I visited another city this week, attended a church of another denomination for worship. Among, and maybe central, to the joy of the experience, was worshiping with the leadership of a clergywoman decades younger than I am, who was full of Spirit–energy, imagination, gifts and a sense of the Holy. As I watched and listened to her invite us into Holy Presence, my heart was full. Thirty years ago I graduated from seminary and was ordained a few months later to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. In my seminary women made up about 25% of the student body at that time, and most of us were ordained to ministries where the congregation had never seen, heard or imagined a woman minister. Most of my women colleagues were called to associate positions that had to do with education, some with children, and pastoral care. Very few of my graduating class went first to senior positions or solo pastorates. On that Sunday last week I celebrated the full participation of a woman in creative and wide ministry in the company of another woman and a man on the pastoral staff.
I found my self grateful for the Church who has continues to recognize the gifts and calling of women. I am well aware that there are places in the Body of Christ where leadership of women is still forbidden, and I’m too aware of the rationalizations that keep those parts of the community from inviting women in. Yet, the proportion of women who have in faithfulness have listened for God’s call in their life, understood the demands and sacrifices necessary to meet that call, and have stepped up to say “yes,” has proliferated over these thirty years, and the Church in so many places is richer for it. For many, the response to the faithful “yes” has come at great cost, sometimes with great suffering. Yet, they have been fruitful, generous and joyful in their offerings of leadership.
I am also grateful that I have had a part in that proliferation of women’s leadership, not only in my own calls to ministry, but in being a companion and encouraging other women in theirs. I worship most often in a church whose pastor is a former intern of mine. Occasionally I get to participate in service of ordination for a woman who has been a student. A large part of my practice of spiritual direction is with women who are called to ministries of various kinds in the Church. What I am able to observe, over and over again, is that the whole Church is enriched and empowered by the integration of the various gifts of women to the repertoire of what the Church does and is. Not only do women in ministry add creative new dimensions to traditional tasks of pastor and leaders, such as preaching and caring for souls in a pastoral way; they also are among those who boldly ask questions and imaginatively suggest alternatives about what the gathered people of God will look like when present denominational structures and ways of doing Church business no longer suffice.
As I sat in worship as a congregant being directed and inspired by a young woman pastor, I remembered a time in the 1970’s when I was just beginning to ponder the possibility that I might have a place of leadership in the Church. I read a reflection by the late writer Shana Alexander, who mused that not all of us in the women’s movement could be the front row of the band, playing trumpets and trombones, but that we all has parts to play; even the smallest of us could play the oh-so-critical part of the piccolo. The apostle Paul tells the Corinthians that members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. Giving thanks in that Sunday sanctuary, I knew that to be true. For every woman who has a faithfully lived out her call to serve God in the Church and the world; for the young generations who are rising up to amplify, augment and enhance the ministries of those who have gone before; for my own moments of play time in the angel band of women who have given themselves to the Church in leadership and friendship, I am grateful! Whatever shape the Church will have in this century of history, it will be blessed and enriched by the strong and gifted angel band of women in ministry!