Upfront: More San Antonio Congregations are Welcoming Women Leaders

Leading the Flock

Not that long ago most pastors and priests were men, and hardly anyone questioned that state of affairs. How things have changed in a few decades! Today, female clergy are active in most Christian denominations and in Reform Judaism, and more and more congregations are happy to welcome women as their head pastors and rabbis. The four women profiled below are loved by their parishioners and increasingly respected by the broader community as moral leaders.

Senior Rabbi Mara Nathan

Building a strong community

The Friday night service at Temple Beth-El on Feb. 5 was a little different from the usual Friday worship. Dubbed “Interfaith Shabbat with the Pursuit of Harmony,” the evening featured the unique music duo, the Pursuit of Harmony, which consists of the Jewish-American musician/songwriter Michael Ochs and Palestinian-Muslim songwriter/commentator Alaa Alshaham. The two met in 2009 in Ramallah in the West Bank and have since teamed up to become ambassadors of hope through music. At Beth-El, they sang in Hebrew, Arabic and English, with Alshaham starting off with a hymn that the congregation clearly knew and sang with him. The music was stirring and truly soulful even for someone like me who doesn’t understand either Hebrew or Arabic.
When senior rabbi, Mara Nathan, addressed the worshippers, she opened with an invitation to listen. “Tonight is the perfect night for conversation. Yes, for talking, but more importantly for listening,” she said. Then quoting the Torah, she went on to explain how listening and doing are interconnected and how listening is not enough. “Hearing is not hearing when there is no doing. So tonight we get to hear, but we also get to do,” she went on. “We’ll be hearing the wonderful music and stories of Michael and Alaa, and in doing so we won’t just be talking about creating deeper understanding between Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians. We’ll be doing it … so join us on this music Shabbos journey, in pursuit of Shabbos joy and peace.” And the congregation did, wholeheartedly, giving Ochs and Alshaham a big hand of applause at the end.
“Jewish-Muslim dialogue is essential at this moment,” notes the rabbi when we meet separately for the interview. “The Pursuit of Harmony presented to us a constructive way to be exposed to it. This is an opportunity for real sharing. Some members may not be happy, but it is my job as a rabbi to push people out of their comfort zone — gently. It’s good to broaden your truth.”
Nathan took the helm of the largest and oldest Jewish synagogue in town in July 2014, the first woman senior rabbi in the temple’s 142-year history. She is now part of an all-female clergy trio that includes associate rabbi Marina Yergin and cantor Julie Berlin. When she visited San Antonio prior to her appointment as leader of the 1,000-family strong congregation, Nathan was immediately impressed by the mission, history and welcoming attitude of the people she met here. After almost 20 years at Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, N.Y. – 14 as associate rabbi – she was ready to move on. Central to her vision for Temple Beth-El is a commitment to increasing the strength and vitality of the congregation.
“As a large and the only Reform congregation in town, we want to be as broad-based as possible,” she says. “For me, it’s all about building community. I want people to know that they have a Jewish home here, a place that can fulfill their social and spiritual needs, where they can make connections with others and connect to something that has a greater purpose. I want to make sure that the things we offer are meaningful for people to understand what their religion is all about and why they should be committed to it.”
In her sermons she emphasizes community and the reaching out to others. “Humans have a need to feel known and recognized,” she observes. “We should train ourselves to be kinder and gracious people. I remind my congregants of that. We should strive to see the godliness in each person.”
And that includes the larger San Antonio community. It pleases the rabbi — who among other degrees has a B.A. in history — that Temple Beth-El has chosen to stay in its historic home in the city rather than move to “loopland” neighborhoods like other groups. The synagogue is known for its charitable and social justice activities as well as its participation in interfaith projects. Nathan recently spearheaded a visit to the Antioch Baptist Church in honor of MLK Day. A large group of her congregants joined the Baptist Sunday worship. Last year, Beth-El hosted a city-wide MLK Day service for people of different faiths. “I hope we will build upon that and start building a real community,” says the rabbi.
Nathan has also reorganized worship at the temple and changed the donation system from dues to open-ended voluntary pledges to encourage generosity. And she loves teaching both youngsters and adults. But when asked what is the most rewarding for her personally, she returns promptly to the experience of a community sharing life and faith. “What I enjoy most is seeing people enjoying being together,” she reiterates, then recalls a specific event that spoke to her heart. Because her husband works as the director of advancement for the Union of Reform Judaism Greene Family Camp, the Nathans hosted a meet-and-greet party at their house for the Beth-El families sending their kids to camp. “I looked at all the kids in the yard playing together and running in and out to get snacks, and at their parents chatting happily, and it made me feel peaceful and proud that we are together as a community. It gave me hope that Judaism will continue forth with the new generation.”

