Today, I sat in the critical care unit and held my friend Juanita’s hand as her family made decisions about whether to move her into hospice.
She’ll turn 99 this year, and she has spent the measure of those years being the model of a Christian servant. The girls I grew up with in the church were clear and of one mind about this: We wanted to be Juanita when we grew up.
She’s lived a life a joy, of service, of friendship, of laughter, of leadership. And she modeled it all for those who watched her love her Lord and love the church in action.
Juanita prayed for me throughout seminary. And when I was ordained – and Juanita was a young 93 – I knew, of course, that she would be there. But in true Juanita fashion, she declared that sitting in the pews would not be enough: “I want to serve.” And serve she did. She was the punch lady offering cool glasses of fruity, fizzy refreshment to guests on a hot July afternoon. We made sure she had a chair. I don’t think she used it.
I’ve been thinking about Juanita this month as the Outlook published its “Women in ministry” issue celebrating the gifts of Presbyterian women in church history, while at the same time celebrating the publication’s 200th anniversary and the people of faith who led the way and helped make ministry what it is today.
I’ve been thinking about Juanita because she is a Presbyterian woman who I’ve known almost my entire life and who has shaped how I understand what it means to be a woman of faith. One of the first women elders, she was a leader in the congregation and served in every way imaginable. She served on session, as clerk, on the funeral committee, on every committee that needed her. And she served with her whole self – with integrity and excellence.
I grew up at that church in the 1980s with women elders like Juanita serving alongside Pastor Harry, Pastor Jeff… and Pastor Adelle. So I never knew that a woman couldn’t serve a church as pastor or in any other role. As a young girl, I watched other women teach and organize and preach and coordinate mission activities and read liturgy and serve communion. It truly never occurred to me that this was momentous or that they were special.
It taught me that all are called by God to serve.
I didn’t grow up planning to go into professional ministry. But God had other plans (as God often does), and when I was called to seminary and then to ministry, the Spirit bolstered my guides and companions. Juanita was part of a group of 12 women from my home congregation who prayed for me regularly and supported my preparation for ministry. They were part of the foundation for the call to which God was preparing me.
God gifted me with women of faith to model Presbyterian servitude, and surrounded me with colleagues who would take the torch and carry on God’s ministry in the church. After the Presbytery of Chicago ordained me, I was invited to participate in the Synod of Lincoln Trails’ “new pastor cohort” of those who were ordained that same year. The group instantly and remarkably coalesced over board games and ministry questions, laughter and theology discussions — but primarily a deep, deep love of God’s church.
But the women of the group quickly realized we had another thing in common: At one point, someone had said to each of us: “Oh, so you’re a lady preacher!”
These fellow “lady preachers” became fast friends. We navigated not being recognized as the pastor when we were new. (Because we were younger? Because we were women? Both, probably.) One was assumed to be the janitor instead of the pastor the day she presided over her first funeral (even though she was wearing a suit). One was called to pastor a church in a Western state and went on to be not only that congregation’s first female pastor, but the first female pastor of any church in that city. We supported each other through dating, engagements, weddings and babies. Through sermons, deathbed visits, new mission ventures and new calls.
These sisters-in-robes lift my heart and strengthen my soul for this wild and wonderous calling.
When I visit Juanita, I tell her about the lady preachers and good things happening in the ministries they serve. She asks about the church I serve, and about my dog. (And if I don’t bring the pup with me, she asks: Where is the little dog?) I ask her about the book she’s reading (she’s always reading something) and we may talk about something she’s puzzling over from the Sunday sermon she heard. She’s curious about what’s happening in the wider church and is actually eager to hear what I saw at General Assembly or Big Tent or the Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators’ meeting. She liked to see the Outlook and loved it whenever there was a mention of Monmouth College, her alma mater that remains dear to her heart.
And I keep aspiring to live like Juanita. To match an easy smile with curiosity, kindness and a pursuit to serve Christ with all of my energy, aspiring to excellence and commitment to service. Yes, I have had plenty of mentors of both genders. But this month I give thanks for women who taught me that all are called to God’s service, and for those answering that call alongside me now.