Ignoring the ‘voice of reason,’ two local women say ‘Yes’ to the unconventional call to become priests

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By Sue Ann Rybak

The Rt. Rev. Daniel G.P. Gutiѐrrez, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania,(left) blesses the new vestments of the Rev. Barbara Ballenger (right) while Rev. Canon Betsy Ivey looks on. (Photo by Harry Gould)

It was a long road, but finally on December 13, Barbara Ballenger, of Mt. Airy, and Laura Palmer, of Chestnut Hill, were ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, 8000 St. Martin’s Lane in Chestnut Hill.

Rev. Emily Richards, Pastor of St. Peter’s Episcopal, 654 N. Easton Rd. in Glenside, who gave the sermon at the women’s ordination, spoke about how God “chooses the unconventional, unexpected way.”

Often, she said, God calls us to do the unimaginable.

Ballenger, 53, a lifelong catholic and journalist, was going back to school to get her master’s degree in pastoral ministry in the 90s, when the Vatican released a statement saying women could not be ordained.

“Not only was it infallible, it was unquestionable,” she said. “It was not to be discussed by the laity.”

Prior to that statement, there had been a lot of advocacy within the Catholic Church for women to be ordained, said Ballenger. Afterwards, her bishop released a statement telling Catholics they needed to pray to the Holy Spirit for the wisdom to accept this teaching.

Well, after that, Ballenger wrote him a letter:

“Dear Bishop,

I don’t think you know what it’s like to be a woman in the Catholic Church, and I never had to pray a prayer that made me sick to my stomach before. I don’t believe that I can because I don’t believe that this is what God wants. If you were ordaining women, I would be in line.”

“That was the first time I told my bishop and myself that I was called to the priesthood,” said Ballenger. “So, it was in that moment of ‘No,’ you may not talk about it that I realized, actually I must, and if the church was ordaining women, I would be ordained.”

For 15 years, she worked for reform in the Catholic Church and discerned, “if the church doesn’t change, what do I do?”

“Why would God call me to something impossible?”

Finally, the sign came in church. It was the weekend before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s anniversary.

“The scriptures were all about answering God’s call, and I just realized I had been waiting for everyone else to open the door,” recalled Ballenger. “I had my hand on the knob. I had to open the door to go through it. So, before the end of the liturgy, I decided to leave my job [as a faith formation and youth minister] and my church.”

She’d come to see the Episcopal Church “under the cover of darkness,” she said.

“When the church closed the door, God broke a window.”

Ballenger said nothing is impossible for God.

For Palmer, the call was more of a whisper.

The New York Times bestselling author, independent television producer, former syndicated newspaper columnist, and Pulitzer Prize nominee, grew up in Evanston, Illinois. Initially, she planned on going to law school after graduating from Oberlin College with a Bachelor of Science degree in government in 1972.

Instead, she went to Vietnam and began work as a freelance reporter. One of her first articles for Rolling Stone Magazine,“Living in the Bulls-Eye,” was a first-person feature article on the U.S. Evacuation of Saigon. She published her first book. Vietnam was where the seeds for her chaplaincy were planted.

“I traced people who left letters to the dead at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” she said of her first book, “Shrapnel in the Heart.”

“When I look back at my life, now I can see that those were my first teachers about the legacy of loss and love,” said Palmer. “I traveled around the country interviewing people about the loss of the person they loved. The book, I am proud to say, has never been out of print since 1987. It’s a perspective on the war from the people who lose the most and say the least – the sisters, the mothers, the wives, the siblings, the fiances, the buddies, the high school classmates. Usually we talk about the war from the perspective of diplomats, journalists, politicians, generals, but I am very proud of that book and my two years in Vietnam are really when I think I earned the right to tell the stories that I told.”

Besides having a successful career as a print journalist and author, Palmer worked as a producer for “Nightline” on ABC News from 1995-2003. She reported, wrote and produced broadcasts on Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, rural AIDS, Lockerbie and Pan AM 103, music and the dying, and the healing of a Holocaust survivor brought to Columbine.

She was a field producer on the PBS “Frontline” documentary, “Faith and Doubt,” about the spiritual aftershocks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I have always been a writer, producer,” Palmer said. “I liked being in the trenches. I was never interested in management or any kind of administrative position in T.V. The most interesting years of my career were at “Nightline” where I was an independent producer with Ted Koppel. When Ted Koppel left “Nightline,” money was drying up for freelancers. I did go to CNN for a couple of years as a senior producer, but I knew I wanted to do something else. I was searching for something else. Spiritually, my life had deepened, and I had done a lot of work about healing and redemption, not always in television, but in books that I wrote. I knew I wanted the last years of my professional career to be somehow in service to God, out of a sense of gratitude for the life I had lived.”

Then the call came like a whisper at Easter Sunday brunch. Palmer recalled how in 2005 she was talking about her interest in pediatric hospice and how children die in this country, when a friend mentioned that Union Theological Seminary had a Master’s of Divinity program that combined religion and psychology.

“I am someone who has never had the GPS for my life, but I am very good at knowing what the next right thing is,” Palmer said.

She completed her Master of Divinity in 2009 and later moved to Philadelphia in September 2011.

The Rt. Rev. Daniel G.P. Gutiѐrrez (bowed) listens as Rev. Barbara Ballenger (left) and Rev. Laura Palmer say their oaths at their ordination ceremony. (Photo by Harry Gould)

“I am someone who has always responded to the whisper of God,” Palmer said. “Part of what drew me to ordination was knowing that I needed a deeper connection to my faith to do the work I do at the hospital. Usually people have a call to the priesthood before they go to seminary, they know that’s what they want to do.”

People typically go to seminary then get a job. Another issue for Palmer was that she had not gone to an episcopal seminary. While the Union Theological Seminary in New York is Christian, it is nondenominational. The Episcopal Church said she had to have a year of Anglican Formation which would mean going to school full time for a year at an Episcopal Seminary. This was something she could not do.

“I had a sense that I had been ordained by the children I serve,” said Palmer, who has been an Oncology Chaplain at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia since 2011. “I was content and gratified by that.”

Then, the interim bishop left and the bishop who ordained her came. Encouraged by Rev. Jerod Kerbel, the pastor at Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, she spoke to the bishop about her call to become a priest.

“In the Episcopal Church, you are called by the community,” Palmer said. “I deeply believe it should be hard. It should be rigorous. In lieu of that, I was a pastoral intern for a year, which I did at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Glenside.”

When asked about her work at CHOP, Palmer replied, “It takes a lot out but gives a lot back, and it is in the giving back that I feel I receive more than I ever possibly give.”

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