By Rebekah Thornhill
International Women’s Day is held every year on March 8. It is meant to both celebrate achievements of women and mark a call to action towards accelerating gender parity. March also is set aside as Women’s History Month. With that, and the recent commemoration of 45 years of women in ordained ministry in our church, we asked some female pastors who have been ordained for the longest and shortest amounts of time to share their experiences.
"It’s a favorite family story for us," reflects Pr. Anna Rieke (ordained in 2014), "that my grandfather, who was an attorney and served on the Churchwide council at the time, made the motion to pass the resolution that allowed the ordination of women."
"My mother went to the LCA convention where they voted to ordain women," said Pr. Heidi Neumark (ordained in 1983). "She came home and was pretty excited about this news and what it meant. I was somewhat indifferent," she laughed. It would be a few more years before she would feel a call to ministry in the Lutheran church.
The first female American Lutheran pastor was ordained in November 1970 after both the American Lutheran Church (ALC) and Lutheran Church in America (LCA), both predecessor bodies to the ELCA voted to approve the ordination of women.
Pr. Harriet Wieber (center) shared advice with youth at a recent synodical event.
© Bob Williams
Early on, women found themselves answering a call to ministry before they knew exactly what that ministry might look like. "Even though I was in the second wave of women pastors that were ordained," says Pr. Harriet Wieber (ordained in 1983), "We didn’t see female pastors yet. We only read about them."
"Women started taking the calls that others weren’t willing to take," Says Pr. Chris Bohr Andersen (ordained in 1979). "The North Carolina Synod hadn’t ordained any women when I was a senior in seminary. I had trouble finding an internship site and my then my first call. But women still had a strong sense of call and were called to go to some of the most needed places of brokenness and trouble."
"As women, we were able to approach some of these situations differently," says Pr. Wieber. "Our experience and leadership is different. Early on, we had to forge our our exegetical path to hear voices like ours. I remember it being a profound experience to preach on on Christmas Eve about Mary giving birth just one month after I had also given birth to a child."
Pr. Heidi Neumark was the preacher for January 2015's Service for Justice and Reconciliation.
© Bob Williams
There was high pressure for women to do well and succeed in their ministry. "Otherwise there would be a reason for people to point to me and say, ‘See, I told you women can’t be pastors.’" says Pr. Wieber. "When people are able to build a relationship and find comfort in even their worst of times," reflects Pr. Anderson, "they can move past who is ministering to them. You can always find insulting things in relationship with other people. You have to do your job and do the best you can."
Each of these women expressed a sense of vulnerability in their early ministry. Candidacy and call committees would ask questions that were inappropriate and a violation of boundaries. In hindsight, many of these women interviewed expressed that they were grateful for their experiences not being as bad as some of their classmates and friends. They didn’t take things personally and were even naïve about some situations.
Each found a support system that helped them to navigate through. "After other colleagues said they would not receive communion from me," remembers Pr. Wieber, "the MNYS bishop at the time, Rev. William Lazarus told people that if you can’t accept your female colleagues, you don’t have a place in this synod." Others were supported by their conferences and retired pastors in their synod.
Pr. Rebecca Seely is one of the most recently ordained women in our synod.
Each woman interviewed expressed that their sense of call outweighed any of the negative experiences. As public ministry continues to change in our church, listening to the voice of God despite what may feel like a wilderness experience has proved to bolster the ministry of these women. "Claim your voice and your calling – the unique voice that you are," says Pr. Neumark. "Seek the positive voices and look for those affirmations. That is where the voice of God is."
"It is amazing to be surrounded by an abundance of strong female pastors," Says Pr. Rebecca Seely (ordained in 2015). "I have been able to explore my gifts for ministry and see how that influences the way I relate to the world and to people. I have been embraced for the whole of who I am and not in spite of something."
Each of the recently ordained women also expressed that they felt great support from their male colleagues. "As a woman, I get to explain my perspective to men more often," says Pr. Rieke. "I’ve had strong mentors who are men."
"I didn’t necessarily have a lot of examples of women in ministry, but my local pastor was still very supportive," says Pr. Emily Trubey-Weller (ordained in 2015). She also notices the need for more parity with women in ministry. Serving in an area of Long Island with a large Roman Catholic population she says it is taken differently when she wears a clerical collar to do hospital visits. "People will stop me to ask what to call me rather than asking if I might pray with them to listen to them. It can detract from what I am there to do." Pr. Trubey-Weller has found the opposite to be true as well—women will stop her to say that it is really cool that she is a woman in ministry.
Pr. Emily Trubey-Weller after a baptism in her congregation.
"It wasn’t until I got older that I realized the implications of what it meant to be a woman in society or a woman in ministry," says Pr. Rieke, who had been surrounded by women in ministry growing up. "We don’t have a clear path forward with this. It is still a complex issue, but as persons of faith, we are poised to do more. Despite knowing how deeply broken we can be, we each have to make a difference with each other."
And it is not too late for anyone to make such a difference. "When I went through candidacy, the committee asked a lot of questions about my personal life," remembers Pr. Neumark. "Probably thirty years later, I happened to be at an event where one of the candidacy committee members also was attending. Even though I hadn’t really thought about it since, he came to me and apologized. He hadn’t been the one asking the questions, but still felt a responsibility in being silent. It was meaningful. It is never too late for forgiveness."