Story by Britain Eakin

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Beth Rambikur glided out of her office, a glowing smile on her face and ashes in the shape of a cross smeared across her forehead to mark the start of Lent Wednesday. Rambikur is the lead pastor of the United Methodist Church congregation in Tucson.

When she was a little girl, Rambikur told her mom she wanted to be a pastor’s wife.

“She said, 'well sweetie, you know women have come a long ways since the 1950s and '60s. You could actually be the pastor,'” she recalled.

The role of women in religious leadership has been a struggle for centuries, but these days it’s become commonplace to find women in visible roles in congregations across the country. And, it’s increasingly common to find women leading these congregations, such as Rambikur.

“I was raised in a community of very strong male pastors," she said. "Prescott didn’t have a lot of women who were in ministry other than the ministry that all women engage in, which is usually hospitality, compassion, family raising or community activism. But there weren’t women pastors when I was growing up."

Now, she is a pastor and has surpassed her own childhood goal, fulfilling her mother’s prophecy.

Rambikur graduated from Candler School of Theology in Atlanta back in 2009.

At 31, Rambikur said she's seen a lot change in the church.

“I’ve seen the role of pastor go from being a predominantly older male role to perhaps even being a 50-50 role between men and women," she added. "I have seen younger people being called into greater positions of responsibility, especially younger women."

She chose the Candler School of Theology because of the female leadership there, she explained.

“My classmates were phenomenal. Candler is a pretty diverse school, so I had women classmates who were becoming Presbyterian ministers and Episcopal priests and are now serving churches all across the Eastern part of the United States,” Rambikur said.

Although the roles of women in the church continue to evolve and grow, some leadership roles remain out of reach. The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t ordain women as priests. Despite this restriction, women have a prominent role in the Diocese, according to Roman Catholic Bishop Gerald Kicanas.

“If you come and visit our pastoral center, you’ll see that many of our directors of various offices are women,” Kicanas said.

Some have held out hope in the elevation of Pope Francis, who has said the church needs to find more significant leadership roles for women.

“Recently Cardinal Casper, who is one of Pope Francis’s advisors, was saying that he’d like to see women appointed to head Pontifical Councils, which is a significant role in the Vatican,” Kicanas said.

The question of ordaining women in the Catholic Church is one the church will continue to grapple with. But Kicanas said he sees other leadership roles for women.

“I think we’re going to see more and more the church recognizing the significance of the role of women in the church, and in the ministries of the church and I think that’s a great thing. Because certainly in our Diocese, some of my key advisers are women,” he added.

While the roles of women in Tucson churches continue to evolve, so do the communities some churches now serve. Rambikur said she sees an exciting change happening in her church, which has opened its doors to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

“We are a church working to be open and affirming to people regardless of who they’ve chosen to love, regardless of how they understand their gender," she said. "A church that despite our denomination’s rather difficult stance on the issue says we embrace all people of sacred worth and say that they are part of our community and should have all the rights and protections that any other person should have,” Rambikur said.

Women have a lot to contribute to transforming and embracing the communities they serve, Rambikur added. She saaid she envisions more young women coming into leadership positions and continuing to work together to inspire change.

“This could be a place where other religions could come and have authentic, altering conversations where we could encounter one another and honor each other’s faith traditions and be a model for this city…There are so many things that make us different and that’s what makes us beautiful,” Rambikur said. “If we embrace that diversity we will be, I don’t know, cultivating a garden of beauty.”