Deborah Gill began studying to become a pastor during a time when women weren’t often considered for leadership roles in the church. With little affirmation and a great deal of opposition, Deborah followed God’s calling on her life to earn a PhD in Biblical Studies from Fuller Seminary, become a national leader in the Assemblies of God Church, and write several books on women in ministry. In this episode of the Women in Ministry Leadership podcast, Rhonda Davis and Julie Cole spoke with Deborah Gill about her journey into ministry.
Dr. Rhonda Davis: Hi everyone, and welcome again to the Women in Ministry Leadership podcast. My name is Rhonda Davis and I’m here with my friend and co-host Julie Cole. And today we have a special friend with us, Dr. Deborah Gill. I want to tell you a little bit about her before we get started in our conversation.
So Dr. Deborah Gill has a PhD in biblical studies from Fuller Seminary and has been a professor at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in New Testament, Greek homiletics and music. She is a founding member of Christians for Biblical Equality, co-founder of Women of the Cloth and member of the Network for Women in Ministry.
She’s the co-author of this book, God’s Women Then and Now, and author of The Pastoral Epistles in Life in the Spirit New Testament Commentary. She was a national leader for her denomination, The Assemblies of God, and has also served as senior pastor of Living Hope in North Oaks, Minnesota.
Debbie served in missions in the Asia-Pacific and loves to travel. We know that about her. She has been to over 30 countries, often leading study tours. Most recently, she’s the director of Sherpa, a certification program for spiritual directors.
Julie Cole: Shoo!
Rhonda: Yeah. Now that in and of itself makes it sound like I need to bow when I meet you, but I want to share some other effects to let people know how approachable you are. Debbie likes to watercolor.
Dr. Deborah (Debbie) Gill: That’s right.
Rhonda: Yeah. She and her husband are teaching a watercolor class where they live. Debbie has bungee jumped.
Rhonda: And that, you had incredible credibility with me when I found that out.
Debbie: Where bungee was invented, in New Zealand.
Rhonda: All right.
Julie: Oh, that’s even better.
Rhonda: I mean, why bungee jump anywhere?
Julie: Debbie has won sailing competitions. Your first theater role, I may not have this right, but they couldn’t find a boy to play a role.
Julie: And so you had to play… What was the role that you played?
Debbie: Hillbilly Chad. Chad Nolan in Hillbilly Blues.
Julie: That’s great.
Rhonda: Hillbilly Chad.
Julie: And I think one of the first ways you met your husband, you were providing comic relief in the middle of a conference.
Julie: Was it with your accordion?
Debbie: This one was I was giving a rap about Jonah.
Julie: Of course.
Debbie: To wake up people after lunch before the plenary speaker came on.
Rhonda: That’s fantastic.
Julie: Which just made your husband fall in love with you. On the spot.
Rhonda: She bungee jumps. She raps about Jonah. What else do you do?
Julie: Yeah. So-
Debbie: And he’s such a neat guy. I think he got me out of the library and into life.
Julie: There you go.
Rhonda: That’s great.
Julie: There you go.
Rhonda: That’s great.
Julie: Well, this gives us a full picture of just someone that Rhonda and I know and love so dearly. So we’re so glad to have you today.
Debbie: Thank you.
Julie: But in the WIML program, Women in Ministry Leadership Program, we have three ministry focuses that we like to put forth: cold, formed and commissioned. So my first question that I’d love to ask you is tell me about your calling into ministry.
Debbie: I was raised in a Christian home. In fact, my mom and dad pioneered a church as lay people.
Debbie: Got it fully set in order. Bought two city lots, hired an architect, built the whole church, everything. And so from my earliest recollection, I always wanted to serve Jesus. And as a young child, the two ministry roles I knew existed were pastoring and missions. I never felt a call overseas, so I thought, “Man, it’s got to be pastoring.”
So from my earliest recollection, I always felt a sense of calling to be a pastor. And later on, we went to a church that had just a wonderful exegete, New Testament, Greek, Old Testament, Hebrew. And I remember in ninth grade when we took those personality inventories and then what we’re going to… What college degree we want to get and all of this, what we want to be when we grow up. I didn’t know what all the alphabet soup of the degrees meant, all those initials, but I thought, “Wow. If our pastor knows Greek and Hebrew, I better learn that as well as I can.” So I went to the end of the list and the last one was PhD, so I circled it. I need to do that.
Debbie: But growing up, I didn’t see many women.
