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From Process to Main Event

Movements toward justice and equality, like other forms of conversion or transformation, are a process rather than a single event. This essay lifts up and celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of a watershed moment in 1965, the ordination of Rachel Henderlite as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (the PCUS or the southern Presbyterian Church). Henderlite (1905-1991) was an accomplished theologian and ethicist, a professor, and an ecumenical leader. She taught on the faculties of Montreat College, The Presbyterian School of Christian Education, and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. At Austin Seminary, Henderlite holds the distinction of being the first woman on the full-time faculty. Throughout her career she helped to found the first predominantly black Presbyterian church in Richmond, Virginia and was active in ecumenical movements by serving as the representative for the North American region in the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and as president for five years of the Consultation on Church Union. There may be no better way to mark the anniversary of her ordination than to try to measure the overall process of movements toward women’s full inclusion on all levels of church and society. Of course, I can’t provide a full picture of the status or experience of all women. What I can offer are a few snapshots that give a sense of some of the obstacles women continue to confront and invite you to consider the vital transformational role that women themselves must play in movements for justice and equality.

Snapshot #1 – Facing Invisibility and Erasure

At this point in the church’s history, it is critical to remember that access for all women to leadership positions in Protestant churches has been slow in coming. Intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, geographical, and social locations cannot be ignored. Let me offer an example to illustrate my point.

In 2010, the PC(USA) held its 219th General Assembly in Minneapolis, Minnesota. One of the overtures brought before the assembly came from Korean-speaking churches to allow for the creation of non-geographical presbyteries. I represented the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns (ACWC) at that meeting and along with other colleagues wrote several statements offering advice and counsel on business coming before the assembly. ACWC advised against non-geographical presbyteries, but the most critical issue presenting itself for women was one that members of the advocacy team (including me) missed.

When the overture for non-geographical presbyteries came to the floor of the whole assembly three Korean-American women pastors stood up and prophetically spoke from the microphone in opposition. As women pastors, Theresa Cho, Yena Hwang, and Irene Pak felt that their voices would more likely be heard in the larger church than in Korean-speaking presbyteries where they “traditionally are not honored and respected.”1 I remember watching Theresa Cho speak as her image was projected on the huge screen in the assembly hall. A subtle, sickening swell of nausea slowly overcame me as I realized that even a group of well-meaning advocates for women had unintentionally erased the contributions of and promoted the invisibility of Korean-American women pastors.

Within the Presbyterian Church gender is only one of the important factors that must be considered with regards to the full inclusion of women. It took much longer for African American, Latina, and women of Korean origin to be ordained than white women. In 1974, Katie Cannon was the first African American woman ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in both the northern and southern Presbyterian churches. Her ordination came nearly twenty years after the first white woman, Margaret Towner, was ordained in the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA or the northern church). Rebecca Reyes was the first Latina woman ordained in 1979 in the southern church.

Determining precisely how the practice of ordination has expanded to move toward the inclusion of all women is challenging because of the way in which many women define their own ethnic and cultural identities and the nature of their ministries. For example, Elizabeth Kwon was the first woman ordained in the PC(USA) or its predecessor body who is of Korean origin. Kwon was ordained in Japan in 1944 and then later transferred to UPCUSA and her ordination was received in 1979. Jung Mi Han was the first ordained by a presbytery in the US (Greater Atlanta Presbytery on April 6, 1986). Two other women identifying with Korean origin were also ordained close to that time in 1987, Jean Kim and Mary Paik. Paik was ordained specifically to an English speaking ministry in Metro Detroit.

A recent study conducted by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) found that racial-ethnic women are the fastest growing student population in seminaries accredited by the organization.2However, surveys conducted within the last ten years in the PC(USA) suggest that slightly less than half of Presbyterians would be “very comfortable” with women of color fulfilling a pastoral role.3 What then does that mean for the future leadership of our church and for women’s ministries?

Social constructs of race and gender have been used for centuries by dominant social groups to protect their own power, to lord power over, and to prevent others from actualizing God’s dreams for them. If our hope as a church is to move toward realizing God’s vision of a true community of shared partnership then we must examine, explore, and critically engage in a discussion about the ways intersections of race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, geographical and social locations affect people’s lived realities, particularly the lives of women.

Snapshot #2 –Standing at Intersections Created by Male Norms

One of the most persistent problems is the lack of pathways, spaces, communities, and access within social, ecclesial, and political structures where women can determine for themselves their own identities, goals, beliefs, projects, and mission. In other words, women still stand at intersections created for them by dominant male norms.

