On February 26, 2017, a church in Lebanon ordained its first female pastor. Not only is this big news for Tripoli Evangelical Church, but for the entire Middle East. Rola Sleiman is going down in history as the first female pastor to be ordained in the Arab world.
“Christ’s justice has been finally fulfilled,” Sleiman told journalists after her ordination ceremony.
Sleiman was born in Tripoli to a Syrian father and Lebanese mother. Her parents were involved in the church and encouraged their children to be as well. Sleiman’s interest in church went deeper than most, and by the time she was a teenager she considered a role in the church. Sleiman wanted to pursue a degree from the Near East School of Theology in Beirut. She was denied funding, but managed to pay for her education through private funding.
Despite having just been ordained, Sleiman is no stranger to the pulpit. Previously, she served as a preacher and later as a pastor of the Presbyterian Tripoli Evangelical Church, but she had to work within certain limitations to which non-ordained people are required to adhere. For instance, when she officiated a wedding or funeral, a male ordained pastor had to oversee the ceremony. With ordination also comes more responsibility: Sleiman is now able to perform the sacraments of baptism and communion for her congregation. Sleiman’s church is a part of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, which serves 3,000 members (officially); however Sleiman estimates the actual number of congregants to be three times this.
The 40-year-old Sleiman stepped into the role of pastor in 2007 when the former pastor of Tripoli Evangelical left for the U.S. In his absence, Sleiman temporarily took up the slack in order to keep things going in the church. Of that unexpected transition, Sleiman told reporters, “My conscience did not let me leave my church without a pastor.” A temporary fix eventually led to Sleiman appealing to the church Synod’s Administration Council and putting the decision in the hands of a congregational vote. In 2008 when she was approved to take the title of pastor of Tripoli Evangelical, Sleiman said she received “virtually 100 percent.”
Although people were surprised by the move (including members of the Synod Administration Council), Sleiman said, “The key is that people know me. Maybe they would normally choose a male pastor but because I had served with them they saw what was in me and not just my gender.”
Though the Council was surprised by her request, there is nothing in their theology to warrant excluding women from the role of pastor. When the Synod voted again this year in consideration of her ordination, they voted 23-1 in favor of her. Sleiman told reporters, “Christ is love, and love does not distinguish between men and women.”
If ordaining female ministers is a controversial topic in the U.S., it is even more so in the heavily patriarchal Middle East. A Human Rights Watch Report sums up the plight of women in the Middle East as “unequal and unprotected.” Sleiman recognizes the impact her ordination is going to have on the broader social narrative. She says, “If the church discriminates against women, what should we expect of the state?”
Sleiman’s ordination comes at a time when we are seeing more female clergy in the U.S. as well.