Women in Ministry
Autobiographical Snapshots: A Story of Change in the PCUSA
Dr. E. Elizabeth Johnson
Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty’s snapshots brought a few of my own to mind. In gratitude for her thoughtful reflection on the history of women’s leadership in the Presbyterian Church and the current status of women in our church, I offer a few others. I particularly appreciate her attention to “intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, geographical, and social locations,” and hope to think about some of those too along the way.
Four years after the Presbytery of Hanover ordained Rachel Henderlite (and thirteen years after Cayuga-Syracuse ordained Margaret Towner), I went to college to study music because that was one of the three ways I thought women could serve the church. My mother had been a missionary and I did not think that was what I was called to do. I had known lots of women church educators, but that did not feel right, either. I came honestly by my choice: my grandmother was for decades the organist at First Presbyterian Church in Charleston, West Virginia, just up the road from where I grew up in Huntington, and she was a significant leader of that congregation. There were no women ministers in Greenbrier Presbytery in those days nor did I know that any existed anywhere.
Twelve hours a day in the music building did not keep me away from the religion department where I took electives whenever I could. Three of my professors, two of whom were UPCUSA ministers, watched me devour their classes and encouraged me to think about theological education. Then I took Greek—including a semester of New Testament Greek—and knew I was hooked for life. I did not imagine myself the minister of a particular church but a teacher, something again that was appropriately “feminine,” although I little knew then how inappropriate it would turn out to be.
When I arrived at Princeton Seminary in the fall of 1973, the tide was clearly turning in the church. Five percent of the senior class were women, fifteen percent of the middler class were women, and our class was fully twenty-five percent female. Predictably, the push-back was swift and sometimes ugly. Some of our teachers emphatically opened class with “Gentlemen, shall we pray?” and we fought the language battle in class and in chapel. Classmates challenged our right to pursue ordination—sometimes even Presbyterian classmates.
At commencement, my friend Rose Catalano Mitchell was invited, as the president of our class, to read Scripture. The text was Ephesians 4:1-16. She came to me ahead of time asking if there were some way to avoid saying “mature manhood” in v. 13, which made both of us cringe. The original indeed presumes that the masculine is the ideal of the human, but I suggested that she could faithfully say “mature adulthood” instead, in view of the fact that our anthropology no longer presumes the same thing the writer of Ephesians did. She got flack. When she told people it was my fault, I got flack. No less than Bruce Metzger, whose own NRSV Committee would later translate that phrase “maturity” rather than “mature manhood,” asked me how Rose could dare say that was the Word of God if it were not in fact the Word of God. It was death by a thousand cuts in those days.
There were precisely two women on the faculty when we were in school and we clung to them for dear life. Kathy Sakenfeld and Freda Gardner modeled for us life with integrity in a sexist institution. Freda loves to tell of the first faculty retreat she attended when she was invited in a memo to choose a roommate from among her colleagues. Once I was talking with President McCord of my plans for graduate study and said how grateful I was to grow up with my mother on the faculty at Marshall University, because it not only fed my love of academia but also taught me what to expect. “Oh,” asked Jazzeye, “is your father dead?” (he wasn’t). Obviously a woman wouldn’t do such a thing unless there were economic necessity.
Economic necessity faced most of my classmates who were pursuing calls to congregations. We debated the wisdom of going to a presbytery that had no other women members until we figured out there just would not be enough calls to be able to afford the luxury. Many of the first calls women got were as assistant pastors (an office I am grateful no longer exists) because there were more pastors brave enough to call them than there were congregations. Some of my classmates never became ministers.
The (then) Presbytery of Greenbrier had not yet ordained a woman when I was a candidate there, although they had received one woman minister by that time, and they responded to my request to be examined by putting me on the docket and then taking me off of it three times. The ostensible reason for resisting me was that I sought to be ordained to further study, something that was provided for in the PCUS Book of Church Order but did not make its way into the reunited church’s Book of Order. There were two real reasons that many members of presbytery—including my own pastor—opposed my ordination, though. The less controversial one was that I had been educated at Princeton rather than at a good Southern school (chauvinism runs just as deep as sexism!). The more problematic reason, precisely because they could not legitimately talk about it, was my gender. Thanks to the support of Dean Thompson, though, then a young minister of the Montgomery Church and now President Emeritus of Louisville Seminary, who himself had been ordained to further study, I made it. I further ruffled feathers when a Lutheran (wearing an alb, no less), Donald Harrisville Juel, preached the sermon at my ordination. I simply never fit the mold.
