'Historic' change at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian

New pastor of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian, the Rev. Dr. Agnes W. Norfleet. "We were just looking for a good pastor," said the head of the nominating committee.
New pastor of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian, the Rev. Dr. Agnes W. Norfleet. "We were just looking for a good pastor," said the head of the nominating committee. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 11, 2013

The Rev. Dr. Agnes W. Norfleet's call to the ministry was clear, but the answer wasn't.

The student who would become the first female pastor/head of staff at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, one of the largest - and wealthiest - congregations in the area, wasn't sure she wanted to be a pioneer.

In the 1970s, "women were going to seminary, but there was a resistance to women getting called in church [leadership] positions," Norfleet said.

So she went to college to study French. But Norfleet's involvement in a young-adult church group pushed her closer to ministry and the calling she believes she was destined for.

Last month, Norfleet, 54, took the reins as the new pastor/head of staff at the 2,600-member Bryn Mawr church, a progressive congregation with a high-profile membership that historically has included the region's movers and shakers, a $30 million endowment, and a long-standing reputation for community outreach.

"It is historic," said the Rev. Dr. Eugene C. Bay, a former pastor of the church. "But I don't think it's surprising. The congregation has had good experience with women in associate positions."

One of them, the Rev. Barbara Chaapel, the first woman hired on the pastoral staff, in 1977, called Norfleet's selection thrilling.

Chaapel, who left the iconic church in 1981, described the congregation as one that was open "to figuring out how all people are important parts of the" church, even during the days when some disapproved of her wardrobe and high heels.

The church's pastor-nominating committee selected Norfleet because of her intellect, preaching, administrative skills, and sense of humor, said Paul Burgmayer, the committee's chair.

"We were just looking for a good pastor," Burgmayer said. "We did discuss whether the congregation was ready for a woman pastor, and we decided, yes it is."

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), women have been ministers since the 1950s, said the Rev. Dr. Lucille Rupe, interim executive presbyter of the 33,000-member Philadelphia Presbytery.

Norfleet's selection is a reflection of the progress since then, Rupe said.

The choice is a "huge deal" that also shows a new "confidence that women clergy can handle large, corporate-size churches and all that it entails," said the Rev. Jill Duffield, who served with Norfleet at Shandon Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C.

Norfleet comes to the congregation at a time when the church has experienced some instability, Burgmayer said.

The congregation's last pastor, the Rev. Dr. Wesley Avram, replaced Bay, who had been at the church for 17 years and retired in 2004.

Avram was selected in 2006 and left in 2009. His short tenure was the result of what Avram called the complex transition that often comes after a long-term pastor leaves a congregation. Avram is now senior pastor/head of staff at Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The Rev. Dr. James Carter served as interim pastor/head of staff for three years as the church searched for a new pastor.

The shifting leadership at the top, coupled with the erosion of church membership and aging congregations facing all mainline denominations, resulted in a loss of membership, Burgmayer said.

"It's not in our history to be in this treading-water mode, so we felt like we needed someone who could be a [stabilizing] presence in the church," Burgmayer said.

Bryn Mawr members feel they found the perfect fit in Norfleet.

She grew up the youngest of six children on the campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., where her father, a minister, served as treasurer.

It was his death, when Norfleet was 9, that propelled her more deeply into the arms of the church.

She became a youth leader and, after a detour into social work, entered Union Presbyterian Seminary. She interned at several churches, and her call and commitment to ministry were sealed.

Since then, she has served at a large city church (Central Presbyterian in Atlanta), a suburban church (North Decatur Presbyterian in Georgia), and a college-town congregation (Shandon Presbyterian, her most recent church).

Norfleet, who has a hint of the South in her accent, accepted the offer at Bryn Mawr partly because it offered the opportunity to "try one more new thing, new, while I still had the energy."

The time was right in other ways. Son James, 19, is in college; and son Winston, 17, is approaching his high school graduation. A move seemed feasible for Norfleet; her husband, Larry Arney, 54, an architect who works extensively with nonprofits; and their family.

During her career, Norfleet applied for posts where she believed the church was reluctant to hire a woman. But "being the token woman" has also opened doors.

"I try to be a good steward of my gifts and do my job," said Norfleet, who was also the first woman to be pastor/head of staff at Shandon.

In her new post, Norfleet will continue to expand community outreach; guide and counsel members; and also reach out to young adults and young families, which is crucial.

"The health and the future of the church depends on it," Norfleet said. "And that's not about preserving an institution. That's about sharing the gospel and finding our lives in the service of something transcendent."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211

or kholmes@phillynews.com.


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