Brief snapshots of the stories of three women ministers follow. One is a short historical vignette from the past which raises issues that to this very day remain unresolved. Another is the story of a young woman currently enrolled in seminary. The last is a small excerpt from the life of a successful, middle-aged minister. Names, settings, and details which may lead to identification of the individuals depicted have been changed in two of these. However, each story remains true to real-life events and as such offers an inside look at the common obstacles and burdens peculiar to ministers who are female.
Lula Lee Pearce Jones (1883-1961): Evangelist and Pastor
As she stood surveying the church grounds from the kitchen window of the three-bedroom parsonage, it was hard to see past the betrayal she keenly felt. Lula Pearce Jones had certainly known hard times before! She hadn’t flinched when her revival tent was burned or lost any of her resolve when summoned to court by citizens who wanted to put an end to her tent meetings at Sulphur Springs. None of these persecutions had wounded her soul. Such tribulations were an expected part of carrying the gospel. She had counted the cost and had pressed through these obstacles undaunted. Because of her determination to fulfill the call of God and the obvious anointing to preach the gospel, she had several new churches to her credit.
Lula had even girded up her heart and gone forward full force after the church she had worked years to plant and establish at Clearwater was given to a man to pastor. Then, she had accepted the declining storefront church offered her at Crystal River. She and her family had left their comfortable nine-room house to live among the curtain-petitions and nail-keg furniture of the store’s back room. God blessed her labor, as He always had, and the church was built up and strengthened.
But now, for the first time, this staunch holiness preacher was knocked breathless by a hard and painful blow. Lula turned from the window and paced restlessly through the parsonage of the Lacoochee Church of God. The tears which she generally reserved only for prayers for others, she now spent on herself. With God’s help, she had pastored at Lacoochee with great success for the last five years. Under her leadership, the congregation had purchased a church building and had built a nice parsonage. Attendance had risen dramatically, and tithes had soared from three dollars to forty or fifty dollars a month. Souls had been saved; lives had been wrestled from hell’s door. Never-the-less, tomorrow she would be leaving. The transfer she had requested had been acted upon in part; a new pastor was being sent to Lacoochee. However, with many good years of pastoral service left in her, Lula was not being reassigned. Tomorrow she would walk away with nowhere to go. The only explanation Lula was able to offer her family for the absence of a new assignment was the current denominational official’s widely-reported conviction that women should not hold pastorates.
Had Lula been able to see into the future, perhaps the pain she felt that day would have been lessened, She had no way of knowing that future generations would consider her a courageous pioneer. Nor did she realize that despite an insider’s knowledge of ministry, her youngest daughter Bonnie would follow in her footsteps to also become an evangelist, pastor, and role model for future generations of women called to full-time ministry.
Lula Pearce Jones entered retirement early, functioning from time to time as a supply pastor or an evangelist. Even in her latter years, Lula remained faithful to God and her denomination. When she was no longer physically able to minister outside her local church, she began teaching a Sunday school class. She continued in this position until the age of seventy-eight less than a year prior to her death.
Pearl: A Young Woman’s Story of Local Church Response
A slender woman in her mid-twenties quietly slips into her regular pew just as the Sunday night service is about to begin. She smiles across the carpeted aisle sending her greetings to Brother and Sister Starn who return toothy smiles with vigorous nods. As she slides down to her usual spot, she leans over the shoulder of an elderly woman and whispers a fast hello. Sister Smith’s ancient eyes twinkle in response as she exclaims, “Why, Pearl! Praise God! I am so glad to see you, child!” The two exchange shoulder hugs, then quickly settle into a respectful silence as the announcements are read.
Pearl smiles to herself as she studies the familiar pew. Her old place- fifth row, center section- still looks the same. The tightly-woven cauliflower blue upholstery welcomes her; the familiar U-shaped nick etched into the back of the preceding pew seems to blink a “hello.” This pew had been her “home” for the last five years as she faithfully attended her local church, paying her tithes with clock-work regularity, and falling in love with the people and the Word of God. Yet something almost undefinable had changed. A feeling of being somewhat misplaced sweeps over her leaving her oddly ill-at-ease in the old and formerly comfortable. Pearl stands and forces her attention to the scripture being read- a passage of celebration and praise which has stirred her heart many times. She thanks God for His wonderful acts and tries to shake off the subtle mist of alienation which claws at her.
For the last two years, Pearl had diligently toiled over her seminary work and wrestled with the call which constantly urged her toward mission work– a stirring that compelled her toward preaching and evangelism. Innately she knew that she must answer this call or forever deny her true person. Now, she realized just how much she had hoped for the affirmation of her local church. The people’s resounding confirmation could have helped anchor her solidly against her own phantoms of fear, the opposition of demon forces, and the disillusionment of the ever-present politics of the organizational structure.
Pearl had especially desired the approval of her pastor. But her departure for seminary had not been sealed by the laying on of hands or the prayers and commitment of the local congregation. There had been little public acknowledgement at all. The women had given her a “going-away” party contributing cleaning products and practical household items which she would need in her apartment. These small tokens certainly warmed her heart; she appreciated the display of love. Yet she longed for the encouragement and strength the local body had denied her by not confirming her as one called to ministry.
Even in this modern age, the idea of a woman attending seminary had been met with some patronizing smiles and pats and nervous conversations. Still, many had been genuine well-wishers. Others, like her pastor, didn’t seem to know how to respond to the direction she steadfastly held to be God’s will for her. Now, two years into her program, Pastor John seemed genuinely proud that she was doing well and would graduate soon. He had even publicly identified her as a female seminarian and had acknowledged her call to missions when a church official had visited. But when it came to practical matters, no real encouragement, no financial support, no opportunity for practice, no mentorship had been offered by the local leadership.
