Thoughts on the PCUSA Denomination in Regard to the Ordination of Women

by Guest Author | April 04, 2007
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The following article is a guest post submitted by Anita Bell, ordained pastor in the PCUSA Church. Rev. Bell offers the following reflections on her denomination in hopes that her critique would continue to call believers to solid scholarship surrounding the empowerment of women and men in ministry and encourage her denomination to clear and cohesive action as they strive to live out their statement of faith.

Some of my friends are thinking about leaving our PCUSA fellowship for EPC pastures. They plan to go as a whole- men and women, lay and ordained. They offer to circle the wagon in this new denominational home, through non-geographic presbyteries, to protect and uphold their women called to ordained leadership. Yet, it is not hard to imagine the established EPC gazing over those protective shoulders with a less-than-approving glare. Imagine women being ghettoized, unable to move to new churches and ministries, because the larger denomination does not offer them welcome. The prospects for women in this move, even with the initial protection of the non-geographic presbyteries, are less than encouraging.

Yet, lest we become too judgmental of our brothers and sister in the EPC and those who would join them, we must take a moment of honest self-reflection in our PCUSA fellowship. Ordained women, especially those called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, know full inclusion in the ministry life of the PCUSA in name only. After 50 years, women still face the “glass ceiling” across the theological spectrum of the church. “Our church is not quite ready for a woman pastor…” “Perhaps as an associate, but as the senior pastor…?” “If the senior pastor is a woman, how will our men relate…?”… And so it goes… One glance at the larger pulpits of our denomination proves the point.

Margaret Bendroth, in her article for the Presbyterian Historical Society detailing the historical roots of women’s ordination in the PCUSA, offers a clear observation of the stagnant evolution of women’s ministry in the Presbyterian Church. Bendroth cites studies done in the 1980’s and 1990’s that find an “over-representation of women in small, part-time, often poorly-paid positions, and their virtual absence from large and influential pulpits.” My experience often mirrors these studies- from search committees whose interest in my candidacy focuses primarily on their need to interview a woman, to pastors with less experience than I, who ask me to consider serving as their associate. Recently, a group of clergy in my district of the Philadelphia Presbytery met for lunch. At this particular clergy gathering none of the sisters in ministry were in attendance. The conversation meandered around to the question of why women were not in our larger pulpits. The conclusion of this gathering of well-meaning brothers was that women just did not really want those pulpits.

I could go on about the “good old boy” network, and the unintentional, and at times intentional, patronizing of my sisters in ministry. Personally, I would prefer to encounter opposition to women in ministry from conservative Christians who stand against my calling as an ordained woman based on their understanding of Scripture, rather than come face to face with the nebulous opposition of my PCUSA brothers and sisters who say in veiled or direct manner, “Our church is just not ready for a woman yet.” This response begs the question: Why are our churches still not ready, after 50 years, for women in ordained leadership throughout the church?

This lukewarm embrace of women in ministry by the PCUSA and the “local option” approach of the EPC both find their roots in the original decision made by our denominations’ predecessor to ordain women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament 50 years ago. Here again Bendroth offers us helpful observations about the decision made by the Presbyterian Church concerning women’s ordination. Bendroth notes that the Presbyterian Church was motivated to consider women’s ordination by the secular question, “Why should Christian ministry be the only profession barred to women on the grounds of their sex?” Moved by concerns of human rights and “fairness”, our debate centered more on the social correctness of opening the door to women in ordained ministry than on the Biblical witness of the essential nature of women’s ministry within the body of Christ. Bendroth writes, “Empowering women was a way to make good institutions better- more democratic, more inclusive, and more faithful to American ideals.” It made sense. It was the right thing to do. Yet, such well-intentioned social correctness has not transformed the heart and mind of the church to embrace fully the leadership of the sisters in our midst. Rebecca Prichard in her article on Reformed women in ministry observes, women’s ministry “has been permitted but not promoted, tolerated but not preferred.” Perhaps our inability to transform the heart of the church concerning women in leadership stems from our decision-making process based on social convention and not Biblical calling. Using Jesus’ imagery, we have built our understanding of women on the shifting sands of political correctness, rather than the bedrock of Scripture.

Scripture teaches us that the question of women in ministry is not an issue of equal opportunity and justice, but rather one concerning the wholeness of the body. Paul writes to the Ephesians, “From Christ the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work”(4:16). The potential for the body to be healthy and vital relies on the ability of each individual member of the body to do their part. Thus, when we minimize the ordained leadership of our women, we weaken the whole of the body. (The same argument could be made about how our marginalization of our racial ethnic brothers and sisters weakens the whole of the church, but that discussion is for another paper.) Our church documents say that we welcome the ministry of women, but we have yet to recognize the essential nature of their participation in all areas and levels of ministry. The church needs the voice, the talents, the perspective of women in order to live into the whole ministry to which God has called the church. When Jesus commissioned Mary to be the first evangelist to carry the good news of the resurrection, he taught us that women are needed in the church to do more that just to fill the positions that men are unwilling to take. To reach a world in darkness, we need men and women of faith, lifted up into positions of leadership and influence by the church, to lead the faithful in declaring the good news given first to Mary.

One of the roadblocks that often hampers the church in welcoming women into such positions of leadership is our secular understanding of ministry as a “career”. We expect our ministry candidates to have a resume that demonstrates the development of such a career, from lesser positions of responsibilities to greater ones. We value the traditional climb up the ladder. Yet, women often do not follow such traditional paths. My nearly 24 years of ministry experience is peppered with such non-traditional career experiences as raising four children, volunteering as the Girl Scout Cookie mom, and sharing in carpools that would stretch from Philadelphia to San Francisco. My teaching and preaching comes out of the heart of these experiences. My pastoral sensitivity has been honed in the halls of schools and on the sidelines of sporting events. My official church resume has been crafted around these responsibilities, so that I could honor my calling as a wife and mother, as well as my calling to ministry. Thus, when a search committee considers my PIF, I do not look like a “traditional” candidate. But, I do look like the Biblical model of ministry- those raised up out of the main stream of life into positions of leadership with the people of God. From a fishing boat to a pulpit, from the paths of a lost woman to the calling as the first evangelist, from a shepherd’s field to a king’s throne, repeatedly God has raised up leaders not with credentials, but with calling.

The time has come for the church to begin to “think into” a Scriptural understanding of women, called and gifted to lead the people of God. Women are called by God as prophetess (Anna) and leader (Deborah), as teacher (Priscilla) and evangelist (Mary), as pastor (Lydia) and worship leader (Miriam). Each of these women strengthened the body with their leadership. Our biblical history would be much different and much poorer without them, just as our body is poorer and less vital today for the limitations we place on the gifted women in our midst. The time has come to lift up women in leadership in our church as we have never done before. The time has come for our search committees to consider the Scriptural calling of women, not as an issue of opportunity for women, but as an essential for the wholeness of the church. Our search committees need before them examples of women already in positions of leadership and influence, to stir their imaginations to the possibilities. The time has come for our larger churches to offer leadership to the whole of the body, by lifting up women into visible areas of leadership and teaching. The time has come for that “good old boy” network to work diligently to lift up “good old sisters” as viable candidates for our larger pulpits. The time has come for the church to yearn for Anna, Mary and Deborah, for Miriam, Lydia and Pricilla to be at the heart of leadership in the church. Imagine the church, growing and building itself up in love, as each one is welcomed to do the part they are gifted to do in Christ.

Rev. Anita Miller Bell
Minister at Large/Philadelphia Presbytery