Debbie: In full-time ministry, pastoral roles. So I thought, “Wow, if that’s what I going to do…” And the two that I knew of had to have full-time jobs to pay their living of pastoring small churches. So I thought, “Well, Lord, if I have to put bread and butter on the table to support my calling, what would be a good compliment to ministry?” And I loved music and I played all kinds of musical instruments. So I actually took a degree in music education from the University of Minnesota before I went to seminary so that I could always support my role in ministry.
And then when I went to seminary, not all people believe that women can be-
Julie: That’s right.
Debbie: … ministers. So there was a bit of a challenge there. The chair of the department wanted to send me home, especially because I had signed up for an Mdiv, Master of Divinity. And he said, “Do you know, that’s a degree for pastors?” And I said, “Yes, that’s why I signed up for this.” And long story short, the Lord made a place for me there that was comfortable. And by the end of my degree program, he became my biggest advocate and sends people to me today to be encouraged.
So it was that early sense of the calling and preparing through music and then going through a few obstacles, but coming around and finding it was just a great way to serve the Lord. So through all that, I did a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in biblical languages. And then the PhD at Fuller. Did missions work in between the two degrees and got to teach about 15 years in the undergrad, in a Bible college.
But I had always wanted to be a pastor. So there was a certain time in my life that I thought, “Boy, if I don’t become a pastor now, I’ll never get to do it.” Because with a PhD, people said, “You don’t need a PhD to be a pastor.” And I said, “To be the kind of pastor I want to be, you do.” So I left the classroom and pastored. That was just the delight of my life.
And the Lord did such a good job. It was a little church, but the Lord really discipled people so well that then the director of the national… The general superintendent, our denomination, invited me to Springfield Assemblies of God to be the commissioner of discipleship, which was really, really fun too.
So I really think that the calling to pastoring was God’s will, but maybe it wasn’t fulfilled always pastoring a church. So even in the classroom all the years of being a teacher, I think there was a shift some time in my teaching career where I switched from teaching subjects to teaching students.
Rhonda: That’s great.
Debbie: And there is a difference. Yeah. So instead of focusing so much on getting the notes out of my notebook into theirs, or off of the PowerPoint into theirs, it’s really hearing where the Lord is working in their life and trying to help them. So I think I am a pastor at heart even though I’m not serving in a pastoral position in a church at the present time.
Rhonda: Sure, yes. It’s so interesting to me, some of the challenges that you had talked about when you were entering seminary. Can you tell us about maybe some other pushback that you had? How did you experience that? And when you started telling people, “I think I’m called to pastor,” or, “I think I’m exploring this,” or, “I’m in seminary and I’m the only woman at this table.” Tell us about what some of that pushback looked like?
Debbie: Well, the pastor I had when I was a young person was really quite an advocate. And then through the years there were always shifts of who was pastoring. But the pastor of our church, when I left for seminary, I don’t think believed that women should be pastors. So he told everybody I was leaving to get a master degree in music.
Debbie: Which wasn’t the case. So it was just almost denying that. Probably one of the most painful pushbacks I had was after completing the Master of Divinity, I stayed and did a Master of Arts in biblical languages as well. But there were so few women that had Master of Divinity degrees that the chaplains recruiters would come to the seminary and try to get me to be a chaplain. Well, at one point I thought, “Lord, if you’re behind this and you want me to be a chaplain, I’ll be happy to follow through.”
My mom always said, “If the door’s open, step through it at least and check it out.” You can discern that way. So I fully qualified to be an Air Force chaplain, and the recruiter would come and jog with my roommate and me every morning at 6:00 o’clock to try to convince me. And I said, “Well, are there any other qualifications?” He said, “The only one is that you’d be available to go to officers training school such-and-such this summer. And you’d have to be ordained by then.” Well, our ordination service was at a different time of the year. I said, “Oh, well that might be a problem.” He said, “Well, just find out from your superintendent.”
And I will say at that time, the military chaplains were on a quota system. Depending on the number of people in the military that were a certain denomination, they would get that many chaplains. I understand it’s not like that now, but at that time the AG was really thrilled that they could get a chaplain over quota because I was a woman. So they thought, “This is going to be really good. We’ll get another chaplain in just because she’s female.”
So I went back to Minnesota, to my district superintendent, and I talked it over with him. Then I said, “Now the only thing is I’d have to be ordained two months early so that I could go to officers training school,” or whatever it was he called. And he said, “Oh, that’s just not possible. We would never do that.” And so it was kind of a heartbreak, but I thought, “If this is the Lord’s leading…” So I told the recruiter and he gave up on me and went after the next one.
