By Colin Ryan
Joan O’Gorman sits cross-legged, surrounded by engrossed children as she tells a story about the first apple tree. She punctuates the narrative with silly expressions, wide-eyed enthusiasm, and at all points wears a big smile on her face. The kids nod their comprehension as she concludes, “Just like the apple tree, God gave each of us things that make us unique.”
Something unique about O’Gorman: not only is she the first female pastor of Williston Federated Church, she is one of the first female pastors in Williston.
“I didn’t know it till I got here,” she recalls with a laugh. “It felt daunting at first, and humbling. I know it’s a challenge – especially for people who have never had a female pastor before. But I’ve been fortunate because most of the people I’ve ministered to have had a very positive previous experience with a woman pastor, or a woman as an associate pastor, or Christian educator. So I’m very blessed by the women who have gone ahead of me over the years. And that’s part of what I try to do as well, for the women who will surely come after me.”
“We’re thrilled with Joan,” said church member Charlie Magill. “And not just because she’s a woman, but because of the kind of woman she is.”
In O’Gorman’s pastoral study, on a packed bookshelf, sit two unusual items. The first is a wind-up nun that spits fire, a joke stemming from her former days as a student in Catholic school. The second is a model of a yellow taxi.
“A lot of people don’t know that I was a cab driver in New York City,” O’Gorman said. “That’s how I put myself through college. Being a minister is a lot like driving a taxi cab, in that you’re taking people to a place they’ve asked to go, but you may not be taking them in the same direction that they think is the best way. You have to earn their trust. And once you do, for some reason when people get into that backseat, they want to tell their story. And I absolutely love stories.”
O’Gorman preaches with intelligence, wit, and compassion. This is only her third week at Williston Federated Church, and she communicates comfortably with the congregation of more than 100, often succeeding at calling on individuals by name.
“I love her,” said Ashley Dubois, an Autism Interventionist for the South Burlington school district, and one of the senior high youth group leaders. “She brings us an opportunity to grow in places where we are ready to grow. She has been very welcoming to the youth and excited about what we’re doing. And the youth are excited to have the connection with her as well.”
At 58, O’Gorman has been a pastor for 27 years, beginning in Bangor, Maine. She and her husband, Gary, a lay preacher, have four children. Most recently, she served for 17 years as the pastor of East Arlington Federated Church in Arlington, Vt.
“I was attracted by the dynamics of this church,” said O’Gorman of her move to Williston. “They’re welcoming, mission-oriented, and really reaching out to families and children.”
In a region in which the attendance in mainline Christian churches is declining, the church remains unconcerned, focusing more on service than on their own expansion. This past May, members of the church went down to Van Cleve, Miss., to help rebuild in communities that were damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
“I cannot imagine a life apart from community, or apart from serving,” O’Gorman admitted. “I just don’t think Christianity is a ‘me religion’ – it’s a ‘we religion.’ Growing our church doesn’t just mean growing this particular congregation. We’re already forming partnerships with churches down in Van Cleve. We’re hoping to grow this church by helping the folks down there rebuild their lives. God didn’t call us to count his sheep, but to feed them. The question is not ‘how big is our church?’ but ‘how great is our mission?’”