It was providential that the Presbytery of Greenbrier relented, because halfway through my graduate study I received a call to serve as chaplain at Queens College,1 something I had not sought and did not even know about. I had reached something of a burn-out point in my work, though, and the sunny South seemed ever so attractive an escape. I intended to stay in Charlotte for a year but left after four, not only having renewed my desire to finish my PhD but more importantly having my call confirmed in unexpected and gracious ways. To be allowed into the lives of girls becoming women was a stunning privilege. I preached to them weekly, served them at table, taught them in the classroom, and shared life with them as they figured out how to lay down the faith of their childhood and pick up adult discipleship. They gave me my identity as a minister of the gospel and I will owe them for the rest of my life. It took living and working at a women’s college—where all the women really are strong—to refine my own feminism and make it more theological. It took teaching in a women’s college to shape me as a teacher.
In addition to clarifying my vocation, my years at Queens gave me back an appreciation for my PCUS heritage, something that had waned a bit at Princeton. I had amazing mentors in Douglas W. Oldenburg (who would later be the president at Columbia when I was called here) and J. Randolph Taylor, one of the architects of Presbyterian reunion, who invited me into Presbytery, Synod, and Assembly work. The remarkable network of friends I found in the Women Employed by the Church Committee and later the Committee on Women’s Concerns taught me how to navigate sometimes hostile waters with grace and good humor.
Those women also taught me how to interpret and respond to the sometimes surprising responses we have all gotten from women who question our right to be ordained. We expect opposition from men, but not from women, and that takes work. My own mother, the former missionary, had always steadfastly refused to stand for office in our church and was deeply troubled by my own pursuit of ordination until she saw how fierce was the opposition from all those men in our presbytery. No doubt there was a measure of the mother bear in her response—any who fought against her cub would receive in their own persons the due penalty for their error—but she also began to rethink her own reading of Scripture, and she eventually served as both a deacon and an elder.
The women on the staff of the first seminary I served, New Brunswick Theological Seminary, complained to the president early on that I did not socialize with them at work. I had carefully paid attention to how my (all male) colleagues related to the staff and followed their lead. The other women expected me to be one of them, though, and the president agreed with them until I pointed out that I was acting only as I saw my colleagues act. It is not as though there were any tensions between faculty and staff—far from it—but social expectations of long standing are very difficult to challenge. We were experiencing what sociologists call status inconsistency or status dissonance.2 I was claiming the status of a faculty member, to which my education and work had entitled me, but my gender (and age) ought to have forbidden it. By the time we called a second woman to that faculty, things had settled down and we were both genuinely embraced, I think, as legitimate colleagues.
Students, on the other hand, were sometimes more reluctant. Again, I believe, it was a matter of status dissonance. On the one hand, professors are properly due honor and respect. On the other hand, what were we doing being professors in the first place? As all young teachers do, we explored the nature of our authority and figured out how to navigate the sometimes rocky shoals of the classroom and chapel to earn students’ trust (at least most of them). The older I have gotten, the easier that has become because age is another status marker that tends to mitigate my (unfortunate) lack of a Y chromosome.
I was the first woman called to teach at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, but the year I was called to Columbia, three of us were called at one time and we instantly doubled the number of women on the faculty. Since then we have added many more (women constitute 45 percent of our current faculty), we have had a woman president, a woman dean of students, and we now have a dean and executive vice president, two associate deans, and an interim dean of students who are women. We are simply no longer invisible. We also do not all have European ancestors, which means we are not monolithic, a bloc to be identified and marginalized.
I’m deeply grateful to have been born and called when I was because I have seen a great deal of change over the years, most of it for the good. As Elizabeth points out, though, we have a long way yet to go. I continue to be inspired by my African American, Asian, and Latina women students who face far more hostility than I did; their courage and resilience are astonishing. In far too many Christian communions women are still simply forbidden to serve. The well documented glass ceiling means that women who are allowed serve more often as associates than pastors or are drawn into non-parish ministries. Moreover, I note a measure of historical amnesia among many of my students and younger women in ministry, an assumption that all those old battles are in the past. The greatest value in celebrating Rachel Henderlite’s ordination is to remind all of us that the story is not over.
- Now Queens University of Charlotte.
- See Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).