May 11, 2014 Updated: May 12, 2014 at 9:37 am
Patti Agnew's first appointment as a Methodist pastor was in Holly, a prairie town near the Kansas border, population about 900.
The year was 1994 and Agnew was 30, recently married and a fresh seminary graduate from Los Angeles. She was the first female pastor ever tapped to lead the trio of small, rural congregations in Holly, Bristol and Granada. Her youth and gender initially spurred curiosity and a few questions, but the novelty was short-lived. Agnew quickly was embraced by her new flock.
Two months after taking the pulpit, though, another twist: Agnew discovered she was pregnant.
"Of course, they'd never had a pregnant pastor before because they'd never had a female pastor before," said Agnew, whose regional supervisor within the United Methodist Church expressed reservations when she revealed the news. "He seemed concerned because I had just started in a new position."
Agnew continued to preach throughout her pregnancy, up to the week before she gave birth to her daughter. She went into labor on a Saturday evening and was admitted to the hospital, where complications developed.
"That night, my husband called someone from the church to let them know, and they prayed," Agnew said. "She (Amanda) was born during the middle of the (next day's) worship service. One of the ushers took the call and went into the sanctuary and yelled, 'It's a girl, it's a girl!' The account was that everyone started cheering."
As things turned out, the supervisor's concerns were unfounded. The experience galvanized the congregation and brought new meaning to the concept of "church family," Agnew said.
"They fell in love with Baby Amanda. They still think of her as their own kid," said Agnew, who since that first appointment has served at churches in Broomfield and Aurora. "That helped me bond with the congregation quicker and deeper than would have been otherwise possible."
Agnew's experiences as a mother have brought new context to her sermons and opened windows into her own relationship with God. She sometimes weaves stories from her domestic life into her sermons to illustrate greater biblical lessons.
"When Amanda was a toddler, she was very independent and would constantly say to me, 'I do it!' As a mom, I had to step back and let her discover for herself if she could do something. If she was struggling, she was very quick to say, 'Help me, Mommy,'" Agnew said. "One day when she said that I realized that's what I do to God. When I ask for help, God is quick to step in."
Now 50 and a single mom of two teen daughters - Amanda, 19 and Natalie, 16 - Agnew moved to Colorado Springs in 2013 after being appointed senior pastor at St. Paul's United Methodist Church, the first female pastor in the church's 100-plus years in the Springs.
In the two decades since Agnew entered the ministry, expectations and perceptions about traditional gender roles - in historically male-dominated professions such as hers, in society at large and within families - have continued to evolve. In that time, the number of women clergy in the nation's United Methodist church has more than doubled, from 10 percent in 1992 to today, when roughly one in four full-time Methodist pastors in the U.S. is female.
Still, said Agnew, "I think there's a pretty strong opinion for some people out there that pastors should be male. There's the expectation that a pastor is kind of at your beck and call, but we also have this image of a mom at home taking care of family. The problem is fitting those two images together. It doesn't really come up in a practical way. It's more conceptual."
To be sure, practical issues arise. Agnew's responsibility to her congregation extends far beyond the pulpit. Her pastoral work - performing worship, wedding and funeral services, visiting with elderly or ailing homebound members of her flock, as well as counseling and regular office hours - doesn't align with a 9-to-5 schedule. Balancing the needs of her family and her congregation has - and does - lead to scheduling conflicts.
"Just last week, I had to meet with a family in crisis so I was late picking up my kid from dance. I knew she was going to be mad at me, but I also knew she was in a place where she was safe and could hang out for a while," she said. "That's the kind of thing that happens all the time. I think every mother who's a professional, much less a pastor, feels that tension."
Long before becoming a pastor or a mother, though, Agnew identified the parenting model she wanted to avoid. "Growing up, I knew a lot of unhappy 'PKs' - preacher's kids," said Agnew, who attributed the pushback to pastor-parents whose church/family priorities had an unhealthy balance. "It has been my intention from Day 1 to raise kids who loved the church and loved God. I know kids have to make their own decisions in life, and teenagers rebel, but I didn't want the fact that I'm a pastor to turn them off God and the church."
Agnew wanted her girls to know that "they come first." They'd just have to share.
Daughter Amanda Thomas, who's pursuing a degree in elementary education at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., would have it no other way.
"The benefits of being a pastor's kid outweigh the negative aspects by far," Thomas said. "I've loved sharing her and showing the congregation how wonderful she is."