Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Journey to Affirming Women in Ministry

When I posted a blog on “Calling a Woman as Pastor" last week,  I was responding out of concern about the inconsistency of progressive churches and their search committees in affirming women in ministry but failing to call them as senior pastors (head of staff) when the opportunity arises.  The response to that blog has been overwhelming.   According to my blog platform, the post has been viewed over 800 times in one week.  This is 100 views over my top ranked post prior to that ("The Importance of Dialogue") which has been up for 4 1/2 years!

Why did this happen? First, evidently this is a topic that people in which people are interested.  Second, friends shared this blog in their networks.  Third, this is a topic about which I am passionate. 

The role of women in ministry has not always been a front burner topic for me.  I was never hostile to women in leadership roles. For most of my life, I was just indifferent.  In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:  “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  Indifference can be as immoral as opposition. 

As I reflect back, I am more aware of my growing understanding of the importance of women being freed to minister as religious leaders.  As a young person, I had some positive female role models.  Our choir director when I was a teen-ager was a woman (although she was not allowed to lead the congregational music).  Many of my Sunday school teachers were committed, caring women.

In my early days in ministry, I worked with many l gifted women.  Jeannette Rolater was my “secretary” while I was campus minister at MTSU, but she ministered to the students in many ways that I could not.  June Scoggins was on staff with me at Mississippi State University and taught me much through her commitment and service.  Nell Magee at National Student Ministries was both friend and mentor, providing me with innumerable opportunities to “spread my wings.”  Of course, none of these women were ordained to the ministry.

My awareness heightened during my time on staff at Carson-Newman College.  I worked with many women students who were natural leaders, but I found out pretty quickly that some of the male students were trying to talk them out of accepting leadership roles!  I found ways to counteract some of that prejudice but was not always successful.  Fortunately, several of these young women went on to seminary and are now in ministry.

This was the period when I started reading feminist authors such as Letha Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott as well as Baptist leader Sarah Frances Anders.  They gave me an understanding of how often biblical interpretation is influenced by one’s gender and culture and provided me with a new perspective.

Perhaps the final step in my becoming an advocate for women in ministry was hearing the stories of women like Molly Marshall, Lisa Wimberly Allen, and Nancy Sehested who found that the system that nurtured them as young women closed the doors to service when they attempted to exercise their God-given gifts.  These personal accounts had a significant impact on me, and I frequently ask women ministers to share their stories with seminary students in my classes.

The time for silence and indifference is over.  My prayer is that we can honor those women who have been leaders in the past—many who have impacted my life-- by opening more doors for service for others in the future.

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