Eagle County: Women of the cloth break barriers
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Ministering is a lot like mothering.
A good pastor needs to listen carefully and gently offer advice. He or she must be steadfast during times of sickness and sorrow and steady in times of joy and celebration.
“I think women just naturally have so many of the gifts that are important for a good ministry,” says the Rev. Melanie Rosa, a Methodist minister for 25 years. Rosa served the Eagle and Gypsum Community United Methodist churches from 1986-89.
“I was the first female pastor people had seen or heard of back then,” she recalls.
She also was on the leading edge of a national movement.
The Hartford Institute for Religion Research notes it is difficult to determine how many women ministers there are in the United States. While mainstream denominations keep statistics, independent churches are largely unreported.
However, the organization reports that women currently make up about a third of all seminary students. That’s a big jump from 30 years ago when women made up less than a fifth of seminary enrollment.
Here in the Eagle Valley, the ranks of clergy includes two women serving Gypsum congregations ” The Rev. Vicki Hanan of Word of Life Worship Center and the Rev. Doris Nolan of First Lutheran Church.
“You don’t always get the grace of the strength you need, until you need it,” says Pastor Vicki Hanan. She speaks from personal experience.
The past year has been difficult for Hanan. Last summer she lost her husband and pastor-partner, Don Hanan, to cancer. The couple had been married for 27 years and literally built their church from the ground up.
The Hanans founded the World of Life Worship Center in Gypsum in December of 1990. The church started with three people and the five-member Hanan family. Today Word of Life boasts approximately 130 active members.
But when faced with the decision of carrying on her ministry after losing her husband, Hanan wasn’t sure that’s what God wanted her to do. She decided spend a week alone in a remote cabin to prayer and consider her future.
“I wasn’t sure what God was going to tell me,” she says. “I wanted what was best for the congregation and what was best for me.”
During her reflections, she found guidance in the words of Phillippians 3:12-14. The verse speaks of finishing the race and pressing on in the face of adversity.
“Those words jumped off the page for me.”
She returned from her retreat to tell her congregation she was continuing the work she and Don had started. The church members and their leader have turned to one another to find solace.
“The congregation members lost their pastor and friend. We have to heal together,” says Hanan.
In the months since stepping forward to lead her congregation, Hanan has been assisted by associate pastor Bill Richardson. The congregation has continued remodeling the former American Legion Hall in Gypsum to serve as the church’s worship center.
Hanan deeply believes she is doing the work that both God and Don want her to do. It’s the latest step in a journey that began back when she was in her teens and felt a call to do missionary work. She ultimately became a registered nurse, which brought her from her childhood home in Phoenix, Ariz. to Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs.
When Hanan was in her 20s, she began to despair about ever finding the right man to marry and raise a family with. She says her prayers were answered in dramatic fashion: Don showed up in her living room for a Bible study.
“God took me very literally,” she notes.
The couple first served as children’s ministry pastors for New Creation Church in Glenwood; and then to launch Word of Life. Along the way they raised their three boys John, 24, Caleb, 22, and Nate, 20.
As an independent church, Word of Life doesn’t face restrictions regarding women clergy. Hanan says the congregation is following the example set by Jesus. Christ’s ministry always included women, she says.
So while St. Paul famously admonished that women should remain silent in church, Hanan believes those passages are often considered out of context from the entire Bible. She believes God does call women to the ministry, herself included.
“I felt called to pastor along with my husband. I really feel was meant to continue the work we started,” says Hanan.
Raised a Catholic in New York City, the Rev. Doris Nolan of First Lutheran Church in Gypsum recalls that she was a spiritually-minded youth.
As she was finishing high school, she felt a call to the ministry.
“But I didn’t particularly feel called to become a nun and take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience,” she says.
A number of years and a couple of denominations later, Nolan answered her teenage calling. She was ordained as a Lutheran minister three years ago. In August of 2005, First Lutheran became her first posting. Nolan will be leaving the area June 1 because her husband, Jim, is enrolling at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysberg, Pa.