Well, it turned out that when it was time for me to be ordained, I was out of the country doing missions. And after several years, the superintendent said, “Listen, come on back to family camp in the middle of the summer, on July 4th. We’ve got to ordain you.” So I did. I showed up and there were four of us being ordained: one female and three men. And the three men were being ordained July 4th at family camp because they needed to be ordained early.
Julie: Oh my goodness.
Debbie: So I just realized, sometimes there is a little bit of pushback and a little different treatment between men and women.
Debbie: But again, I must say even that fellow completely turned around. Years later, I think acknowledging God’s call on my life even though I was, am a woman, he’s become an advocate. And I’ll say in my life there’ve been a number of those hard situations and I’ve tried not to lose a friend over a difference of opinion. And in many cases, those people that almost seemed like my opponent or my enemy have turned.
And I’ll just tell you, one of the reasons many of them have turned is that when their daughter, or their wife, or their granddaughter, is called to ministry whom they know and respect and love, they reevaluate-
Rhonda: Yeah, sure.
Debbie: .. the whole thing. And many times, they become advocates instead of adversaries of women in ministry.
Julie: I would say that’s a real characteristic of you that I admire is even though you’ve had pushback, you’re not bitter. How have you remained un-bitter even though… How have you not let those things put a slant or make you angry?
Debbie: I think I’ll enter that psychologically and spiritually.
Debbie: I think in my head, what I have used, and I don’t know if this is a coping mechanism that I just came up with psychologically or if it was the Holy Spirit leading.
Debbie: But I lowered my expectations because from my early experience, there were very, very few people supporting women in ministry. I just didn’t expect anyone to support or affirm my calling. And then when someone did, whoa! I was so surprised, just so elated. And that was really a blessing.
And then I think on the spiritual side, I’ve just given it to Jesus. When one of those really heartbreaking situations comes, I just give it to Jesus because I think if I stuff it, it can often turn to bitterness. And that root of bitterness just really destroys us.
I recall one of my elder mentors when I was a young person at seminary, he was telling me about two choices I could make. I had been hurt by one situation. He said, “Now you can do this or you can do that. It really, really doesn’t matter. But whatever you do, don’t get bitter, because if you get bitter, you are going to be like a piece of rotten fruit and anyone who brushes up against you, you’re going to ooze out on them.” And that was such a pictorial depiction for me. I always thought, “Oh, I don’t want to be like a piece of rotten fruit.” So I think that image has stuck with me too. I don’t want to get bitter. I don’t want to get bitter.
Rhonda: What does that look like? You said, “I take it to Jesus. I give it to Jesus.” What does that-
Debbie: Oh, yes.
Rhonda: How do you do that? What does that look like?
Debbie: Yes. Well, a dear friend of mine in ministry once talked about how we take our accolades or our praise or our thank yous or our blessings to Jesus. So after a week in a ministry, if something has gone really well, instead of taking it to yourself and gloating about it, you wrap it all up in a big bow and you give it to Jesus and say, “Jesus, I did this for you.” And I think on the other side of the coin, some of the really hard times we kind of do the same thing. Instead of rejoicing over it, we may weep over it, but we say, “Lord, I did this for you. I did it the best I could according to what I thought you’d called me to.” And so now, instead of being angry at this person or holding it against them, I’m just going to give it to you. And I ask you to receive my pain, but also my forgiveness.
The Greek word for “forgive,” “afimi,” really means to let go. Let go, release, dismiss. It’s also the word for divorce. That’s just how strongly we should let go. So when I give it to Jesus, I’m letting go any hopes that I have of getting even or making trouble for them or whatever, or brooding about it too. Because I don’t think brooding is helpful either. We need to grieve. And you know what? I think the difference between brooding and healthy grief is, like when my mom passed away, we just realized even though it was so sad to leave her, everything was right. We had everything right. She had done everything right. And I call it a clean grief. A clean grief.
And even the griefs that we suffer as women in ministry, even men in ministry suffer griefs too, if they can be a clean grief instead of getting angry at the person or condemning or wanting it to take it into our own hands to just say, “Lord, I let them go. I give this to you. Just wash me now with your Spirit so you can use me again.” But if I’m a putrid piece of rotten fruit, even the Lord doesn’t want to use me.
Rhonda: Yeah. That’s great.
Julie: Wow. One thing that I was thinking of is that you had to have a clear idea that God had called you. If you didn’t have very many other women saying yes to that or some people even telling you that you shouldn’t, and yet you just kept trudging right along. Were there moments in time where you got that clear calling or was it just a sense? How did that assurance and confidence happen in you?
