Noe Valley Voice September 2006

Fourth Woman Pastor Leads a Revitalized Bethany Church

By Lee Swain

The United Methodist Church gave women full clergy rights 50 years ago. Bethany United Methodist Church, at Clipper and Sanchez streets, has recently welcomed the fourth woman pastor in its history.

She is the Rev. Lauren Chaffee, a single mom who just moved into Noe Valley with her 20-year-old son, Justin. Expect to see her walking her two dogs around the neighborhood.

And expect to see Bethany UMC stay in Noe Valley. Bethany, which was granted United Methodist property in the Castro nine years ago and was intending to build there, is now set on staying where it is. The church has already contracted with an architect, John Goldman, to start work on renovation plans. Goldman is known for designing inviting urban worship spaces, including St. Gregory's Church in Potrero Hill and Most Holy Redeemer Church in the Castro.

Bethany, under the leadership of Rev. Chaffee, intends to concentrate more on reaching out to Noe Valley's families. The congregation has lately had a new wave of infants and children to complement its wide diversity of adults.

Chaffee's pastorate at Bethany immediately succeeds two one-year pastorates that followed the 12-year appointment of the Rev. Karen Oliveto, now an associate dean at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. Previously, the church was served well by the Rev. Kim Smith, now at Trinity UMC in Berkeley. The Rev. Christine Shiber, now at the First UMC in Pacific Grove, was the first woman pastor in 1981.

Rev. Chaffee entered full-time ministry in 1980, at age 25, serving two small churches in a rural community outside of Pittsburgh, Pa. Although that was more than two decades after the United Methodist Church granted full clergy rights to women, Chaffee recalls that she experienced both "explicit and subtle forms of exclusion and abuse." There were anonymous notes sent to her home and left on her windshield, some citing biblical reasons why women should not be ordained. "In one of my churches, a petition was circulated within the first six months of my arrival, and signed by people who had not stepped foot in the church in years, but were recruited to sign by a few very opinionated individuals who wanted me out," Chaffee says. "When I became a single mom just after my son's second birthday, the demands of parenting him became another thing for parishioners to object to."

In 1993, Chaffee felt so discouraged with the church that she stepped back from her ministry. She came to San Francisco to pursue a graduate degree in Organizational Development at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Consulting would be a vocation where her gender was less likely to be a hurdle, and she would have more time for parenting, she reasoned. Eventually, as she developed consulting connections within the United Methodist Church in Northern California, she accepted an invitation to lead a congregation in Redwood City, and has continued to work as a pastor since that time. Although some of the anti-women attitudes have persisted--even in Bay Area churches--she believes the issues they raise may have made her a more effective leader.

"I know that the churches and people I served will never be the same, having had a single-mom-clergywoman for a pastor," she says. "I have a great deal of compassion for others who are excluded from society and the church on the basis of qualities and circumstances not of their own making." That resolve, she maintains, gives her ministry a strong social justice element, which is consistent with the history of Bethany.

Chaffee looks forward to supporting Bethany, as the church undergoes renovation and the congregation grows. She will be joined in designing new ministry programs by a new music director, Dave Scott. Scott is well known in the community as a teacher at Community Music Center and at the Berkeley Jazz School. He's also a member of the Glide Memorial Church band and a trumpet and keyboard player with Boz Scaggs.

For a calendar of music and other upcoming events, such as a Sept. 23 sidewalk Treasure Sale, go to Bethany's web site,, or call 415-647-8393. Chaffee says visitors are always warmly received at the Sunday morning service, beginning at 11 a.m. and followed by brunch.