By Dave Russell
The voice from Sylva’s First United Methodist Church pulpit won’t be as deep this Sunday morning, but the spiritual message will be the same.
Mary Brown, 41, will replace the retiring Dana Bunn, preaching her first sermon at 10 a.m. Sunday.
She is the first female senior pastor in the church’s 131-year history. Brown comes to First United Methodist’s pulpit from Andrews United Methodist Church, which averages about 100 attendees per week, she said. She’ll see about 50 more faces in the pews at FUMC.
Brown’s husband, Alan, is an assistant district engineer with the N.C. Department of Transportation. The couple and their two children, 8-year-old Eleanor and 6-year-old Reid, will be moving into the parsonage next to the church.
Brown was drawn to preaching at an early age.
“I got called as an elementary school student,” she said. “I remember sitting in the balcony of my home church and watching the preacher and thinking ‘I’m supposed to do that.’”
The feeling scared her.
“I was a very shy kid, not inclined to public speaking, and so it was terrifying, but the feeling was so strong, I could not ignore it,” she said. “I felt a strong connection to God and Christ at a young age.”
She became aware of the passages in the Bible that say women should not take leadership roles in the church and really wrestled with it, she said.
“My home church had never had a female pastor,” she said. “No one ever told me I could not be a female pastor, but I interpreted it that way. Methodists have been ordaining women pastors since the 1950s, so it wasn’t out of the realm for me.”
When she was 15, her church held a youth Sunday, when young people conducted the services. Someone had to deliver a sermon, and Brown “got volunteered,” she said.
“I was terrified, I was shaking my index cards, but it happened,” she said. “People responded, not just positively, but clearly they had heard the message I was trying to communicate. I had gotten the message across and I thought, ‘Well, if God is calling me to do this, maybe God will help me do it even if I think I can’t, and maybe there is some truth to this calling.’”
Brown earned a masters of Divinity at Iliff School of Theology, a graduate Methodist theological school in Denver, Colorado. She went on to earn her doctorate from Duke Divinity School.
The Wilderness Trail Ministry brought Brown to Waynesville from her home, St. Petersburg, Florida. She led mostly youth groups from churches around the Southeast on backpacking trips, using the experience on trail as a discipleship tool, she said.
“There are a lot of easy teaching points about how you overcome challenges working together as the body of Christ, learning to find joy in all situations,” she said. “It’s pretty great to get paid to backpack.”
Brown can relate to the apprehension some congregants might feel about a female pastor.
Growing up, Brown’s youth pastors had always been male.
“When we first got a female youth pastor, I wasn’t sure that I would like it, just because it would be different,” she said. “I have been very fortunate. There are a lot of women who have been treated differently in bad ways just because they are women in ministry. I’ve had a mostly positive reception.”
Female pastors are not uncommon in the Methodist faith, she said,
“I was talking to a colleague recently and she said that a funny thing for her is now talking to young people, some of whom have only known female pastors,” she said. “For them the idea of a male pastor is strange.”
Taking the pulpit as the first female in a church’s history won’t be new. It was the same in Andrews.
“My first Sunday I could almost feel a bit of apprehension, some nervousness,” she said. “I could feel a collective sigh of relief in the congregation after the service was over. If you’ve never seen a woman in that role before, it is different. Hopefully, people can sense that the Holy Spirit is working through what I am doing, that God is working through my ministry, and that’s the most important thing.”