She’s got the spirit

One of Reno’s few female pastors talks about finding a community of faith

Denise Cordova

Denise Cordova

Photo by Deidre Pike

As a young girl, Denise Cordova felt something that she now considers a calling from God to be a spiritual leader. But her family was Catholic.

“I thought it would never be possible for me to be a priest,” she says.

Even if she had been a Protestant, few opportunities existed for women to serve as pastors in an environment where the biblical suggestion that “women should keep silent in church” was taken literally.

Things haven’t changed much. In Reno, you can almost count the women ministers and rabbis on one hand.

And, after Denise Cordova, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church in Reno, gave her farewell sermon Sunday evening, the ranks narrowed even more.

When you first meet Cordova, 45, you might mistake her for being soft-spoken. She’s surely mild-mannered, with a big easy smile, warm brown eyes and longish dark hair. A gold necklace with a “Jesus” pendant worn over a silky teal blouse marks her as an enthusiast right off. When she gets to talking about people’s relationships with God, she lights up like kerosene-soaked kindling.

“I’d like for people to know how important it is that each of us work on our one-to-one relationship with God,” she says. “Every human being—regardless of whether that person is a pastor, a bishop, or any other type of religious leader—has a personal bias toward certain things. That’s why I believe we have an obligation to ourselves to search through Scripture, to pray, to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us to our own conclusions of who God is and who God loves. I believe God has chosen all of us to be his children. And it’s up to us to choose God.”

Cordova’s own spiritual journey included a couple of decades spent looking for community of believers that would accept her.

“At the age of 12, I started realizing that I was different as far as sexual orientation goes,” she says. “I thought at that point there was no way I was going to be a pastor.”

As it turned out, even going to church became too difficult. She continued to feel what she considers a call from God to be involved in ministry. But it seemed that Christian churches would never accept her.

“I had the sense that God didn’t accept me as well,” she says.

In college, Cordova continued her search. She discovered a group called The Way and began attending Bible studies.

“They continued to reinforce the fact that God does not accept gay people,” she says. “But they said that God would be faithful in changing me. After a couple of years of praying about it and being prayed over about it, nothing changed. I felt basically that I was doomed to a life of homosexuality without God.”

Then things became worse. As gay rights advocates across the United States began pushing for equality and an end to such things as job and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation, many conservative churches began concerted campaigns against homosexuality.

“After that, I stopped searching for churches until I was 35 years old,” Cordova says. “Then I walked into Metropolitan Community Church.”

The founder of the MCC denomination, with churches across the nation, was a gay man who’d been kicked out of a Pentecostal church. In Reno, Metro is recognized as a Christian church with a direct outreach to the gay and lesbian population.

“As soon as I sat down in the church and started listening to the sermon, I started crying uncontrollably,” Cordova says. “It was very clear to me that I was home.”

Being a pastor is stressful. It’s already more than a full-time job planning a service, writing messages, spending time in prayer and study, counseling troubled parishioners and performing marriages and funerals. In Nevada, where church attendance is generally lower than in most states, many pastors work a side job to make ends meet. During the week, Cordova works as a tort claims adjuster and investigator for the Nevada Attorney General’s Office. (Her job, by the way, was not dependent on the outcome of the recent election. “I’m classified, praise God,” she says.) Cordova is also in a committed relationship. That takes work, she says. She and her partner recently adopted a new family member, a cocker spaniel puppy.

Cordova attended a seminary in Sacramento and became an ordained minister about six years ago. She says that being a woman pastor—even at a church with the diverse mass of parishioners you find at Metro—comes with even more challenges. Some members who are former Catholics have trouble with a woman performing the sacrament of communion, a time where Christian believers eat bread and drink wine to remember the sacrificial death of Jesus. On the bright side, women have told Cordova that they feel especially blessed with her role, she says.

“I’ve been told by many that this gave them more of a sense of empowerment with God,” she says.

At times, such minuscule things as changing the order of a Sunday service can become an issue. And instead of trusting that the pastor has spent time in prayer over an issue and come to a decision based on spiritual leading, she’s felt inklings of doubt from some parishioners based on gender.

“People tend to see women as more emotional,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘Was she PMS-ing this week? Was this decision based on hormonal changes?’ No, it was based on spirit changes.”

Historically, some in the Judeo-Christian heritage have used biblical references to subordinate women. But Cordova looks to the founder of the Christian church to turn that notion on its head.

“Women have been looked at as inferior to men because of the creation story,” Cordova explains. “Some say, ‘See? Adam was created first and then a woman was created from his rib, therefore men are supposed to be leaders and women followers.’ But I believe that when God came to earth in the form of Jesus, that Jesus clearly empowered women in a time when that was looked down upon. We see Jesus speaking to the woman at the well, which was against Jewish custom. We see that Jesus, upon his resurrection, first appeared to a woman. And throughout the gospels, Jesus dealt with and spoke to women in a way that no other Jewish priest had ever done before.”

Resigning as pastor of Metro wasn’t a decision that Cordova took lightly. After being diagnosed with a rare form of thyroid cancer, she’s had several surgeries. Though the cancer is in remission right now, Cordova needed to reconsider keeping two jobs.

“I had to take a hard look at my stress level and how that was affecting my body,” she says.

It will be hard stepping down from leadership. But Cordova returns to the idea of individuals taking personal responsibility for their faith.

“I want people to … not arbitrarily believe every single thing that comes out of a pastor’s mouth," she says. "I believe the Bible is a living word, and in being a living word, the Holy Spirit moves through it and reveals those mysteries to us, no matter who we are."