Presbies welcome new pastor
- Published: November 5, 2009
Growing up in the farming community of Arcanum, Ohio, almost five decades ago, Doris Arnett Whitaker was surrounded by strong, church-going women who passed on to her their highest aspirations for a young girl: if she worked hard, she could grow up to be a nurse, a teacher, or a minister’s wife.
Whitaker took that advice seriously, although she’s given it a significant twist. She’s not the minister’s wife. She’s the minister.
In every church until her most recent assignment, Whitaker has found herself a trailblazer as that church’s first female pastor. In her first job after seminary, for instance, she was assigned to a small rural congregation in Farmersville.
“My presence was not universally welcomed,” Whitaker said.
But gradually, she won over the doubters.
“By the time I left, those who had been my most vocal opponents became strong supporters and were no longer afraid,” she said in a recent interview. “They found that gender had nothing to do with service to the church. And they learned that I was good at what I do.”
In recent months, Whitaker has taken on the only assignment in her career where her gender is not even an issue, as pastor of the Yellow Springs First Presybterian Church. The Presbytery of the Miami Valley, where she also serves as clerk, recommended to the congregation that she would be a good fit for the church, according to church leader Kay Riemers, who said that the Presbytery seems to have made a good decision.
“I think she’s an excellent choice for this congregation,” Riemers said. “She has a good sense of humor and an interest in progressive issues.”
Due to financial problems, the congregation has been without a pastor for a year, since interim pastor Preston Dawe’s tenure ended in fall 2008. The local Presbeterians haven’t had their own pastor for more than two years, since former pastor Angie Schenck left her job. But the congregation handled the past year’s uncertainty with creativity and persistance, and that moxie helped win her over, Whitaker said.
“Together we have a great opportunity to turn things around,” she said.
Like many congregations, the local Presbyterians face daunting challenges. The membership is both aging and declining, and has dropped from a high of more than 200 in the 1960s to less than 100, with 40 to 50 attending on Sunday, according to Whitaker. The building, constructed in 1860, has continual maintenance needs. Still, Whitaker believes that she and the congregation will be successful in addressing these issues.
First off, Whitaker hopes to create a welcoming spiritual home for both current church members and newcomers. She emphasizes that her services will be casual and open to all, regardless of status or circumstance.
“I would hope they would find a warmth and a friendly welcome, a place they can ask questions and explore, hear a word of comfort in their pain and a word of encouragement in times when they don’t know what’s coming next,” she said. “I want them to come as they are, and to be who they are. This is a place to find a welcome.”
Whitaker enjoys giving sermons, something she admits with the hesitation of someone who was raised to be the minister’s wife, not the minister. The key to giving effective sermons, she believes, is not to preach at people. Rather, in her sermons she sees herself as speaking to herself as well as to others.
“I don’t preach to tell others how to live,” she said. “I’m reminding myself how to live, and I get to invite others to be a part of it.”
Finding out that she loves to preach was a surprise. Whitaker had, in fact, as a young woman followed the traditional female path to nursing, and worked as a registered nurse in emergency room pediatrics for 15 years. Later in her career, she gave homecare to dying patients, and found that she was especially drawn to tending to her patients’ spiritual needs.
“I found myself staying on at the patients’ invitation, doing pastoral care, praying with people, listening, talking about their feelings. I found that my skills as a nurse were just part of the gifts that God had given me,” she said. “I needed to explore my other gifts.”
Whitaker began her pastoral study at the United Theological Seminary in 1989. She then took her first job in Farmersville, where she stayed for seven years. She then headed in a new direction by becoming director of admissions at the United Theological Seminary, while also serving as a part-time minister for a suburban congregation in West Carrollton.
After working for the past three years as the clerk of the Presbytery of Miami Valley without having her own congregation, Whitaker found that she missed the continuity of contact that comes with a pastoral assignment. Only one day after informing the Presbytery that she was ready for a new church, she was assigned to Yellow Springs.
“I feel it was meant to be,” she says of her new congregation.
Having lived in the Dayton area, Whitaker is well aware of the uniqueness of Yellow Springs, which she has frequently visited for shopping, walking in the Glen or dinner at the Winds. While she and her husband, Jeff, plan to continue living in their current Dayton area home, she looks forward to spending more time in the village.
Whitaker plans to be at the Yellow Springs church most of the day on Wednesdays and Sundays. While her initial contract is for a six-month tenure, she is not ruling out any possibilities.
“I’d like to stay as long as they want to have me,” she said.