Meet female pastors and ordained women in Northwest Florida as they share what first inspired them to enter the clergy, how they see their role in ministry and what it looks like to be a female pastor.
Editor’s note: This is the fourth part in a series of stories where women in ministry share their experiences. Look for Part 5 in the Feb. 22 Faith section of the Northwest Florida Daily News.
SHALIMAR — Bethel Bateson will break bread with anyone.
When she sits down for an interview, she reaches into a box, whips out a Ziploc bag and plops a thick mound of homemade bread on the desk between us. It tastes good toasted, she says.
Bateson, the chaplain at the Air Force Enlisted Village in Shalimar, started baking as a child with her grandmother.
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"She was legally blind, but baking is something you do with your hands," Bateson said. "Nothin’ says lovin’ like something from the oven."
On the brink of turning 70 and now a grandmother herself, Bateson continues to bake for residents at the independent living community.
Bateson – as expected from her generosity – is sweeter than pie, but also lively, forthcoming and magnetic. It’s no surprise that Bateson, through a congregational vote, became the first female chaplain at the Air Force Enlisted Village, a nonprofit composed of Bob Hope Village, an independent living community, and Hawthorn House, an assisted living and memory support residence on the same campus.
Bateson started at the Village two years ago while on the hunt for somewhere to serve. It’s a good place to minister, she said.
"People of all backgrounds are here," Bateson said. "There are people who live here who were born in Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Germany, England. You look out at the faces in the congregation, and it is a wonderful gathering of people. It’s filled a need for me.
I’m unashamed to say I have a need to be needed."
Bateson’s need to be needed started while she was on an excavation in Southern Italy for the University of Texas in Austin. She was studying for her doctorate in classical studies – Latin, Greek and all that, she said.
At the time, she was in the location where filmmakers shot the Crucifixion of Jesus for the 2004 movie "Passion of the Christ." It was there where she stumbled onto a scene that propelled her into ministry. She saw sheep huddled around a shepherd as he reassured them, which reminded her of the imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
"It redirected my thoughts, so I realized what I was doing was good and fine, but it wasn’t relational," Bateson said. "I was digging up dead stuff. And it was not going to change anyone’s life. As soon as I returned from the excavation, I turned in my resignation with the department head and headed up to Ohio to enroll in the seminary. But they were starting classes in two weeks and I hadn’t applied."
With recommendation letters, Bateson was accepted and graduated from the Lutheran Theological Seminary, now called Trinity. She met her husband, John, there, a fellow seminary student and talented pipe organ player.
Entering ministry wasn’t as unexpected as it sounds. Bateson was the youngest of six children in a religious family. Her mother, Nelle, was the women’s editor for a Lutheran magazine and led Bible studies, and her father, Raymond, was devout, she said.
Church wasn’t a one-day-a-week ordeal for their family.
"We had what we called family worship every night," Bateson said. "It was so much a part of our lives, and it was never heavy-handed; it was authentic. What they professed, they lived. It was a very authentic Christianity."
Preaching, teaching and visitation are Bateson’s passions, she said. She was called into ministry.
"Initially (my parents) weren’t in favor of women in the ministry, but they never opposed me," Bateson said. "They always prayed for me. They wanted God’s will for my life. Both parents then became very supportive."
Bateson isn’t blind to the irony that she has come full circle.
After attending seminary, she wasn’t ordained right away. Instead, Bateson served as a lay minister for 15 years at a long-term care facility in Ohio with retired folks – not unlike at the Air Force Enlisted Village today.
She still preached almost every Sunday and was allowed to preside over the community in a pastoral capacity, barring anything legal, such as presiding over a marriage.
"Usually an internship is one year; Mine was 15," Bateson said. "But I learned so much by being there. I learned the importance of visitation, of being there for people, of literally being present with people, coming to where they live, looking at the pictures on their walls, asking them about their lives and their history and listening."
It was a wonderful experience – for the most part, she said.