Debbie: That’s a great question. I just have in my memory, Julie, I had this abiding sense of the calling and I think certain things helped to confirm it.
Debbie: When you first start stretching your wings in ministry and you say, “Oh Lord, I can do this.” Or, “You blessed this. I think I am called. I think you’re confirming it.” And then there were a few women along the path, I think who believed in me too. One of my real buddies actually became my maid of honor in my wedding and her name is Carol Vetter. She is a pioneer in deaf ministry. She’s pioneered four deaf churches and started Deaf International Bible College when it was at North Central University. She had recently been led to the Lord by my Bible quiz coach, who was also in deaf ministry, and was her roommate.
Carol came to church and immediately as a baby believer she signed up to teach a Sunday school class and all kinds of things. She was my Sunday school teacher in middle school and she drove a blue VW and had a baseball glove and a baseball bat in her back. That little bin, those VW Beatles, and she’d come and visit me and we’d go and talk and play. But the fact that she believed in me even though I was a kid and I was aspiring to follow the Lord in ministry, that made a difference.
Another one was Naomi Dowdy, who’s also retired now, but was a pastor of Omega Church in Singapore. She took a church when it was running 40, and within a few years it was 2000. Today I think it’s five, 6,000… 15, 16,000, something like that.
So big people that looked at a little person and believed in them.
Julie: That believed in the call. Love that.
Debbie: And then another one I think was Amy Cortesi. And other than Amy Simple-McPherson, she was the only one I knew of a female speaking at a plenary service at the Assemblies of God general counsel meeting. And somehow we met at some meeting and we became friends and she’d invite me to New York to preach at her church in Bronx.
But those three really, really made a difference. And I don’t know, I suppose all personalities are different, but I don’t need to have a lot of people believe in me, but a few really precious ones like Rhonda and Julie. People that you really know and love, you’re on the same wavelength, your heart beats with them. If they believe in you, it really makes a difference.
Julie: Yeah. That’s great.
Rhonda: So you have had experience leading alongside of men, right? You’ve also had experience leading alongside of women. What do you think are some of the unique things that women bring to the leadership table in your experiences? What do you think is unique about that?
Debbie: Ah, yes. I think women generally tend to be more maintenance than task-oriented. They’re more concerned about the relationships than just getting the job done. And that’s not true carte blanche because-
Debbie: … even women and men, we have all different personalities, but I think generally there’s more of an interest to focus on the relationships, make sure that all the people are doing well, than we just get the event planned or that we get out of here on time.
Rhonda: Right. Which speaks to some of those relationships that you were able to cultivate. And some of, you talked about your professor that ended up changing their mind. And some of that, that comes through relationship, right? Through getting to know one another and examining and looking at fruit that isn’t rotten. Right?
Debbie: That’s right.
Rhonda: I love that. Well, we talked about your experience of calling and some of the places that you have been, but you are so settled in who you are in your own formation. That’s one of the things that I love so much about you is you’re so comfortable with your own identity, your identity in Jesus, which makes you a comfort to be around. And you have found a way to minister, no matter where you are, whatever season of life, whatever community you find yourself in. So I just wonder, have you always been this settled? Has that always been the case? How did that come about for you?
Debbie: Wow, great question. I’m not sure I would’ve used the word “settled” as a really young person, but I always wanted to serve wherever I was. When I grew up, that saying was very popular “Bloom where you’re planted.”
Debbie: So I know that I became my mom’s right hand helper in children’s church. So even though I kept growing, I stayed in children’s church for 13 years to be our helper. And then when our church needed… We had a nice youth group and a youth choir, but we didn’t have a children’s choir. And I was a music major. I thought, “Hey, we could start a children’s choir.” So we did children’s choir and we did musicals every year. That turned out to be really fun. And then in children’s church, in order to have accompaniment to the music, of course, we had a piano in there. I led the ukulele band. So we taught almost a dozen kids-
Rhonda: I would have loved to have heard the ukulele band.
Debbie: Dozen kids play all these ukuleles. We didn’t have PowerPoint or overhead transparencies. We had flip charts. We had all the words there. And then in red letters, we had the chord. So when it was time to change chord, just to make sure we all did it together, I would go like this. We would all change chords together. But that was fun.
And then got to do a lot of music ministry in the church orchestra and youth choir. Oh, and then this is something that the Lord used to open a lot of doors for me too. I have a four octaves set of English hand bells.
Rhonda: Of course you do.
