It’s amazing how I have been able to go through the years thinking that I am so progressive when it comes to the advancement of women in the church. When I first went into ministry I realized that there were women who came before me and paved the way, often times they paid a great price and made many sacrifices.
There were those women who fought their way through seminary, trying to be taken seriously next to and by their male colleagues, only to be offered jobs as secretaries in churches and denominational offices – that is if they could find a paid position anywhere. Many of those women never married because it was too hard to fight the expectation that they should be the one to stay home and raise the children and support their husband’s career. Some of them married men who became pastors. Those women were in fact partners in the ministry but never were recognized as anything but their husband’s wife. Most of these women were not ordained, or were ordained many years later. They took any job they could in order to do ministry – with or without recognition.
Those women opened the door for the next generation of women. They still had trouble being taken seriously in seminary, but every once in a while they found men who were progressive enough to support and encourage them. These women tended to be the more outspoken women. They were the ones that started the groups and organizations that promoted and advanced the cause of women in ministry. They were the women who, along with a few progressive and supportive men, were the ones who brought resolutions to the floor and created positions that were to open more doors for women. They are the women I respectfully call the “bra-burners.” Many of those women ended up in various mid-level denominational positions and as associate pastors. Many went into campus ministry and then interim work. Few, if any, made it to the position of senior pastor, or even solo pastor.
Then there was my generation. For the most part I felt like I was taken seriously in seminary. There were a few incidents, but those will be left for another post. Once out of seminary it was difficult, but not impossible, to find a job. For a woman, positions in children’s ministry, Christian education, youth ministry and campus ministry were the jobs that were open. A man, just out of seminary had all of those possibilities too, but also, solo pastorates. All of the positions open to women were seen as a stepping stone for a man. For a woman it was the first and final destination. My generation knew that could change. And that was what we were working toward.
Then there were the women who opened doors and we didn’t even know it. When I was in college I was a regional officer for Guild, a girl’s organization in my denomination. Each summer I had the opportunity to attend what was called Western States Conference. These conferences were planned by young women, like me… or at least we were under the illusion we were planning these conferences. I now know that there were some women who were allowing us to labor away under that illusion. They were lay women who were a part of the leadership of ABW, the women’s missionary society; you know, the ones that ate crust-less cucumber sandwiches, rolled bandages and cut quilt blocks – Ha! What we didn’t notice was that they were the ones that managed to invite newly ordained women in our denomination to be camp pastors and conference speakers. Sometimes the only opportunities these young women had to preach were those opened up for them by these lay women. What that meant for a young woman like me was that we were exposed to these ordained women at an age when we were exploring what we wanted to do with our lives. I never even considered that professional ministry was an option for me until I met the (newly) Rev. Margaret Cowden and the (also newly) Rev. Marilyn Marston, who were speakers at the Western States Conference held at Camp Burton, WA, in the summer of 1977. I even needed a little push from my Guild Advisor, Anita Pittman, Kindergarten teacher "by day" and rabble-rouser on weekends and during the summer. There were other women, whose names I don’t remember, but I do remember that a couple of them were a force to be reckoned with!
Eventually, I went into ministry and was ordained. I found various roadblocks, but I would always find an opportunity to preach or to speak at ABW events and conferences. They would be the ones that would make sure that an ordained woman would be the preacher for Women’s Sunday at their church… often the only day of the year that a woman would step behind that pulpit to preach. Occasionally I would even meet a woman who would let me know that she had been praying for me all through college and seminary – even though she had never met me in person. I could see their strategy then. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized that way back at those Guild Conferences, those ABW ladies had been strategizing while they were rolling those bandages and cutting those quilt blocks. They had a plan for making a change for women in the church, one that they knew would take a while, but one that they knew was long-overdue. They were just ordinary ABW ladies. Yeah! They had me fooled!