The sisterhood of the traveling stole

The safe space of CREDO encourages honest conversations that build deep bonds of friendship and caring. 

Revs. Katy Walters, Keatan King, Hannah McIntyre, Ridgley Beckett Joyner, and Tricia Petraven, and the sisterhood stole, reverse side, inscribed with blessings

“We’re all looking for bread for the journey,” said the Reverend Keatan King, Associate Pastor at St. Philip Presbyterian Church, Houston. “CREDO gives you that.”

Rev. King was among 16 women at the CREDO conference for recently ordained pastors in Canton, North Carolina, September 11-17, 2018. “CREDO conferences are intended to be relational, and this conference certainly was,” said the Reverend Dr. José Irizarry, Vice President, Education, for the Board of Pensions, CREDO’s sponsor.

Presbyterian CREDO conferences are known throughout the Church for providing unparalleled opportunities for personal renewal and growth while also alleviating the isolation and loneliness clergy sometimes feel. CREDO promotes deep and meaningful relationships among pastors who attend the same conference. Recently ordained pastors attend two seven-day conferences, a year apart.

Fifty-five percent of the Canton group was female, and in the crucible of their second year of CREDO together, they forged what they call a sisterhood. Inspired by the book The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, they created a stole to travel from one pastor to the next, each wearing it like an embrace. After her turn wearing the stole, the pastor would write a blessing, in permanent marker, on the reverse side before sending it on.

“After the deaths of two people — giants in the community — whose funerals affected me deeply, I received the stole,” said the Reverend Hannah McIntyre, Associate Pastor, the Presbyterian Church of Danville, Kentucky. “I sat down and read all the messages. When I put the stole on, something flooded over me. I knew my sisters in faith were with me.”

Such deep bonds of friendship and caring arise when people share their inmost thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and the safe space of CREDO encourages the honest conversations that build those bonds.

A severing moment

At the Canton CREDO, the 29 participants were asked to split into two groups: solo and head pastors, over here; associate pastors, over there. As they sorted themselves by role, the pastors were startled to see that they were also dividing by gender. All but five of the solo and senior pastors were male; all but one of the associate pastors was female. Of the five women in the solo and senior pastor group, two were interim pastors and two were part-time solo pastors. Since the entire cohort had been ordained in the previous five years, their skills and experience were comparable.

“It was a kind of severing moment,” said the Reverend Tricia Petraven, Transitional Pastor at Seville Presbyterian Church, Seville, Ohio. “It was very uncomfortable, but that moment also brought us together,” she said of the female pastors, who used their group time, and free time, to talk, share stories, and unpack their feelings.

“… we could acknowledge that the Church hasn’t always valued female voices.”

— Rev. Katy Walters

“We talked about the particular challenges of being a woman in ministry, of having our authority challenged,” said Rev. King. “It was a big conversation.”

“In the safe space of CREDO, we could acknowledge that the Church hasn’t always valued female voices,” said the Reverend Kathryn “Katy” Walters, Associate Pastor at New Braunfels Presbyterian Church, New Braunfels, Texas.

The pastors’ concerns about gender disparity in job roles — as well as in compensation and access to benefits — are validated by data in Living by the Gospel, the Board of Pensions guide to structuring ministers’ calls. The guide shows a clear distinction between average salaries for men and women across all pastoral positions and congregation sizes.

A real-world encounter

Rev. McIntyre shared a story that illustrates the resistance female pastors sometimes face beyond the church door: After officiating a funeral and wearing her clergy collar, she walked into the gas station next door to her church. The cashier looked at her quizzically, pointed to his neck, and asked if she were a Catholic priest. No, she said, and explained her role. He shook his head in disbelief and demanded, “How can you be clergy when you’re a woman?”

Asked if she has experienced discrimination in her home church, she said, “No! — Not in my congregation. Our head of staff is female; we had a female interim. I’m grateful we had a forward-thinking PNC.”

“How can you be clergy when you’re a woman?”

— Gas station cashier, Danville, KY

Even if a female pastor is fairly compensated and well respected by a congregation, when she sees a pattern of discrimination across the denomination she is affected. Ministry can be hard, several of the pastors said — and “there are additional challenges that come with being a woman in ministry,” said the Reverend Ridgley Beckett Joyner, Associate Pastor, St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Devon, Pennsylvania.

Healing moments

After the pastors shared feelings of loneliness, anger, and grief, moments of healing began. “We gave thanks to God for our calls to ministry and acknowledged that God didn’t make a mistake,” said Rev. Walters. “We saw gifts in each other that you can’t name or that scare you. It was a powerful moment of sisterhood.”

The pastors asked themselves how they could best support one another, and that was the turning point. They decided to express their love in a tangible way. Rev. King suggested they make a stole and pass it among themselves when they went back to their home churches.

Rev. Petraven had read The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and loved the idea. “We’re gonna do it!” she said. As soon as she got home, Rev. Petraven sewed the stole “in what seemed like record time,” Rev. Walters said. She added a sign-up sheet to the group’s private Facebook page and encouraged the Canton CREDO pastors to sign up to receive the stole and share other kinds of support.

“Tricia is a genius at creative work,” Rev. King said. “She attached a friendship bracelet that Katy had made at CREDO, placing it so it sits over the heart when we wear the stole.”

Revs. Petraven, Walters, and King were the first to wear the stole and sign their blessings on the back. “I felt magically uplifted when I wore it,” Rev. Walters said.

Part of the change

The caring and healing the women experienced at CREDO renews when each pastor receives the traveling stole. “Having that support system means a lot to me,” Rev. Joyner said. “These women truly inspire me.”

Rev. Joyner used her time with the stole as a teaching opportunity for her congregation. She explained its significance when she preached in it one Sunday. “I’m one of the first ordained women ministers at St. John’s,” Rev. Joyner told her parishioners, “so we ― you and I ― are part of the change.”

Rev. Petraven, for her part, is in her second interim position and loves it. She worried that she might be letting down her sisters in the Church by not seeking a called and installed position ― that is, until one of her parishioners told Rev. Petraven she had changed her mind about having a woman pastor since she arrived. “You’ve brought a lot of spiritual depth to our church in a short time, and I can relate to you so easily. Maybe we should hire a woman for our next pastor,” she said.

God gave Rev. Petraven a gift for transitional work, she now realizes, and she “can use that gift and still be part of the change. I get to be a positive influence for the appreciation of female pastors just by being a good one in every church I serve as an interim,” she said.

As she paves the way for other women in ministry, she will again proudly wear the sisterhood stole the next time it travels her way.