In looking at the path that led her to ministry, Nolan says her early spirituality gave way to years of questioning her faith. She graduated from college, became an English teacher and ultimately embarked in career in the newspaper industry. She married Jim, and the couple had three children: Elizabeth, Margaret and John. The Nolans regularly attended Presbyterian services.
“I went to church every Sunday but I still wasn’t a person of faith,” Nolan recalls.
The Nolans ultimately landed in Denver when Jim went to work for the Rocky Mountain News. They enrolled one of their daughters in a Lutheran-operated preschool and decided to attend services at the associated church.
One Sunday, while reciting the words of confession, Nolan experienced a spiritual conversion. “At that time, my life changed.”
Nolan became an active member of the congregation.
“Then, I was very surprised to discover God was calling me to become an ordained minister.”
That surprise tied to the realities of her life. She had a husband and three school-age children at home. In 2000, Nolan began her training at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, a seminary operated by the United Methodist Church. In January 2001, she packed up to attend Trinity Lutheran Seminar in Columbus, Ohio leaving her family in Denver. At that time, her children were 16, 12 and 6 years old.
“I cried all the way to Columbus,” Nolan says. But her family supported her decision and Nolan committed to an accelerated schedule. Her seminary studies were divided into 10-week quarters. She was able to graduate after three years.
After a one-year internship with a Denver-area congregation, Nolan was ready for her first placement. The call came from First Lutheran.
The move to Gypsum represented another big change for the Nolan family. They had to adjust to small town life after having exclusively resided in large metro areas. Nolan was the first female minister to serve the Gypsum congregation. She was following a popular pastor who had been with the church for 12 years.
But beyond those specific challenges, Nolan had to learn how to be a minister by serving her first congregation.
“I have learned how being a pastor can take over your life and that balance is important and difficult to obtain,” says Nolan. In many ways, she believes being a woman helped her rise to the occasion.
“Women understand nurturing and compassion on a very deep level,” she explains.
The largest Lutheran denomination ” the 4.8 million member strong Evangelical Lutheran Church of America ” has been ordaining women since the 1980s. As of 2007, an estimated 13 percent of its clergy are female. However the two other Lutheran branches, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, do not allow women to serve as ordained ministers.
For Nolan, the Bible provides the most compelling argument for women clergy. “If women can be chosen as the ones to get the most important news in history ” the news of the risen Christ ” women can certainly be leaders in the church,” she says.
Melanie Rosa has spent a career breaking the gender barrier at the pulpit.
For 25 years, she has worked as an ordained Methodist minister. Her first senior pastor job was with the Community United Methodist churches in Eagle and Gypsum back in 1986.
“First they had to adjust to a woman, newlywed pastor. Then they had a pregnant pastor,” she recalls.
Rosa remained in Eagle for three years, from 1986-89. She and her husband, Fred, have been married for 22 years. Their son Mark, 20, was born while they lived in Eagle. They also have a daughter Katie, 17.
Since leaving Eagle, Rosa has earned a doctorate in preaching and church leadership from the Iliff School of Theology. Currently she is the senior pastor at Lakewood United Methodist Church.
A lesson Rosa learned during her time in Eagle has proven true throughout her career.
“In 25 years, I have always had some people leave because a woman pastor was coming in. But I think if you love people and prove you are capable, people come around.”
That doesn’t always apply in ecumenical circumstances, however. “It’s interesting that other clergy can be so intolerant,” says Rosa.
Rosa had a role model for her career path. Her mother also was an ordained Methodist minister. The Methodist church has ordained women since 1956 and has the largest percentage of women clergy at 22 percent.
“My mother was a true pioneer,” says Rosa. Back in 1999, Life magazine profiled the pair for a Mother’s Day feature showing daughters who were following in their mother’s career footsteps.
After 25 years in the profession, Rosa knows that churches still have to adjust to the presence of a female minister. “I have found that the church is the last place where people want to see change. But I find the ministry is a perfect job for women,” Rosa concludes.
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