Religion

1st female pastor rounds out team

On Sunday, Davidson College Presbyterian Church installed its first female pastor in the church's 171-year history.

Just as noteworthy: The Rev. Lib McGregor Simmons, 55, will join three associate pastors who are women, making "DCPC" what's believed to be the only large church in Mecklenburg County with an all-female ministerial leadership team of such size.

Presbyterians have been ordaining women since 1959. But what still sometimes happens, Simmons said Sunday, is that, if there's already a woman serving as associate pastor, congregations and their search committees looking for a new pastor will "call," or hire, a male candidate for the top job.

"It's a very bold thing what this ... congregation did," Simmons said of the decision to call a woman to lead a clergy staff that already had three ordained women.

George Thompson, superintendent of the Charlotte district of the United Methodist Church, agreed, saying his denomination has nothing comparable in Charlotte.

"Pretty daring," he said of DCPC's decision.

Members of the search committee said Simmons was the best choice -- male or female -- among the 300-plus candidates they considered over the past year. About one-third of the denomination's active clergy are women.

"We talked a lot about balance on our staff, but we felt gender (considerations) should not be a determining factor," said Martin Kerr, a committee member who works in real estate and construction in Davidson. The group, he said, was swayed by Simmons' "immediate ability to establish rapport, her outstanding preaching, and her creative leadership style."

Simmons, who grew up in Hopkins, S.C., succeeds the Rev. Allen Brindisi, who died in September 2006. Her last post was pastor at University Presbyterian in San Antonio, where membership grew 76 percent during her tenure.

She gave her first sermon at 1,320-member Davidson College Presbyterian on May 4. Her hiring was approved by the Presbytery of Charlotte last week, setting the stage for her installment Sunday.

The traditional service included choir-led hymn singing, a parade of berobed speakers, even the bestowing of a gift -- a handbag big enough to carry a Bible -- by a delegation from a sister Presbyterian church in Kenya.

Among those joining in the celebratory service: The church's three associate pastors.

The Rev. Julie Hill, 48, called worshippers to recite a prayer of confession. The Rev. Shelli Latham, 34, read Psalm 33, the day's Old Testament lesson. And the Rev. Kathy Beach-Verhey, 37, used the 10 letters of the new pastor's name -- LIB SIMMONS -- to offer a "Top 10" list, David Letterman-style, on how DCPC's congregation can help its new pastor.

"No. 10: LISTEN to Lib's sermons ... No. 5: MONDAYS. They are Lib's day's off ... And No. 1: SIMPLY pray for her and with her."

After the service, Simmons said one of her challenges as pastor will be to "build on the history and tradition of the church."

Like adjacent Davidson College, the church was founded in 1837 by Presbyterians. Over the years, it's been the spiritual home to many of the college's presidents, faculty and students.

Though membership in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination, continues to steadily decline, the size of the congregation at DCPC has grown 37 percent in the past decade. It's now the country's 14th largest Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation.

And now, it's also one of only three Presbyterian churches in the country with four ordained women ministers. The others: Seattle First Presbyterian and Fourth Presbyterian of Chicago.

Latham said she and the other associate pastors are still in the "getting-to-know-you stage" with the new pastor. So, Simmons can probably look forward to some lunches with her three colleagues.

Their favorite place: Bonsai, the sushi place right across the street.

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