KEARNEY — On his first Sunday at Victory Foursquare Gospel Church in 1991, Pastor Ben Rosenzweig, newly arrived from Santa Monica, Calif., introduced his wife Ruth as his co-pastor. One family got up and left. “The man said he wasn’t going to be in a church with a woman pastor,” Ruth said. “I thought, ‘Welcome to Nebraska.’”
A lot has changed since then.
Lighthouse Church, as it’s now known, has the only all-female clergy staff in the city. Ruth Rosenzweig is the assistant pastor. Her daughter Deborah Schrader is the senior pastor. Sandra Wang is the missions pastor.
“All three of us are examples of wonderfully wild ways that God has gone way off script,” Wang said with a smile.
Times are changing for women in both society and the ministry. “The culture has changed,” Rosenzweig said. “There’s not such an emphasis on men having to be in charge. Sometimes, people will call a female leader a ‘missionary’ while using the “reverend” or “pastor” title only for a man, but I think that changing attitude in leadership has released people to view people differently. People no longer say, ‘You’re a woman. You can’t do that.’”
Most men in the congregation accept the female staff, “but if they don’t, I don’t take it personally,” Rosenzweig added. “I know I don’t have to prove anything. I just obey God. I am responsible for carrying myself with grace and honor.”
Wang, a 23-year church member and a teacher at Sunrise Middle School, remembers what Ben Rosenzweig told her. “A few years ago, we could not recruit men to serve in leadership positions. Men wanted to participate, but not lead. Pastor Ben said, ‘If God brings guys in, great, but if God gives you the vision, run with it!’”
Schrader believes that, too. She succeeded her father as senior pastor after he passed away in early 2015. He taught her that women are men’s equals, and she has never looked back.
“My father was always a champion of women in ministry. The Lord created man and woman. He said to go out into all the world and preach the gospel. Why would He have left 50 percent of them standing on the sidelines?” Schrader said.
She pointed out that Lighthouse is associated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which was founded by a woman, Aimee Elizabeth Semple McPherson, in 1923. McPherson was a Pentecostal evangelist who did faith healing before large crowds and deeply influenced charismatic Christianity in the 1920s.
Schrader knows, however, that as a single woman under 30 pastoring a church, she was unusual. “My congregation has known me for a long time, so I feel no pressure to be someone I wasn’t, but a lot of pastoral meetings are attended by all men,” she said. At those meetings, people assume she is there with her husband, and they assume he’s the pastor. But she brushes that off; men still constitute most of the denomination’s ministry.
Still, she believes that the lack of women in ICFG ministry is a “disservice to our heritage.” In fact, a recent Foursquare Church annual convention included a time of repentance for men’s past stubbornness in allowing women to serve in ministerial positions.
But she pointed out that the denomination, which has 8 million members in 60,000 churches in 144 countries, has a female vice president for U.S. operations. “Men humbled themselves to make a way for her,” Rosenzweig said.
When Schrader married a musician a year ago, some people were concerned that he’d try to take over the church. Schrader just smiled. “He’s not interested in that. We’re not your typical pastoral couple.”
Rosenzweig, who has served at Lighthouse Church for 29 years, said people have told her they would not allow a woman to teach them. “But I don’t have to teach. I don’t need a title. I just need to share what God put in my heart and wants me to share, and let His Word work.”
Calling her life “quite a journey,” she remembers what a missionary friend told her: “God makes a way. If people don’t receive you, it’s not your fault. Just love them and bless them.”
Schrader said the Lighthouse congregation, which numbers 20 people currently, makes the staff feel “so blessed. They want us here. They value us. They are so encouraging and supportive and make it possible for us to do what we do.”