From time to time I am asked about my experience as a female minister in the Church of the Brethren. Because my answer is a largely positive one, I am always mindful of how privileged I have been, and also how deeply I long for every woman hearing a call to ministry to have an equally positive journey.
As I reflect on that call, I vividly remember the Sundays in my home congregation in Annville, Pa., when my family and I knelt and rested our elbows on the seats of the hard, wooden pews. Commencing prayers that seemed to this little girl to last an eternity, brother Hiram Gingrich would always address “our kind, loving heavenly Father.” Preceding those heartfelt prayers were sturdy sermons by a number of plain-dressed preachers, building a solid biblical foundation in my soul.
As the Bucher sisters—Clara, Sallie, and Esther—taught me the stories of Jesus, my heart gradually opened to embrace the call to follow him. Having been nurtured in a congregation that transitioned from a plural, nonsalaried ministry to the salaried ministry during my early childhood years, I find it marvelous to reflect on that same congregation’s full support of my call to ministry. They were willing to recognize a surprising movement of the Spirit in one whom they had not assumed would be called by God to the ministry.
Moving beyond my experience, I dream of what the Church of the Brethren would look like if every congregation created an environment in which not only men but also women would be equally and eagerly called to ministry. Here is a bit of what I envision and yearn for every young girl or woman who hears the Spirit’s call to the journey of set-apart ministry.
I yearn for them to experience:
- Parents of the kind I was blessed with, who believe that their daughters can achieve absolutely anything to which God calls them and who support a call they might never have thought would ever come to their child.
- Congregations that give attention to helping female youth develop their gifts and abilities, thereby preparing them to hear a larger call on their lives.
- Humble, faithful congregations that support the discerner’s call even if it’s “never been heard that way before,” honoring the Spirit which blows where and how and through whom it wills.
- Pastors (especially men like Jim Tyler serving at the Annville Church of the Brethren when I heard God’s call to ministry) who respond with delight, curiosity, and enthusiastic support when women in their congregations find the courage to share a sense of call.
- Denominational leaders who prayerfully challenge gifted women to offer their gifts to the church for the glory of God and their neighbors’s; good.
- Ministerial training programs such as Bethany Theological Seminary and the Brethren Academy’s district-based programs that address and equip the church to meet the unique challenges facing female ministers as they serve.
- Congregations like the Wilmington Church of the Brethren, my first pastoral setting, that will interview and hire female pastors, even young, single, idealistic, less experienced ones just graduating from seminary, as I was back in the mid-1980s.
- Male colleagues who recognize the perils women face in this #MeToo and #ChurchToo world and who step up as advocates for women in the workplace and in the church.
- A denomination that intentionally calls women into leadership positions on every level, serving as agency board members, district executives, denominational staff, and moderators.
- A church that actively confronts painful and anguishing problems that affect women’s ministry journeys, such as sexual abuse and domestic violence, unequal financial compensation, and oppressive attitudes that diminish the Spirit’s pouring out of spiritual gifts into the lives of women.
- A dramatic crumbling of the barriers, walls, and obstacles that diminish the calling of women, inevitably giving way under the power and force of the winds of the Holy Spirit.
Undergirding this dream is my conviction that every person whom God truly calls ought to experience a community supportive of that call, and that the unique needs experienced by clergywomen merit specific attention and response from the larger church. Layers such as race, gender, and sexual identity; socioeconomic factors; and geographic and cultural formation increase the complexity of the call that women experience.
Given that reality, in the next 60 years of our history as Brethren, can we look forward to increasing the percentage of women among the credentialed ministers from 25 percent to at least 50 percent?
With all our heart and soul, let us labor together with God so that future statistics reveal a whole-hearted cooperation with the Spirit’s activity, as God will “pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy. . . . Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:17, 21).
Nancy Sollenberger Heishman is director of the Church of the Brethren Office of Ministry.