I have a personal experience I would like to share before considering connections to the stories of other women. After I graduated from seminary I served as pulpit supply for churches in Presbytery of the Peaks. When I became pregnant with our first child I traveled as long as I could. One of my last preaching gigs before giving birth to our son was at a small church in the Virginia mountains. I led worship at that church several times before and felt comfortable with the congregation there so I arrived fairly close to the beginning of the service. At that time I did not own a clerical robe of my own so I borrowed one from my husband. He had two robes; one given to him by a pastor mentor and another one a gift from his grandmother when he graduated from seminary. The pleats in the robe made it large enough to fit quite well around my swollen waist which by that time extended beyond what felt like normal proportions. I proceeded up the aisle to the chancel area as the prelude began. This church had a central pulpit which could only be reached by climbing a set of tight narrow stairs. I began to make my way up the stairs and realized that at that time in my pregnancy I simply could no longer fit up such a narrow set of stairs. I quickly reached behind my back and cinched up the black robe to make it tighter around my waist hoping that would give me the extra bit of space that I needed to make my way forward. It was no use. Red-cheeked I backed my way down the stairs and proceeded to the communion table where I placed my notes and began the call to worship.

Evidence of women’s experience in churches of trying to find ways to fit into tight spaces that they didn’t design for themselves can be easily found. One place to look for a more recent record is to “Deborah’s Daughters,” a listening project and discernment process conducted by The Racial Ethnic and Women’s Ministry Unit of the PC(USA). Small groups of women were formed in twenty different presbyteries as part of the “Deborah’s Daughters” project so it represents the reflections and experiences of at least one hundred women. Nancy Young began the project in 2010 and the work was continued by Nancy Benson-Nicol in 2013. Two of the sessions facilitated by Benson-Nicol focused specifically on the experience of young adult women (ages 18-32). These women were engaged in a variety of ministries as college students or seminarians, working for non-profits, doing advocacy work, candidates for ordination actively seeking a call as well as serving as pastors. Many reported experiencing both “institutional and personal barriers”4 in their ministries. One participant remarked, “Everyone I talked to is not quite convinced I am capable.”5 Another had emerged into a leadership role, but also felt that members in her congregation oftentimes made it clear that she was “not the leader we [the church] wanted”6 or expected. Young women pastors are often “treated as though they are not pastors, but apprentices.”7 A seminarian and candidate for ordination talked about assumptions that she should “neutralize her gender in the pulpit.”8 It may be tempting to dismiss these stories as isolated anomalies, but these anecdotes illustrate formative and common experiences among women in ministry. The experiences of these young women also suggest that those who gain access to leadership positions in the church are not necessarily treated as or assumed to be equal partners.

Today, mainline seminaries report that the majority of their students are women. In the PC(USA), however, women are not equally represented among leaders on all levels of ministry in the church. Nearly 80% of pastors and co-pastors are men. Women make up only 4.7% of ministers installed in senior pastor positions in congregations with over 1000 or more members.9 Most women serve in congregations of fewer than 300 members. In larger congregations, women more frequently fill positions as associate pastor working with congregational care or ministries for children and youth. Women are also disproportionately represented among those serving non-parish ministries such as chaplaincies and social ministries. Nancy Young took note of additional issues that women in ministry confront in her report of interviews that she conducted through the “Deborah’s Daughter’s” listening project. Women she interviewed reported encountering or experiencing all or some of the following: feelings of loneliness, sexual harassment ranging from “rape to comments about clothing, hair and body type,” lack of consistency in regards to family leave policies, being offered or paid “$10,000 less than the previous male pastor when taking a call,” not being welcomed in predominantly male ministerial associations in their communities, and the strong desire for support and spiritual nurture.

Snapshot #3 – Vulnerability and Precarity in the Academy

I could not clearly articulate the causes of deep inequalities between women and men until I was in seminary and took a class taught by Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos on feminist interpretation of the bible. Bos’ classes offered far more than information; they became creative spaces for women to name and claim their own theologies, beliefs, practices, and identities. Even more so, her classes were a training ground for transformational leaders. Considering the obstacles that women still face prompted me to reflect on those classes and the status of theologies emerging from women’s experiences in the academy.

Many theological schools and seminaries have women and men teaching on their faculties with intentional methodological commitments to all those pushed to the margins of church and society. I am aware that several schools have institutes focusing on the status of women and religion, women’s centers, and there is a womanist center. There are endowed chairs named for women, but I found only two endowed chairs in the theological schools and seminaries of the U.S. that are specifically devoted to the advancement of feminist and womanist theologies. Both of these chairs are at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Ellen Armor holds the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair in Feminist Theology and Emilie Townes is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society. I could not find any endowed chairs devoted to mujerista, Asian feminist, or black feminist theologies. If I am missing one of these chairs I hope that the name and place can be posted below so that we can begin recording this important history. I would also be most pleased to be wrong in this case.