On more than one occasion, Pearl had fought hard battles on her knees as bitterness, jealousy, and hurt feelings tried to seep in spreading their poisons. She didn’t want to magnify the painfully apparent difference which had been made between her and Paul, a man her own age who had announced his call to preach. Pearl took part of the blame for this discrepancy, reasoning that she had not declared her call to ministry boldly enough. In the beginning she had only whispered the specifics to a trusted few. In fact, the call was ever unfolding with new clarity.
She had mustered the courage to suggest to her pastor that she could preach and desired the opportunity to do so. Her announcement, voiced after two successful semesters at seminary, was answered by her pastor’s chuckle. No invitation was forth-coming. Yet Paul, who had been a Christian for only six months, had been asked to preach immediately following his announcement of call. His halting and unlearned homily had been followed by handshakes, slaps on the back, and public verification from the pulpit.
Pearl realized that by God’s grace she was on her way to overcoming the handicaps caused by lack of positive initial response from her church. However, she couldn’t help wondering how much stronger, more confident, and better prepared she would be now if her church had actively affirmed her.
Niota Crusch: Itinerate Preacher, Seminar Speaker and Educator
Reverend Niota Crusch stops in the doorway giving her eyes time to adjust to the dark. She quickly scans the parking lot before starting toward her car. The lot is practically empty. The sharp clink of her heels on the cool pavement seems magnified by the emptiness and the dark. Halos of mist ring the streetlamps diffusing their light. Niota strides briskly to her car, unlocks it, and tugs the door open with an energy which adeptly disguises her fatigue.
She tosses her briefcase into the passenger’s seat. It has been a good night. She is sure that she preached the right message. Response was good. The altar had filled with more than a score of women who came forward for special ministry and prayer. Others had testified of the impact of her words. Again she had experienced the sense of being right in the center of God’s will, the assurance of expressing the depths of who and what God had formed her to be.
All in all, the whole series of messages of the 1993 state conference had been stirring. Yet at the same time, a sadness she was too tired to explore deeply found a seat in the pit of her soul. Until this last meeting, not one minister who was female had been asked to participate in leadership. Not a prayer, not a scripture reading, not a homily, much less a major session had been ministered by a female. She had been “the token,” the Ladies’ Night speaker. Yet, she was a seasoned minister called to exhort and warn, to teach and build-up the Body of Christ, not just the women.
Again, she and all the ministers of her gender had been swept into a category labeled “secondary” and “non-standard.” They had been slotted into a culturally prescribed cubbyhole, kept from full ministry in the Church and denomination they loved. The saddest part of all was that the majority of the male ministers and the Body in general did not realize the pain inflicted by this visible absence. They seemed to have no clue as to what had just taken place before their eyes. How could anyone miss seeing that the state’s ministers who are female had just been pigeonholed into a third-class status, treated as though they didn’t exist!
Niota had been patient for years. She had ministered in spite of the written and “unwritten” restrictions with all the grace and power God had seen fit to bestow upon her. She had continued past the snubs, the denominational inconsistencies, and the painful trials of being unacknowledged at local and state meetings when men in full-time ministry were asked to stand or come forward for recognition or prayer. She had seen her sisters kept from boards, committees, and leadership positions for which they were especially gifted. She had felt the Body’s lack of the perceptions and balance which only women in leadership could offer.
It hadn’t been easy to keep a right attitude or to wait in prayer hoping a new maturity and reflectiveness would emerge in the denomination. Some progress had been made, that was true. But each painfully slow step toward equity spanned decades. It would be easier to call it quits and establish her ministry in a more accepting denomination. If it were not for the young “daughters” who were hopefully watching her and the strong pull of the Spirit bidding her to cast her lot with this people, she would have taken her exit five years ago. Tonight, she must be content to rest in the fact that she had done the will of God as nearly as possible: she had delivered the Word of the Lord to the people of God. In this peace she must find solace from the pain. Tomorrow was time enough to think sobering thoughts and find God’s current plan for addressing the problem. Tonight the drive to the airport would be challenge enough.
By Kathy Meisner, M. Ed., M. Div., a writer and artist residing in the Nashville, Tennessee area. The vignettes were part of her thesis presented in fulfillment of the Master of Divinity, Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Bonnie Belle Jones Brannen, “Treasured Memories,” (Personal and family history, 1994), 5, identifies the Churches of God in Sulphur Springs, Hudson, Drexel, Clearwater, and Zellwood, Florida as well as other unspecified locations as works started by Lula Lee Pearce Jones. According to Bonnie Brannen (daughter of Lula Jones and a licensed minister in the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee), it should be noted that during the early decades of the twentieth century, females were not listed in denominational records as the originators of the churches they planted. These new works were credited to the state or district overseers.
Ibid. 1-8. Also, personal interview with Bonnie and Louis Brannen, February, 3, 1994. The Brannens draw attention to the fact that a five-year pastorate was considered a long term in the late 1930’s, the time period during which Lula Jones pastored at Lacoochee, Florida.
Ibid. Also see: Bonnie Belle Jones Brannen (1921- ), a video interview by Kathy (Hagan) Meisner, 1993, in which Bonnie Brannen, licensed minister and evangelist, tells her story and that of her mother Lula Lee Pearce Jones (1983-1961), evangelist and pastor. The video recording is available for public viewing at the Hal Bernard Dixon, Jr., Pentecostal Research Center, Cleveland, Tennessee.
 This account is the true story of a young seminary student who wished to remain anonymous. Names have been fictionalized to retain this anonymity.
This minister’s story is true to facts, but her name and location has been written to obtain anonymity.