Meet female pastors and ordained women in Northwest Florida as they share what first inspired them to enter the clergy, how they see their role in ministry and what it looks like to be a female pastor.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories about female pastors and how they inspire their congregations here in Northwest Florida.
We interviewed several pastors and ordained women in Northwest Florida, who have embraced their roles in the clergy with a passion to minister to their congregations and community, as well as a desire to pave the way for women after them.
Meet Sula Skiles, a pastor at Impact Life Church in Destin, in this email interview.
What made you enter ministry?
Shortly after making the decision to give my life to Jesus at age 16, I had an encounter where I heard the Lord calling me into ministry. He spoke to me and said that I would reach the nations for Him, that I would give my life away and share my story so that others could come to know Him.
A lot happened after that, before I fully accepted the calling on my life. I was kinda like Jonah for a season, running in the opposite direction of God’s plan. I have been through a lot, complex trauma, clinical depression, pain, sexual abuse, rape, violence, addiction, sex trafficking and more. I’m so thankful for the love, redemption and grace of God.
I came to a point of fully surrendering, not leading my own life anymore, and Jesus took the lead. God has been so faithful to fulfill everything that He has spoken over my life. He healed me and rescued me from so much that being with Him, serving him, loving him is my greatest life pursuit. I’ll do whatever He wants me to do.
What type of education do you have in the field?
Some college. I’ve been to multiple ministry trainings, ministry courses and online schools, etc. My greatest education has been my hunger for the Word of God and hands-on ministry experience over the years.
As far as my work in the rescue and aftercare of sex trafficking victims and survivors, I’ve been trained by Law Enforcement and Homeland Security. I now provide training to others after 10 years of experience.
How did your friends and family feel about you entering ministry?
I honestly didn’t look to my family or friends for support or approval in going into ministry. I just knew it was my life purpose, and I would follow Jesus, fully surrendered to Him, at all cost.
How would you describe your style of ministry?
I definitely flow through "Childlike Faith, Awe & Wonder," and my goal is to continually point people to deeper intimacy with Jesus, to tangibly encounter Him. Jesus said, "Learn this well: Unless you dramatically change your way of thinking and become teachable, and learn about heaven’s kingdom realm with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, you will never be able to enter in." (Matthew 18:3 TPT). As a result, I’ve seen Jesus perform several healing miracles and bring freedom to so many who were in hopeless situations.
What is your favorite aspect of ministry?
I love being with Jesus in the darkest places. In the strip clubs, brothels, jails and on the streets. Evangelizing with Him and seeing miracles take place. Really, my favorite thing is being aware of His Presence and being with Him anywhere. He is my favorite aspect on ministry.
Do you think being a female pastor is different from being a male pastor? If so, how?
Sure. My husband, Pastor John Mark Skiles, and I pastor Impact Life Church in Destin together. I love being co-labelers in Christ. In my heart, he is my leader and pastor, even though we pastor together. I’ve definitely had people try to box me into stereotypes of what pastors’ wives are "supposed to be." But I forgive ’em and love ’em anyhow.
Do you think sexism exists in ministry? Have you experienced or witnessed it?
Yes, I do. I have personally experienced it. However, this can be tricky to discuss. Some people have very aggressive stances on this stuff and get quickly offended by women in ministry, while taking one Scripture out of context to make women be silent and powerless. So, that being said, it’s important for me to mention that I honor men of God and the leadership the Lord entrusts to them. I’m too busy doing the work of the ministry to get into debates.
Do you think people perceive pastors as a male-predominant career field?
Do you think women have something different to offer to the field?
Yes, absolutely. I believe Jesus really valued women through His life and ministry. He still values and empowers women. Anna the prophetess, in Luke 2:48, was one of the first people to evangelize all of Jerusalem, spreading the Good News that the Messiah has come. Mary Magdalene, in John 20:18, was one of the first to spread the Good News that Jesus had risen from the dead.
When I was new to full-time ministry, the Lord encouraged me to look outside of the church for "ministry opportunities." The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. When the Great Commission is our highest call, we won’t be silenced, overlooked or lacking opportunity inside or outside of the church. As we faithfully follow Jesus, He is the Door and He is the Way.
frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen>
Meet Clelia Garrity
Clelia Garrity has a way of breaking barriers with warmth.
She recalls a time several years ago when she had to. She was working with a man lying in a hospital bed at his house under hospice care.
"He was so angry at God," Garrity said. "He said, ‘I don’t even want to talk to you. I’m terribly angry at God. I’m in terrible pain, but nothing’s gonna help me.’ His wife was very distraught and she said, ‘You really have to help him come to peace.’"
After yelling and making everyone aware of his anger, the man finally confessed the source of his pain. God killed his mother, he said.
The man’s mother was dying while he was deployed to Germany during World War II. Red Cross arranged a ship for him to return to be with her, but she died while he was on the ship, and he never had the chance to say goodbye.
"He was a tough cookie," Garrity said. "He didn’t want any prayers, but he did let me read the 23rd Psalm. Every time I would go there, we would talk about it, and I would read the 23rd Psalm. Then he said, ‘I don’t want to see you anymore.’ A month later, his wife called and said, he’s literally dying. He’s only going to last another hour, and all he wants is you.’"
Garrity didn’t hesitate.
"He could hardly talk," Garrity said. "He was whispering. He grabbed my hand and said, ‘I want you to read me the 23rd Psalm.’ So I bent down and read him the 23rd Psalm. He looked up at me and said, ‘Thank you. I’m going to die in peace now. I know God loves me.’"
Garrity, the associate for community engagement and pastoral care at St. Simon’s on the Sound Episcopal Church in Fort Walton Beach, is honored God gave her that gift.
"I’ve always enjoyed counseling — that’s why I was a social worker," Garrity said. "Here and in the other churches I’ve been in — where I’ve also been the associate for pastoral care — I really feel like I’ve made an impact on people’s lives in terms of comforting them, especially when they’re dying. It’s something I feel so honored to travel with people as they go through some of the most painful, but some of the most important moments of their lives."
It was social work through which Garrity first fell in love with ministry. She started as a licensed clinical social worker with a master’s degree, always working with "on the edge populations," she said, such as people with HIV or cancer or who had experienced sexual abuse.
Garrity stumbled upon the idea of ministry in the 1990s while working on the Mexico border with a Catholic deacon.
"He was an absolute inspiration in the way he worked with people who were suffering, who were grieving," Garrity said. "He was an amazing person.
"I came away from there saying, ‘Social work is good, but I need to also be able to minister to the spirit.’ I have seen how critical that is. If you have everything in the world, but you don’t have spiritual comfort, you’re really suffering."
She started the ordination process in her late 50s, and it wasn’t easy. It requires intense interviewing, studying and practicing.
"It forces you to understand yourself as well as possible," Garrity said. "I came to respect the process, but it was emotional for me, and for everybody, I think, quite challenging."
Garrity was ordained April 10, 2010, in the Diocese of Nevada at St. Martin’s in the Desert in Pahrump, 70 miles Northwest of Las Vegas.
"My confidence level as somebody who’s working in the world has grown as I’ve done the work," Garrity said. "I’ve matured into it. At first I was shaky, but that’s pretty normal. I do a lot of pastoral care, and I think it’s one of the most important things I do — whether it’s with church members or as a volunteer chaplain for the hospital. That love and caring is a critical piece of who I am, both as a person and as a clergy member."