Elizabeth Knowlton
Rev. Elizabeth Knowlton

Committed to feeding the hungry, literally and spiritually

Downtown San Antonio is home to a number of beautiful old churches but one that has always attracted my attention is St. Mark’s Episcopal Church across the street from Travis Park. Designed by the top church architect in the U.S. at the time, Richard Upjohn, and completed in 1875, the building, sanctuary and the entire complex are inviting and still somehow intimate despite expansions, changes and the bustling city that surrounds them. The St. Mark’s parish, which predates the building by 17 years, has had a prominent role in San Antonio for 150-plus years led by a long succession of rectors – all of them men. That record was broken in the summer of 2014 when the Rev. Elizabeth Knowlton accepted the job as the new pastor of the still thriving congregation.
On a recent Sunday, the church was pleasantly humming with voices of all ages during, and between, two Sunday services. For Knowlton, being part of the new downtown momentum is an exciting opportunity. “With all the transformations in town and a lot of young people moving downtown, the church is ready to become more of a presence in the city,” she says. “People from all over come here to worship. We have diverse political and even religious beliefs, though all within the Christian framework, of course, and that is attractive to me.”
What is also attractive to her is St. Mark’s mission to “feed the hungry with real food, feed those who are hungry for knowledge and meaning, and feed those who are hungry for beauty and creativity.”
To get a sense of the diversity of her parishioners, she spent the first year as a rector meeting with small groups of people in homes to listen to their concerns and expectations and for them to get to know her. After years of focusing on facility renovations, she learned that members were eager to establish small group ministries, family outreach initiatives and education programs for all ages. People also expressed interest in developing arts programs beyond the already well-established one in music. (The church has several choirs with more than 110 singers.) In addition, a number of artist members wanted to explore the intersection of art and faith. As a result, there have been exhibits and workshops held by artists at the church, and the music program offers concerts that are free to the public both at St. Mark’s and in other community venues. In addition, community groups have been invited to use the church’s facilities. “We want to be a place of hospitality,” says the rector. “St. Mark’s is ‘in growth-mode;’ there’s a lot of energy here.” she adds.
That her parishioners love and respect her was evident to me from a number of conversations I had with various members, some of whom I’ve known for some time. One woman I started chatting with in the narthex praised the rector’s pastoral skills while proudly pointing out that Knowlton also could handle the administrative side very competently. Indeed. Before being called to priesthood, Knowlton worked for 10 years as a budget analyst at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
That’s not the only unusual part of her background. Raised as a Quaker, she converted to the Episcopal faith during her university years. Though Quakers’ belief that God is available to everyone appeals to her, their meetings often consisted of sitting together in silence, something young Elizabeth found rather difficult to endure. Following a study project in the Near East at the St. George (Anglican) College in Jerusalem, she started exploring the Episcopal experience, eventually becoming an Episcopalian while getting a degree in public policy at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. “I connected with the entire worship, the rhythm of the liturgy, the music, the Scripture readings. The sacramental aspects resonated with me,” she explains. Years later, married and a mother of two, Knowlton heard the call to serve. “Giving birth led me to a deeper sense of spirituality. I had already been very active in the community, but now I felt I wanted to be with people to help them through all the transitional moments of their lives,” she notes. “And in seminary I developed a passion for teaching theology.”
Today, Beth – as most parishioners call her — loves all aspects of her current job, from liturgical duties to balancing the budget. So how does she replenish her own spiritual batteries? we ask. A regular prayer practice helps, but to really feed her soul she periodically leaves everything behind to spend a week at a prayer retreat in nearly complete silence. “When I am there, I can just connect with God as a child of God,” says the pastor. “The more I stay grounded in my own faith, the more I am able to juggle everything.”

