The lady vicar: Rola Sleiman, the Middle East's only female pastor

The lady vicar: Rola Sleiman, the Middle East's only female pastor
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Published June 3rd, 2012 - 12:08 GMT via SyndiGate.info

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Rola Sleiman
Rola Sleiman
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Tripoli
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Rula Suleiman

Rola Sleiman mutters to herself as she wrestles with a huge, leather-bound ledger in which every baptism, wedding, confession and Bible study group at Tripoli's Evangelical Church is assiduously logged.

She has never been a fan of paperwork, and May's vicious street battles between rival militias in Lebanon's second city have played havoc with her records.

"Because of the fighting, all the roads were closed off and there was a lot of [gun] fire," she says. "I didn't manage to hold mass."

Sleiman, 37, is Lebanon's - and, as far as her research has shown, the Middle East's - only officially appointed female pastor. She is in charge of all affairs in Tripoli's Evangelical Church and can perform the same tasks as any ordained priest, save for the sacraments of Baptism and Communion.

"That doesn't mean I am not part of [these services] but there should be an ordained priest with me when they happen," she explains. "We did have a baptism last week and I did the vows for the parents."

The church is set back from a chaotic thoroughfare on the edge of Tripoli's Jewelry Souk, one of the last original buildings in what was once known as the Street of Churches.

It is clean and bright; the furniture, lighting and ceremonial robes all echo Presbyterian simplicity. The asceticism extends down to Sleiman's accounting. She sits in the dark in her stuffy basement office as the church generator is currently out of diesel.

When, aged 17, she was told by the synod that her interest in religion was likely little more than a teenage infatuation, Sleiman was denied funding to pursue a degree at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut.
The church is part of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, headquartered in Rabieh. It has 3,000 official members across the two countries, but Sleiman estimates worshipers to number more than three times that.

"We are a minority," she admits. "Churches across the world are facing challenges, but ours is progressing. Not by a huge number, but we are growing."

Sleiman spends her days convening meetings with congregation members or visiting the elderly and enfeebled. She is charged with organizing everything that occurs within the church, from selecting the hymns for mass to making sure the children have enough plastic furniture for baptism receptions.

It is a job she says she had never considered and attained almost by accident. After the church's previous pastor left for the United States, Sleiman found herself performing his tasks in anticipation of his swift return. This was five years ago.

"I used to get asked to do services and my conscience did not let me leave my church without a pastor, so I started doing his job," she says. "Things just happened automatically."

As she gained the trust and respect of the congregation, Sleiman, on the advice of a close friend within the church, made an official pastoral application to the synod's Administrative Council - a collection of elderly, male spiritual guides.

"They were a bit astonished," Sleiman recalls. "But there is nothing in our theology to say that a woman cannot become a pastor, it just so happened that a woman had never done this [in the region] before."

Sleiman admits she is under greater pressure in her position as a women compared to male pastors.
After a vote put to church members, in which she received "virtually 100 percent" approval, Sleiman set to work in her new, outlier role.

"I like the job a lot, caring for people and preaching," she says. "I think the key is that people know me. Maybe they would normally choose a male pastor but because I had served with them they saw what was in me and not just my gender."

If it has taken the Church centuries to appoint a female pastor in the Middle East, then Sleiman's personal journey to the position was far from straightforward.

Sleiman was born in Tripoli to a Syrian father and Lebanese mother. Both were keen churchgoers, and encouraged their daughters to pray. When, aged 17, she was told by the synod that her interest in religion was likely little more than a teenage infatuation, Sleiman was denied funding to pursue a degree at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut. Rather than give in and begin a more prosaic course, she managed to procure private funding for her studies.

After serving as an education adviser for eight years in the Bekaa, Sleiman returned to Tripoli and, in 2008, was officially appointed pastor.

While she is constantly self-effacing when discussing her career path, Sleiman admits she is under greater pressure in her position as a women compared to male pastors; as in politics, business and virtually every facet of Lebanese society, religion remains largely a stomping ground accessible only to men.

"It is a fact that this is a patriarchal society," she says. "[Women] have to work five or six times harder than males because people are used to men in most positions. This society needs some good female role models."

She is at pains to point out that this is no allusion to herself. Sleiman argues that the Church and other religious institutions have historically been seen as pioneers. To her, it is natural that the Middle East now has a female pastor, even if as a region it has lagged decades behind the rest of the world.

"To me, change needs time and wisdom," she says. "Slow change. Let the people see a female pastor in front of them and I would like them to criticize me on my service, not because I am a woman."

But as much as Sleiman has blazed a trail through her religious community, most religions remain unarguably phallocentric. A clutch of churches may recently have voted in favor of allowing female pastors to serve, but there remains, as Sleiman acknowledges, a chasm between theory and practice. She has had to struggle even after her appointment to prove herself to be a peer amongst male pastors.

"In general, I think I am treated equally [with men]," she says. "But this has taken a long time to reach. Before it wasn't so OK to have a woman on equal footing as a man. [Inequality] is issue that I sometimes have to let go."

Sleiman has "always wanted to change things," but she insists her first loyalty is to the Church itself, rather than the advancement of gender equality within it.
Take her pay, for example. While far too politic to discuss figures, Sleiman concedes her salary is now "very close" to that of her male peers. Even that has come after successive begrudgingly offered pay-rises since she began her role.

In keeping with her career arc, Sleiman admits she has considered the possibility of one day becoming an ordained priest - a theological possibility if not currently a cultural reality.

"I think we are very close to this, but I cannot tell you when it might happen. It is not something that I dream of day and night," she says. "And if the ordination [of a female priest] is going to have a negative impact on the church then we would have to reconsider. Whatever happens, I will not be discouraged."

It is unclear whether or not the region's faithful would accept the notion of a woman priest. Sleiman has been welcomed into her own particular church community, but opposition from other Christian schools of thought remains plentiful throughout the world.

Sleiman, by her own admission, has "always wanted to change things," but she insists her first loyalty is to the Church itself, rather than the advancement of gender equality within it.

"The church has made a good step forward and I give them credit for that," she says. "But I am not a radical. I consider myself a human rather than a feminist. I'm just using my talents as much as I can."

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