Oxford gets first female pastor

Published 8:31 pm Saturday, July 8, 2017

With a bright, multi-colored, striped dress, wedge heels and auburn hair that matches the color of her 7-year-old Yorkie, the new pastor of Oxford United Methodist Church readily admits she doesn’t look very pastoral.

But Rita Kanten, 68, will also readily admit she doesn’t care.

“I figure what I do and how I live will reflect that,” she said, holding Grace, the Yorkie who goes almost everywhere with her.

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Today will be Kanten’s second Sunday preaching at Oxford, a historic church on West Washington Street with a dwindling congregation. She hopes to be able to turn the tide of Sunday attendance.

Kanten was a housewife before she felt called to ministry at age 50. The Colorado native was attending a church in Virginia Beach and was asked to preach one Sunday when the pastor went on vacation.

“I said, ‘You’ve lost your mind,’ but I did,” she said. “When I stepped in the pulpit that morning to preach, it felt like home.”

She attended the United Methodist Church’s Course of Study and has now been licensed for 17 years.

“United Methodist Church has a wonderful program for second-career people who are coming into the ministry,” she said.

Kanten spent the first 10 of those years at three churches on the Eastern Shore. She then led Grace Memorial United Methodist Church in Sedley for seven years.

She decided to retire from the ministry.

“The stress of full-time ministry was beginning to wear on me,” she said. But she also admitted to some trepidation about what she would do with her time.

She sought out a place where she could live in a historic downtown loft apartment with retail establishments and restaurants on the ground floor. She searched “loft apartments” online and found Montgomery Lofts, where she lives now. One of her three children lives in Virginia Beach, so she is able to be close to her.

“I love downtown Suffolk,” she said. “I love being able to go out my front door and see people up and down the street. Grace and I love it.”

When church leadership heard she was moving to Suffolk, they thought they had the perfect assignment for her — the part-time position at Oxford.

“I am the first woman pastor Oxford has ever had,” she said. “Hopefully, it will be as much a blessing to the church as it is to me.”

Oxford has about 250 members, Kanten said, but only about a dozen attend on the average Sunday.

“It’s an older congregation,” Kanten said. “We just need the people to start coming again.”

Kanten said the church would love to start children’s activities and so forth if they can get two or three families with young children to start coming regularly and kick-start the ministry.

“I would invite people just to come and worship with us one Sunday and see what they think,” she said. “Service starts at 11 a.m.”

Kanten said she loves being in Suffolk and at Oxford United Methodist Church.

“I just know this was where I was supposed to be,” she said. “This is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. I really like being in Suffolk. I’m looking forward to getting to know more people here.”