Marie Priestley
Rev. Marie Priestley

A life guided by the Holy Spirit

The Rose of Sharon Ministries, a Pentecostal church founded by Royce and Marie Priestly in 2001, is now located in far Southeast San Antonio on a quiet street named Bible St. So naturally, a lot of people want to know how the street got its name. Pastor Marie Priestly laughs when we ask the same question. The church had nothing to do with the name, she explains. The street was named well before her congregation decided to settle in a relatively modest building here, which they are in the process of buying with plans to renovate and adapt. The ministry that started with seven people gathered at the Priestlys’ home has grown to 250 members over the years. Though it doesn’t yet look like a church from the outside, the new location has a cozy sanctuary and an adjacent wing, at present shared with a Town East Christian school. “We are a small family church. Parishioners can call us anytime, they can talk to us, touch us. We don’t keep a distance. We are here for the people, and people need their pastors,” she says.
For Priestly who grew up as a Presbyterian in Massachusetts, it has been a long road of self-discovery to get to where she is now. When she was only 8 years old, her father died in a fire, leaving her mother to rear eight children by herself. “Times were hard. We depended on the government for the monthly check and on the church and the government for food,” she recalls. Despite hardships, however, the young woman did well in school, eventually earning a degree in education from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and embarking on a long and fulfilling career as a teacher. Having experienced deprivation herself, she often went beyond the call of duty by bringing snacks for students who did not get breakfast at home because she knew that hungry children were not going to do well in class. “My heart was with those kids; I really related to them,” she notes. “That’s why I taught school for so long (1977-2012).”
A single mother of two boys, Priestly moved to San Antonio in 1989, where one of her brothers lived “because (she) needed a change.” Early on, she taught in the Project L.E.A.D.-High Expectations, a mentoring program for African-American at-risk youths, designed to “open the eyes of the students to the world beyond the projects.” She later resumed a school career in the Seguin and Judson ISDs.
Priestly was first introduced to the Pentecostal tradition in 1978 by a former classmate during a class reunion. “She said to me what I say to people today: ‘God is a good God. If you ask for forgiveness, he will forgive you.’” Feeling in need of forgiveness herself, she decided to give it a try. “I really took it all in,” says the pastor, who was eventually re-baptized with the Holy Spirit, an experience Pentecostals consider central to having a personal relationship with the Creator. Her favorite Scripture verse is Acts 2:38, where the apostle Peter says: “Repent and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The next verse goes on to say that God’s promise is for those who receive the Holy Spirit and for their children. Priestly admits that she was thinking about her own kids. “That’s what got me, the promise that God will take care of my children,” she says.
Years later, Marie met Royce Priestly, a former Air Force senior master sergeant and an elder at a local Pentecostal church. They married in 2000, when Marie was 49; her first marriage, she points out. Though actively involved in the Rose of Sharon Ministries from the start, teaching Sunday school, starting a prayer ministry and generally helping, she did not dare to preach. One day in Austin,however, as the Priestlys took part in a clergy dinner organized by former governor Rick Perry, the Holy Spirit spoke to her, inviting her to become his messenger. This was a dream come true.
She was eventually ordained in 2005 by the Pentecostal Fellowship Churches, the umbrella organization with which that Rose of Sharon is affiliated.
A few years later, Priestly also earned a master’s and a Ph.D. degree in Christian counseling from the Guadalupe Baptist Theological Seminary and practices under the name of Royal Priesthood Christian Counseling & Academy. The latter refers to her online teaching of aspiring counselors. Parishioners do not get charged for her services and even outsiders who cannot afford the fee are never turned away. They pay what they can.
To better serve both her clients and her parishioners, she prays regularly and strives to keep her mind “in a state of tranquility. If somebody calls me after being in an accident or someone dies in the family, or there’s some other type of crisis, I have to be ready to help them,” she says. “I can’t refuse anyone. I am in the business of helping people. So I ask God every morning to guide my steps.”

