anderson said of the Tuesday night fellowship.
Anderson believes Ann Owens Brunger, previously the pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church, was a trailblazer for women pastors in the area. She became the first female pastor in the city when she moved to Maryville in 1983. Her presence proved it possible for a woman to be a pastor of a mainstream church, Anderson noted.
“I give Anne all the credit. She’s been so faithful and such a good member of the community.”
Although significant strides have been made by females in this field, recent studies convey that a great divide between clergymen and clergywomen still exists. The Barna Group, a renowned research organization with more than three decades, has released studies about this matter.
“The Barna Group discovered that though there are three times more female pastors in the U.S. than 25 years ago, gender inequalities continue,”an article released in 2017 stated.
These studies reveal the uphill battle women in the church are still fighting to gain equality. The Rev. Dr. Eileen Campbell-Reed, who conducts research from her home in Nashville, completed a study in 2016 that shows that only 20.7 percent of American clergy were women. The majority of churches in America are still lead by men.
However, progress has been made, especially among Methodists. The United Methodist Clergywomen Retention Survey completed between 2010 and 2012 reported that “Women clergy serving local congregations have increased by 20 percent to 30 percent in all five U.S. jurisdictions.”Rev. Laura Rasor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Maryville explained that the Methodist denomination has been ordaining women since 1956.
Despite her denomination’s familiarity with women leading its churches, Rasor shared that she has still been faced with opposition from people outside of her own church body.
“I feel this call from God, that God has laid this upon my heart to go into ministry and to serve God in the church, and so it’s hard if somebody also is saying that they’re speaking from God to say that that can’t be true. It sort of feels like a question of my identity,”she said.
Rasor explained that she chooses to bridge the gap between her and people who are resistant to change by “helping people to experience you and get to know you and build those relationships and work through what feels different.”
This emphasis on forging relationships seems to not only be a principal goal for Anderson and Rasor, but other female pastors in the area as well.
Another female pastor who has walked the path blazed by Brunger is Rev. Laura Bogle of Foothills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Bogle leads a congregation of around 100 members in Blount County. She shares the same philosophy about relationship-building as her church-leading peers, Rasor and Anderson. Bogle said she provides her congregation with “an attention to our relationships and how we are with one another and…thinking about those as just as important as, you know, meeting particular goals or producing something in particular.”
Bogle not only hones in on relationship-building in her congregation in general, but as a mother to three kids, she also has a passion for families. “I bring to the congregation just sort of an awareness and a questioning around how are we serving families and parents and, you know, children of all ages among us…with a real focus on how we are building multi-generational community.”
At St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Rev. Dr. Willa Estell shared similar sentiments as Bogle. Estell, in the pulpit for nearly 18 years, said her favorite part of her career is “people…it really is just people.”
Her beliefs about the way Jesus sees women, empowers her as a female in this modern era.
“He came to restore our original position. Originally, our position was one of equality and authority and not one of submission,”Estell said. She shared that her confidence in her call from God has aided her in handling rejection.
All four women expressed that although they have had to come to terms with hardships as females in their positions, all believe they have made an impact in their local communities and church bodies.
Abigail Crew is a Middle Tennessee State University journalism student. She is in Blount County as part of a feature writing class called the Road Trip Class.