I was born into the Christian church. I was dedicated as an infant, educated in Sunday school, and baptized at the age of twelve. At fourteen, I chose to become a follower of Christ, a commitment that has endured for over forty years of dedication and service. But, it has never been enough. Not enough to receive the respect and support accorded male leaders and ministers in the church. Not enough to quiet the questions and knowing glances all too familiar to women in ministry, letting us know that we are tolerable substitutes until the true minister arrives–the male minister. Being a woman in ministry or church leadership has been, and still continues to be, an uphill battle. Being a single woman in ministry introduces additional challenges.
The person who inspired me to follow Jesus was a young, single woman. To my teenage eyes, she seemed nothing less than angelic. At twenty-four, she received God’s call to share in faith and partnership with the people of Guatemala. Our current global experience, along with recent demographic changes in our country, have made the Guatemalan people a familiar face for many of us–perhaps in our neighbor, our coworker, or our family member. At the time, it seemed a distant land, an unknown culture, for a young woman born and raised in Queens, New York.
She left her family, friends, home, and profession as a New York City teacher and followed God’s call to live and work among the people of Guatemala City and some of the surrounding Mayan villages. She successfully pioneered and established Christian communities there, led by indigenous leaders. Together, the work flourished and a lovely chapel was built. People traveled from miles around to worship on Sunday mornings.
As the ministry grew, more staff arrived from her sponsoring organization in the United States. She loved the people she served and they loved her back. Then, she received the news. She was informed that since the ministry was now established, she would need to step down to make way for a male leader to serve as the proper “head” of the work.
In keeping with her loving character, and years of socialization, she “submitted” to the decision of her sponsoring organization and turned over the leadership of the ministry to the male appointee while she took on a supportive role. She was able enough to pioneer a thriving ministry in a land that was foreign to her, but she was apparently not able enough to lead that ministry once established. This is just one example of the fine distinctions women in ministry are asked to negotiate by a church willing to benefit from their work, gifts, prayers, and support, but often unwilling to acknowledge their leadership.
I could not articulate the deep sense of betrayal and confusion I experienced when she resigned from the leadership of the ministry she had loved and sacrificed to establish. I was not experienced enough then to understand why it felt as if the wind had been taken out of me.
II. Single, Never Married
My best friend as an adult was a single woman who left her home and family to answer God’s call to minister among the poor and disadvantaged youth and families in New York City, particularly the South Bronx–a devastated urban community at the time. She believed, as St. Francis taught, that it is better to be a sermon than to preach one. She developed a work of mutual love and respect among the people she served.
She became director of a dedicated, interracial team of young adults involved in Christian urban renewal efforts. In spite of her graduate theological training and ordination, the Christian ministry she served for many years never considered her for higher levels of leadership in their organization. These were reserved for white males. Over the years, she was often invited to preach or teach at churches where her prophetic message of equality and social justice were not well received, and she was not invited to return. As incongruent as it may seem for a Christian ministry, she was eventually asked to resign because of her advocacy for the poor and disenfranchised.
In time, she established a campus ministry in schools and colleges throughout New York City that has impacted the lives of thousands of students.
III. Single, Mother of Four
My mother was born and raised in poverty in Puerto Rico. She received God’s call as a young girl living in the countryside. She relocated to mainland United States to work, raise, and educate her three younger siblings, orphaned by the death of both her parents. She married, but her marriage dissolved and she became the single mother of four, for which she was often rejected, criticized, and judged by the Christian community she loved. She overcame cultural, language, and socioeconomic barriers to follow God’s call upon her life. She trained, became a missionary, and then became the first female chaplain in a men’s prison in Brooklyn, New York, where the inmates came to know her as “mama.” In spite of the years of sacrificial service, her church and denomination did not support her ministry or calling to pastor.
She initiated a home fellowship group, which eventually grew into a bilingual, interracial, inter-denominational congregation. We recently celebrated our 34th anniversary, in our lovely synagogue-turned-church building in the community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. She served as founder and pastor there until her recent death at age eighty-one.
These are but three of the single women called by God to the ministry and leadership of his church. Their dynamic witness has influenced the lives of hundreds for the kingdom of Jesus Christ. These women left behind home, family, careers, and country to answer God’s call. They overcame barriers of language, culture, poverty, lack of education and financial support to establish successful missions, churches, and Christian service organizations. What more is required of those called to the ministry and leadership of Christ’s church? The Christian church and community they loved should have been a haven of comfort and support. Instead, they received criticism, judgment, and devaluation of their ministries. And yet, is gender and marital status truly a factor to the God who called Sarah and Esther, Rebecca and Deborah, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and so many others? As with the cloud and pillar of fire that led the people of Israel in the wilderness, I believe in this matter, our God moved on before us a long time ago. It is time that we, his people, catch up with our God.