When Rev. Liz Buxton came to her first Methodist church, she quickly saw there were two strikes against her in the small community of Alton, home of Virginia International Raceway hard up against the North Carolina border. “Not only was I a woman,” she said, “but I was also a Yankee.” Buxton is now the pastor of Batesville and Mt. Olivet United Methodist Churches.
As far as the wider community was concerned, there was a third strike. Unlike most of the church-going population, she wasn’t a Baptist. Buxton was assigned to two small Methodist churches in Southside Virginia. She found ways to make it work.
There were some challenges, she said. There was the community sunrise service celebrated by a rotation of pastors from different denominations. As her turn approached, the organizers balked against a woman in the sanctuary of the church always used for Easter.
“They offered me the parking lot,” she recalls. Ultimately, she turned it down and the service went on without her.
Then there was the man who stopped his pick-up in front of her home, wife inside and motor running, to march into her living room with this message: “Women preachers are an abomination.”
She has a Biblical authority to counter this notion: “Who was the first person Jesus asked to spread the message of his resurrection?” She answered her own question: “He asked Mary Magdalene to go tell the boys. If that’s not an invitation, I don’t know what is.”
Buxton is not one to be intimidated. She has a history of seeking out difficult situations. She started her professional life as a teacher and taught in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, in a border town in Arizona, and in Seoul, South Korea. But she’d had an interest in the history of religion and began her ministerial education in Claremont, California, worlds away from her Missouri home.
There weren’t a lot of women in divinity school then, but she remembers a favorite female professor who taught religious history. She found out, to her surprise, “In scripture, there were women all over the place.” She found women students there––and women in the ministry she met later––weren’t as concerned with power struggles, titles and hierarchy as their male counterparts. She also learned that, across denominations, their paychecks were 78 percent of those earned by male ministers.
While teaching, she had always had a volunteer ministry, helping people in the struggling communities around her. In the late ’90s she returned to school to get her Master’s in Divinity and was assigned to Alton. Other assignments followed until her present one in rural Albemarle.
She reported for her job in Batesville the same day that the June 2012 derecho devastated central Virginia. “I spent my first three weeks in the Waynesboro Best Western,” she said. When power in her rural location goes out for any length of time, the motel is her home and office, partly because she’s a cat owner. “They welcome pets,” she said. “I remember (during the Derecho) every time the elevator opened, there’d be a Doberman and maybe a dachshund or a poodle.”
Buxton said her churches have become accustomed to her honoring important women in religion as well as women in less-studied scripture passages whose lives have messages for today. She likes Miriam and Hilduh, important prophets; and Martha, the industrious New Testament sister of Lazarus and Mary: “She gets a bad rap,” Buxton said. “Someone has to do the cleaning up.”
But this is the most important lesson she’s learned in her years as a woman minister: “You’re not there for your congregation to love you,” she said. “You’re there to love them.”
Church leadership was not even on the horizon for Rev. Liz Hulme Adam of Tabor Presbyterian when the minister at a Maryland church pointedly told her that his church did not ordain women. “It had nothing to do with our previous conversation,” she said, “but his words may very well have set me on my path.”
Adam admits she’s a persistent questioner, and she had first planned to become a journalist. Figuring she could specialize in writing about religion, Adam attended Princeton Theological Seminary where she found her curiosity accepted and treasured, with never a hint of discouragement about her suitability as a future pastor. That feeling of acceptance and support continued throughout her work both in churches and as a hospital chaplain, and in her work with Tabor today.
Looking back on her encounter with the Maryland minister, Adam acknowledges the situation may have been different for women in the church who came before her, and certainly different for women in certain denominations today, but “I have never felt anything but at home here,” she said.
Lately, Adam has been going through old Tabor records, dating back to 1833, finding many of the books hand-written, in cursive. She found some of the records at the Union Seminary in Richmond, where one of her predecessors, Sara Payne, may have deposited them nearly a half-century ago. “It swelled my heart,” Adam said, “to see that Tabor had a female minister in 1974.”