The fact that theologies emerging from women’s experiences are taught across the curriculum is worth celebrating. However, not having an established and permanent place within institutions leaves these theological perspectives and the people they represent in a place of vulnerability and precarity. Women will continue to face difficulty in determining their own identities, goals, beliefs, projects, and mission until we allow women’s experiences and theologies to transform our collective thinking about God’s nature, our experiences in the world, and the nature of the institutional church.

Snapshot #4 – Looking Outward

I don’t think we can adequately talk about the status of women at this point in our church’s history or in U.S. society without looking outward toward the broader experience of women around the world. Overcoming invisibility, atoning for sins of erasure, and deepening our collective understanding of obstacles that prevent women from determining their own identities, goals, and mission will only be possible by thoroughly investigating the complex intersecting dynamics of gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and geographical and social locations.

The Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen writes about inequality between women and men as a collection of “disparate and inter-linked problems.”10 Women around the world experience inequalities in access to education and representation in governance structures, ownership of property, biases in health care and nutrition and in employment and promotion in the workplace. Consider the fact that women make-up about 50% of the world’s population yet represent 70% of the world’s one billion poorest people. Women are typically paid less than men. On average, women worldwide earn half of what men earn. In the United States, women’s pay averages 17% less than men’s pay. Statistical data from 2009 shows that “there were about 18.1 million children in the United States living in single-mother families … [T]here were 19.6 million U.S. children residing in female-headed families.”11 The increase in single-mother families is directly linked to the long-term increase in child poverty in our nation. Sen has also made the chilling observation that “in places where girls have deeply unequal status, they vanish.”12 It is estimated that 3 million women and girls (and a very small number of boys) worldwide are enslaved in the sex trade.13 The U.S. State Department estimates that between 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year; 80% of them are women and girls.14 In the U.S. alone, millions of women and girls face beatings or other forms of violence from their husbands or boyfriends—more than one in six undergoes rape or attempted rape.

Faith communities must avoid the tendency to become too turned in on themselves. The stories of women around the globe are a part of our narrative and are instructive for us about attitudes toward women and girls worldwide. We must look in and examine our own practices and then look outward to see how we can play a vital role in achieving a just and authentic community of shared partnership for all.

Process as Main Event

There are only a few times when I felt like I have been able to catch a brief glimpse of the full inclusion of women in a community of faith or in society. One of them was at Covenant Community Church (CCC) in Louisville, Kentucky. CCC had an open pulpit and a truly open communion table. As you may know, the Presbyterian Church requires that an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament say the words of institution. However, at that time, many people in our congregation were not eligible for ordination because of their sexual orientation. On one night, the pastors invited a young woman who felt called to ministry but was not eligible for ordination to stand with them at the communion table. She offered the invitation to the table. When the time came for the bread to be broken and the wine to be poured, she remained standing behind the table with the pastors, music began, and the whole congregation sang together the words of institution. A swell of emotion moved us all. Social boundaries bore no meaning in that incredible moment and we experienced, if only briefly, the feeling of all being one in Christ.

The anniversary of Rachel Henderlite’s ordination is a reminder to us that faithful people who connect their beliefs and practices to movements for justice and equality can increase the density and flow of broader currents for social change. Contemporary stories and statistics also invite us to consider whether or not we are now at a point in time when the process of moving toward the full inclusion of women in church and society needs to become the main event.


  1. Theresa Cho, “Korean-American Women in the PC(USA): Room to Speak,” The Christian Century (November 30, 2010): 13.
  2. “Racial Ethnic Students Represent Largest Growth Area for Theological Schools,” Association of Theological Schools Report of 2012 Annual Tables Data. Accessed online at http://www.ats.edu/uploads/resources/publications-presentations/documents/racial-ethnic-growth.pdf
  3. “Women in the Churches,” 2007 Presbyterian Panel Survey.
  4. “Deborah’s Daughters Listening Session,” Unpublished Notes Taken by Nancy Benson-Nicol, The Big Tent, July 31, 2013.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Nancy Young, “Deborah’s Daughters: A Report from the Office of Women’s Leadership Development,” Unpublished (2011).
  8. “Deborah’s Daughters Listening Session,” Unpublished Notes Taken by Nancy Benson-Nicol, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
  9. 2010 Comparative Statistics, Office of Research Services of the Presbyterian Church (USA). As cited in “The Design for the Study of the Status of Women on All Levels of the Church: Methodology Task Force Report.” 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) 2014.
  10. See Amartya Sen, “The Many Faces of Gender Inequality.” The New Republic (September 17, 2001): 35.
  11. Mark Mather, “US Children in Single-Mother Families.” Accessed online at http://www.prb.org/Publications/PolicyBriefs/singlemotherfamilies.aspx
  12. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky. New York: Vintage Books, 2009, xv.
  13. Ibid., 10.
  14. Alison Siskin and Liana Sun Wyler, “Trafficking in Persons: U.S. Policy and Issues for Congress,” (December 12, 2010). Accessed online at https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL34317.pdf