"The only sad part is, I saw the people there more than my own family," Bateson said. "And they would die. One year, we had 60 deaths, and I knew every single person. They weren’t untimely deaths, but they were still a loss. These were people I cared about and they cared about me."
When a door opened for a career in true pastoral ministry, Bateson burst through it like a horse racing in the Kentucky Derby, she said with a huge grin. Serving the church as its pastor meant she didn’t go to the hospital just for crises, but for births, too, she said.
"My first church was in Fairfield County, Ohio – a three-point rural parish," Bateson said. "No indoor plumbing or telephone in two of the three churches. They were 43 miles from where I lived."
With her two children, Rebecca and Benjamin, along for the ride, Bateson left at 6 a.m. to pastor and came home at 6 p.m.
"They loved it," Bateson said. "They really did. We have very fond memories of those three rural churches. They all grew, and they hadn’t had full-time ministry in 50 years because they couldn’t afford it. I was willing to serve for less."
Over the next 30 years, Bateson preached at 150 different Lutheran churches in Ohio, many rural churches and some inner city ministry, too, she said. She impacted many lives, but fondly remembers one.
Bateson met Michael Smith while serving in Steubenville, Ohio. He was her daughter’s age, and they were in confirmation classes together.
"He was a red-haired thing and a little rascal sometimes when he was a little boy," Bateson said. "But he was a wonderful Marine and he was so proud to be a Marine. He was so strong, but he really believed and he really lived his faith."
Smith joined the U.S. Marine Corps before Sept. 11, 2001. After the terrorist attack, he knew he would go to Iraq. He came to a service while on leave before being deployed.
"It was a Communion Sunday and the whole congregation gathered around him and had him surrounded and we prayed, ‘God be with you until we meet again,’" Bateson said. "He was killed in Iraq. It was the hardest funeral I ever did."
Smith called Bateson from Iraq just days before he died to tell her that he and his wife were expecting a baby.
"I got to confirm him, do his wedding, funeral and the baptism of his child after his death," Bateson said. "That touched me deeply. I really loved that young man and respected him so much."
It was hard, but Bateson didn’t break.
"If you don’t have a perspective on eternity, it would be crushing," Bateson said. "Because of Christ’s resurrection and his promises, I believe that. It makes it all bearable. We have hope. A lot of reunions I have to look forward to."
’God showed up’
Bateson hasn’t had tremendous struggle over people accepting her leadership as a woman – at least not after she proves herself, she said. Which, she always has.
"There were people here of Baptist background – this is the first female pastor they’ve probably ever had," Bateson said. "For the most part, they’ve embraced me. There’s a gentleman who wasn’t sure … a month or two into it, he put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘There’s my pastor.’ That warmed my heart more than anything else."
Bateson loves working at the Air Force Enlisted Village because the residents are so involved. They volunteer in the worship services as greeters, ushers, lectors, acolytes, sound system operators and musicians. They have even started a drama group that will present a play on Palm Sunday, she said.
Bateson points out that the Village has female residents.
"We have women veterans who live here, and they should receive honor as well – maybe even special honor," Bateson said. "They would’ve been a very small minority in their era."
Bateson can’t speak to what it’s like being the first female chaplain or a female pastor; it’s all she has ever known. She doesn’t feel the need to ask questions. It’s her calling.
"I don’t think anyone should enter it to break some sort of glass ceiling or be a pioneer," Bateson said. "I think a person should enter it if that’s they’re calling and to be humble and to be willing to be a servant. Servanthood is more important than leadership – in my life it has been."
When Bateson hears someone is going through something, she wants to be there, she said. It feels right.
"When the pastor shows up when you’re in crisis, people have a sense that God showed up," Bateson said. "Obviously, God’s there. He’s always there for them. But when the pastor comes and is standing at your bedside or the emergency room or wherever you are and that person takes your hand and prays with you, there’s that reassurance that God knows exactly where they are and what they’re going through.
"I think that’s one of the best ministries I can have."