'God's door just opened up' Persistence: Finding a church to serve tested the patience of Stella Dempski but not her faith. Now, she's the first woman little person Presbyterian pastor.

April 18, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Stella Dempski has gifts and talents, education and experience to offer a congregation, but until a Westminster church called, she wondered if she would ever have an opportunity to practice her ministry.

At 28, Ms. Dempski stands 4 feet 1 inch, and is the first woman little person ordained in the Presbyterian church. She was born with achondroplasia, a genetic disorder that affects the formation of cartilage in the bones.

"I believe everyone is a child of God, even though we have different opinions and different understandings of how we live our lives," she said. "Size is just a piece of who I am."

After graduating from Seton Hall University in Elizabeth, N.J., she was a social worker for a year. Then, she pursued a five-year master's degree program at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., and completed an internship there with patients with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

With a master's of divinity degree and a master of arts in Christian education, she started a job search, sending resumes to churches.

"People were really impressed with my dossier but when I got to the interview, there were not many questions," she said. "I can tell when size is the issue and people are not ready."

A lifetime of dealing with similar prejudices has steeled her to those reactions, she said. "There are a lot of problems with prejudice and not being open, inability to look beyond the surface and take a leap of faith."

She expected difficulty because of her stature, but she hoped one of the more than 60 congregations she contacted could get beyond it.

"The process tested my patience but not my faith," she said. "I knew I would find a church. God had called me to pursue ordained ministry. The ministry is my life choice -- not a job, but a way of life."

First United Presbyterian Church, with a congregation of 455, "immediately accepted me for who I was as a person. They were open to adjusting to my short stature."

One member built a platform for her to stand behind at the Communion table and another for the pulpit. The 35-year-old congregation installed Ms. Dempski as its first full-time assistant pastor of education and discipleship in November.

The Rev. Steven R. Fleming, pastor at the church for nine years, said he and Ms. Dempski complement each other.

"Stella is a unique, gifted person who is supposed to be here with us," he said. "Stella enjoys working and has picked up areas that needed attention. We have a large number of young families with children. So, we put a lot of emphasis on Sunday school and Christian education."

Several years ago, Mr. Fleming took a three-year hiatus from the ministry while he recovered from cancer. When he returned, he found several congregations considered his illness a barrier.

"I wasn't going to be a party to what happened to me," he said. "If attitudes are not appropriate, it can be just as disabling in a different manner. But, I found with this congregation, size was not an issue."

Bob N. Lindeman, a church member for five years and co-chairman of the search committee, said he was most impressed with Ms. Dempski's strong counseling background, and her experience in education and lay ministry.

"Size was no problem for us," he said. "We knew a gift had come to us. Her coming is a miracle for us and a tragedy for those churches who could not accept her.

"We are called to love our neighbors, not to assume they are just like us. We look on her as an advantage. She could really challenge people to face their prejudices. She is teaching us how to face what we take for granted."

Ms. Dempski is helping her church develop outreach ministries with several community organizations.

"Our major thrust is that all members embrace a ministry that reaches out to others," Mr. Lindeman said. "Her job is to find

places for us to do that."

On her first visit to the 174 children in the Sunday school program, she faced many questions, particularly from the youngest children.

"I told them they were going to grow, but I am going to stay like this," she said. "God makes different people in different ways. God chose to make me short."

She prefers polite questions to stares. "I tell them to ask," she said. "If I'm up-front about it, and talk openly and honestly, others are comfortable, too."

Five months after her installation, Ms. Dempski says it is no coincidence that her church is growing. "Something in the chemistry attracts people and they stay," she said.

First United Presbyterian has doubled in size since 1988. It recently completed a $1.4 million expansion program, which included a new sanctuary.

The Baltimore Presbytery is so convinced that the Carroll County congregation will continue to grow, it is paying a portion of the new associate's salary for two years, Ms. Dempski said.

She sees herself staying at the Westminster church for a long time. "God's door just opened up," she said. "Everything I had worked so hard for became a reality. I'm home. It's like walking on a cloud. I feel very blessed and I know it all came from God. I really feel God's hand in this."

Pub Date: 4/18/96

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