Debbie: That was really something. In fact, that’s how the Lord opened the door for me to have a full time job teaching at a Bible college while I was in seminary.
Rhonda: That’s awesome.
Debbie: I needed to take a few undergraduate degree classes in the Bible college, so I showed up and met everybody. Turned out that the band needed a tuba player that year. Well, I was a music major so I could play anything. So I said, “Would you like me to play tuba?” She said, “Sure. Could you go on tour with us too?” “Give me the dates and I’ll check. Sure. I can go with you.” So then I said, “Would you like me to teach 10 people in the band how to play hand bells? And we can play the offertory when we go on tour.” She said, “Sure.
So we got to do that and then we got to play the Faculty Christmas Banquet at that Bible college. And after that, it’s kind of a long story short with its up and downs. But by the next year, they gave me a full time job teaching. And they said, “When you finish your Mdiv, you can teach Bible too, but we’ll start you in the music department right now.” So I think that ability, or the desire anyway, to bloom where you’re planted, gives God an opportunity to use you where you are and open doors for the future too.
Rhonda: Yeah. You’ve just kind of kept saying yes to opportunity.
Debbie: Kept saying yes. Yeah.
Rhonda: Making opportunities. And so what would you say to someone who’s… Because you’re also very kind of entrepreneurial in your own spirit, like, “I’m going to make a way, I’m going to go find it.” So for someone who’s trying to discern that, trying to discern their calling and is this God speaking, and finding the courage to say yes. Do you have anything that you would want to say to somebody that’s trying to discern that?
Debbie: Yes. It’s kind of like what God said to Moses, “What’s in your hand?” And sometimes we have to lay it down in order to sacrifice it for him. But very many times he’ll say, “Pick it up again.” And so whatever we have as a gift and ability, an opportunity, a context, a need, a passion, it’s fine to just start right there. And many of us would like to land a nice position with a title and an office and gold letters with our name on it. But it’s great to start as a volunteer because if we’re willing in humility to do something without a title, without pay, and really learn and serve, then the Lord can open other doors at his timing.
Julie: And that’s happened to you a lot through your journey.
Julie: That you had the humility to just serve in children’s church for 13 years. And then one thing led to another.
Debbie: When I came back from the mission field, the Southeast Asian refugees were just coming after the Vietnam War and our local church had 15 people who took the literacy training course. It ended up that we started a whole ministry to the Southeast Asians. So for 13 more years, I pastored that group. And they were, we called them the new Americans because we wanted to welcome and embrace them, not keep them in a separate little place. And that was something too, just volunteering, because there was a need. Our Ramsey county in St. Paul, Minnesota, received 50,000 Hmong H-M-O-N-G refugees the first summer. 50,000 the first summer. And they came in several waves.
So it was a need, it was a need. It just turned out to be an awesome joy serving them. The other day on Facebook, one of our young people, Chowtow, Facebooked me. I said, “Is this my Chowtow?” So I asked all about his family and it turns out that his wife is the director of the Hmong Women’s Ministry for the state of Minnesota and his kids, he says, “They’re following in my footsteps.”
Julie: That’s so great.
Debbie: “Following the Lord.” I asked about his mom, she’s with Jesus, but I just thought, “Isn’t that precious?” Yeah.
Julie: I love that.
Debbie: Just precious.
Julie: Well, if you were thinking about a young woman like you were years ago, today thinking about following God’s call, what advice would you give to her?
Debbie: I would say, “Obey Jesus.” Sometimes we’re afraid that we’ll offend people or others don’t believe in us, but I’d rather be obedient to Jesus and obey him even if not everybody agrees or supports me because he’s the one I love best. And he’s the one, he’ll judge us in the end. It won’t be popular opinion in eternity that evaluates if we’ve been faithful. So I guess obedience and faithfulness, pretty simple things, but very important in the long run too.
Julie: I really see that in Debbie’s life.
Rhonda: You are a joy to talk with, Debbie, and such an inspiration for Women in Ministry Leadership, all over the globe, really, at all ages and stages of life.
Julie: You inspire us.
Rhonda: You’ve inspired us.
Julie: We want to be like Debbie Gill.
Debbie: The feeling is mutual, I’ll tell you.
Rhonda: Thank you for your love for Jesus.
Rhonda: For your love for the church and to see it thrive. So we thank you for being with us today.
Debbie: Thank you for the pleasure.
Rhonda: Absolutely. So, thanks for joining us for this conversation. If you’ve like what you’ve heard, don’t be afraid to hit subscribe. And we look forward to talking with you next time.