Pauline Stewart, a Woman of the Cloth

Pauline Stewart, a Woman of the Cloth


NO ORDINARY MINISTER: Rev Pauline Stewart, left, is determined to avoid becoming “terminally nice”.

Reverend Pauline Stewart has been the minister at St Heliers Presbyterian church for four years — ably assisted part-time by her husband Stan, who is also a minister but, at age 70, is poised for retirement.

Yet despite the fact she is a well- respected and long-serving minister, sometimes Stewart’s gender gets in the way of her calling. “Even for people who love me and are part of my ministry, some families say: “Oh, Pauline, when I die could I have Stan because I want a man minister”, she says. “In some situations, in some segments of our society, a man is seen as a ‘proper’ minister. I get over that because if I let that hurt me I could become bitter and twisted and I don’t want to be.”

Stewart may not always be in demand to officiate at funerals but her gender was only a minor issue when she was democratically elected to her current position. One lone parishioner voted against St Heliers Presbyterian having its first female minister on the basis of sex discrimination. “I guess that person left. I don’t know who that was”, she says.

With freshly blow-waved hair, gold hoop earrings, red lipstick and high heels, 55-year-old Stewart isn’t your traditional religious leader. She refers to one of her ceremonial stoles as “my bling”, she survived cancer in her mid-40s and her adult son became a Muslim for his Javanese wife. Stewart is the modern face of ministry — razor sharp, enthusiastic, tolerant and determined to avoid becoming “terminally nice”, as is the wont of some women ministers.

Today, women are being ordained and leading congregations in unprecedented numbers. New Zealand’s first woman Presbyterian minister was ordained in 1965 and at last count, 60 out of the country’s 299 Presbyterian ministers were women. Almost 30 per cent of the 97 Methodist ministers are women; the first female Methodist minister was ordained in 1959. Last year, five of the nine Anglican priests graduating from Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership were women. And although the Anglican church in New Zealand didn’t ordain women until 1977, it appointed the world’s first female Anglican Diocesan bishop when Penny Jamieson was consecrated in 1990.

So how is the proliferation of women ministers affecting the face of the various churches? The reverends and rabbi Canvas spoke to all believe they bring a high level of inclusivity, hands-on pragmatism and talent for multi-tasking to their respective churches or synagogue. And although, by and large, they reject glib gender stereotyping it seems they do naturally embody the nurturing characteristics.

Yet empathy can be a two-edged sword in the ministry. While it’s a benefit to e able to relate easily and compassionately to the frailties of the congregation, a female minister especially must also try not to become too caught up in their woes, according to Stewart.

If you become emotional, they’ll say it’s because you’re a woman,” she says. “If a man cries or something, that’s okay, but a woman must never cry. I try to do it with the door closed. Once, when I buried a boy, a little boy… I closed the door in between the funeral and outside the church and bawled my eyes out.”

It seems to be a case of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t. While a high degree of sentimentality is roundly frowned upon, Stewart has identified a male contingent frequently present within church hierarchies who’d like their female minister to display helplessness.


Rev Pauline Stewart

“The men who are very prominent in the church often want the woman minister to be a needy person. They need you to be needy — or to be girlish. Well, I can’t be that,” she says. “They’re good men and they’re egalitarian, they’re generous, but they want to save people. And I don’t want to be saved.”

This staunchness has served-her well all her life, even as a young girl growing up in Caboolture, Queensland. It’s the attitude that led her to regularly worship although her parents weren’t church-goers. From age 4, a neighbour — an older man, a bachelor and “totally honourable” — took her to church every Sunday. She recalls being struck by the sheer peacefulness of the services and soon was asked to help hand out hymn books. By the age of 10 she was organising church fundraising events and thoroughly seduced by the feeling of usefulness imbued by the church community.

Stewart believes her gender can work for her in her role as minister and gives the example of being able to meet privately with female members of the congregation with impunity. Now, for a male minister there’d be some difficult pastoral situations, you know visiting a woman. Whereas a woman [minister] has more freedom,” she says. “There have been so many litigations where our ministers haven’t done the right thing. Now they’re very nervous about visiting a woman in their house on their own. So I have more freedom. I have less worries and society is less harsh on me.”

She subscribes to the view that the gathering presence of women ministers has brought a positive accessibility and vulnerability to the church. “Women have made the church softer and more open. We’d like to think men are just as caring — they are in their heart — but I think the way we can demonstrate it and model it, it’s easier for us,” she says. “I have some wonderful friends who are women ministers … and some women ministers I don’t think have a high regard for me.” Why? “Because I’m a bit too aggressive, maybe. I probably should not wear high heels or something.”


Weekend Herald, February 7, 2009 

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