Kelly Allen
Rev. Kelly Allen

Social justice is central to her service 

The Rev. Kelly Allen of University Presbyterian Church and about ten of her parishioners are standing outside on the patio where they have just spent an hour discussing the meaning of Sabbath in our busy American lives. In her opening prayer, Allen invoked God’s commandment “to light the lights of Sabbath” adding that “a Sabbath heart is what happens in us when we make room for God in life … Let us make room now for God in our lives.”
In the casual conversation that follows, participants admit that it is hard to implement the essence of the commandment in today’s world, while also describing their personal efforts to incorporate contemplative time into their days and unstructured periods with their families. “Isn’t it strange that people think that just sitting quietly with their kids is strange,” says the pastor.
After it becomes established that I am here to interview their pastor, church member Larry Adamson volunteers that “Kelly is a wonderful leader. She has a tremendous mind; she can do multiple things and do them all well.” To which Allen quips: “Write that down!”
From the easy, cordial interaction in the group, it’s clear that these parishioners like and admire their minister, and she enjoys talking to them. The senior pastor since 2009, Allen says she was attracted to University Presbyterian largely due to its SoL Center, an education program for adults with a strong interfaith and social justice bend. She had just spent two years at the University of Birmingham in England studying about other religions and the use of religious practices in conflict resolution around the world, and felt “this would be a church where I can use my new knowledge and practice leadership on interfaith issues.” She has certainly done that and a great deal more.
Years ago, Allen had already decided that shunning other religious traditions is impoverishing. “I want my life to be about following Jesus, but part of that is to honor the faiths of others,” she observes. “I strive to convince other Christians that it’s not an either/or proposition. I have grown a lot from interacting with people of other faiths. It’s now part of my identity as a Christian and as a religious leader.”
Another thing that she tries to do is convince unchurched people that to be part of a religious tradition is worthwhile. Some folks have been wounded by their religious experiences, and it’s important to acknowledge that, explains Allen whose church welcomes everyone. What people need to hear the most is that they belong to a loving God. “That’s their deepest identity. As Paul said, ‘In life and in death we belong to God.’ To be committed to that takes a lot of work, but it allows you to live a life of compassion and work for justice for your neighbors,” she explains.
In keeping with her beliefs, Allen initiated a jail ministry, focusing on inmates who receive the least attention from the outside. As a consequence, her parishioners have become “sensitized” to issues of criminal justice. They have also become more involved in social justice. Thanks to a mentoring program that the church has with Beacon Hill Elementary School nearby, congregants have learned about the role of poverty in these kids’ lives and have been helping the school in a number of ways. “It’s important to make a connection between policies and the personal stories of people affected by them,” points out the pastor. “Churches have traditionally focused on charity but have shied away from being advocates for public policy changes. This church is committed to championing policy changes.”
Thankfully, the church leaders have allowed her to spend some of her time on these “public issues,” including one that seems to be very close to her heart – the treatment of immigrant women and children who recently crossed our southern border in substantial numbers. Upon coming here, Allen promptly created and chaired a task force on immigration for the Mission Presbytery, aiming to educate the regional leaders on illegal immigration issues. More recently, she spearheaded the local Interfaith Welcome Coalition, which she also chairs. The group provides material necessities for the Central Americans in detention facilities and advocates against detention of children.
A former Methodist, Allen is married to a science teacher and has two children. She was ordained in 1992 and served two congregations in Missouri and a small church in England before coming to San Antonio. Like Knowlton, she is energized by the variety of her tasks. And she is happy that churches have opened their doors to female leaders: “It’s wonderful that both men’s and women’s gifts for ministry have been recognized. It’s brought fuller leadership to the church as a whole.”


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