Breaking down barriers
North Carolina pastor shatters glass and other ceilings
“I’m an interesting visual for folks who are not used to seeing women in the pulpit. My very presence and higher voice can challenge assumptions about who should have leadership and a voice in the church.”
The Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner is pastor and the head of staff at Black Mountain Presbyterian Church in North Carolina. The church sits in the mountains just 20 miles from Asheville and right outside the gates of the Montreat Conference Center.
Shannon describes her leadership role at the church as a “generalist” and, among many other duties, she preaches and leads weekly worship, resources several committees, supervises staff, does pastoral care and visitation, sits on the Union Presbyterian Seminary Board of Trustees, and is co-chair of the NEXT Church Strategy team, a movement within the domination that wants to inspire imagination and encourage healthy congregational leadership.
“I’m really excited about women’s leadership in the church because there are more and more of us doing it,” she said. “I know that I stand on the shoulders of women who preceded me. So something that gives me great joy is doing everything that I can to make it easier for the women who follow me. My hope is that little girls will see a woman in the pulpit, know this is normal and that they can do it too.”
A lifelong Presbyterian
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has always been a part of Shannon’s DNA. Her father was a preacher and her mom a school teacher. She attended First Presbyterian Church in Waco, Texas, throughout her formative year and says it was a caring and loving place.
“Church was really about hospitality and grace and love. The church invited all of us into leadership if we wanted,” she said.
But Shannon was bound and determined to not pursue the same path as her father. Instead, she went to college to become a child psychologist. It was there that she took a women’s studies course and came back in touch with a sense of Call she says she had not experienced since her time at her home church.
“My professor for the class reminded me again about ministry. She was a Presbyterian and asked if I had ever thought of using my gifts within the church. I had privately, but I had pushed those feelings aside. She made me realize I could serve within the church and work for reform in terms of issues for women and patriarchy. So, I chose to respond to God’s call to stay within the Presbyterian Reformed tradition and to work for faithful change for women and men and to keep widening the circle of leadership and power.”
Shannon and her husband, Greg, moved to Houston where she began working as a seminary intern at St. Phillips Presbyterian Church. She shadowed the pastors, led youth groups, and experienced daily life in the church office. It was then that she knew she was on the right course.
She attended Colombia Theological Seminary and, when she graduated in 1999, began her service as one of two associate pastors at Woodlands Presbyterian Community Church in Texas. In 2002, she was called to Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas, as pastor and, in 2009, travelled to North Carolina for her current position in the church.
Shannon’s growing family went with her ― following her career. She and her husband have two children – 12 year old Hannah who is entering the 7th grade and 9 year old Ryan who will be a third grader in the fall of 2013. She says her service and leadership in the church would not be possible without her husband’s support.
“He was a full time, stay-at-home dad for 10 years,” she told us. “There’s no way I could have done what I’ve done in ministry if Greg had not been the kind of partner he is. His encouragement and support for me to live out my vocation are incredible.”
Shattering the glass ceiling
Throughout her time in ministry, Shannon has worked to live out the promise she made to herself to create change for women and women’s issues.
“I feel strongly about using inclusive language in reference to God and humanity. Language has power and shapes our hearts, minds, and imaginations,” Shannon said. “I am also very conscious of sharing power. Part of being Reformed theological people means we are called into doing ministry together. So, I ask myself every day, how can I do my ministry in a way that lives it out?”
Part of the way Shannon “lives it out” is to simply be who she is fully. She says she is always aware of the debt she owes those who came before her and how she must do the same.
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“I’ve always been grateful for people who are more radical than I, those who have made it possible for me to come up behind them. That goes for Presbyterian Women in particular. It’s incredible what that organization has done for women’s issues and their involvement in social justice is so very important.”
Shannon says she looks forward to the day when ministerial staff is chosen for their gifts without a second thought of their gender or background. Her hope for the future is to see a church that nurtures and welcomes all and moves away from the negative things.
“I would love to see a church that celebrates the healthy life giving stuff that’s going on rather than bemoaning what isn’t there anymore. I’m so tired of lament. I’d love to see a church that celebrates the places in ministry that are vibrant and imaginative.”
And Shannon thinks she will someday see that church.
“I am not anxious for the future of the church. It’s full of all kinds of possibilities if we can be brave and open and know some things we try are going to fail and that’s okay,” she told us. “I just have a genuine hope because, really, if we really believe Jesus Christ is the head of the church ― then why are we so anxious?”