The boundary breakers
When the Northern Presbyterian Church (United Presbyterian Church in the United States of American) ordained Margaret Towner in 1956, Life Magazine ran a five-page photo spread on the historic event. The ceremony, held at The First Presbyterian Church Syracuse in New York, was reported and broadcasted over national media.
Reverend Towner’s ordination was about women, not about one woman.
It was a watershed moment for women’s equality, for dismantling gender power structures within the church and for ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church.
It took 36 years from the time the first overture to ordain women as elders and as ministers of the Word went before the General Assembly in 1920. It was the same year women were granted the right to vote in the United States.
Towner invited the pastoral staff of the First Presbyterian Church of Allentown in Pennsylvania, where she was called as a minister, to participate in her ordination so that they couldn’t criticize what they had approved. When pastor Herbert Schroder gave Towner’s charge, he said, “Be the shepherd of the flock and not their pet lamb.”
Breaking cultural and theological strongholds didn’t happen overnight. After Towner’s ordination, she was never asked to conduct services or preach or serve communion at First Presbyterian Church of Allentown; she was delegated to the position of director of Christian education. She did, however, fill the pulpit as a guest preacher at other churches in Lehigh Presbytery during her tenure at Allentown. Later, she served other churches as an assistant or associate pastor, although she says that some congregants wouldn’t show up when they knew she was scheduled to preach. It wasn’t until Towner’s last call, decades later, that she received equal pay with her male pastor counterparts.
Throughout her early ministry, Towner says she encountered opposition from both men and women. At first, there was a lot of skepticism: “I received letters from ministers’ wives who worried that women would take jobs away from their husbands and that women would be willing to be paid less,” she recalls. She also received letters from men who called her to repent and be saved.
“I didn’t answer those letters or get into a dialogue with others about their opinions,” she adds. “I felt that an example of women in ministry would help break down barriers rather than debate. That seemed to work.”
Others championed the right of women’s ordination and were glad to see pumps in the pulpit. Breaking the stained-glass ceiling in the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches began to transform, if not shatter, the gender inequalities that had dominated the church throughout its history.
What gave Towner courage in the face of such adversity? “I felt called. Ordained ministry was my life’s work, and I had the encouragement of a good number of friends and family.”
When things got tough her supporters had her back, she says. Successes and affirmations kept her going. She chose not to marry, acknowledging that her energy and her temperament wouldn’t allow her to serve both the church and a family. However, she says, due to her long ministry and investment in youth, she has thousands of spiritual sons and daughters. And she counts about 4,500 as those she mothered into ministry.
Towner hasn’t let up. Today, at age 94, she lives in Sarasota, Florida, and has retired for the third time. She comments that she is often in awe when she considers that since 1956, over 6,000 women have been ordained.
“Women work hard, often harder than their male counterparts, proving that they are serious about their call. Many women today are winning more preaching and theology prizes in seminary than men,” Towner says.
She wasn’t the only one to suffer fallout front and center, and on the fringes, as more women were being ordained. Rachel Henderlite, the first woman to be ordained with the Southern Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in the United States) in 1965, encountered opposition as well from both men and women. Postcards and letters were sent throughout the early years of her ministry, lamenting her ordination and condemning it as unscriptural.
She reported that she received a postcard every year from a retired pastor in South Carolina until he died with the message that the ordination of women “is a grievous sin because it says in the Bible, ‘Let the women keep silent in the churches.’”
Yet, Henderlite made her mark as the author of six books, as a woman active in various ecumenical efforts and as a professor at several American colleges and seminaries. She was appointed professor of Christian education at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, making her the first woman on the full-time faculty at the seminary. As an activist, she came under fire for her social witness activities and was labeled a misfit. When she was called to give an address at a conference she had to do so from a makeshift podium off to the side, and it was required that she wear a hat. In her own words, she said she wanted “to see faith taught, struggled with and lived.” Henderlite died in 1991. What she wanted above all things, she said, was for her “life to be a response to the grace of God.”
Katie Geneva Cannon, who died in 2018, was the first African American women ordained as a minister in the United Presbyterian Church. She was ordained in 1974 in Shelby, North Carolina. That year, only 154 white women were listed as ordained pastors, according to the Presbyterian Office of Information. Cannon served a local congregation first, heeding the counsel of her father who told her she needed to become a pastor first before anything else. She later transitioned to the academy and was deemed the foremost scholar of the Womanist Movement, and at the time of her death was the Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
During an interview, she said she grew up in a time when it was against the law for a black person to go to the library. Her brother, pastor Jerry Lytle Cannon, credits their family for encouraging his sister to pursue her calling.
“My father used to say that God can call a man or God can send a woman; God uses all people. Growing up, we heard the proclamation of truth coming from my mother, grandmother and other women in the family,” he says. “My sister touched lives; she stretched and pulled her students. She believed that a person had to do the work the soul must have.”
Rebecca Reyes was the first Hispanic/Latina woman ordained as a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in 1979 at age 27. The challenges she faced over the last four decades began in seminary where there were few facilities to support women, including dorms and designated women’s bathrooms.
“There also was the challenge of male patriarchal language. I grew up in a very conservative missionary Presbyterian church. When I attended Austin Seminary, it was like someone handed me a stick of dynamite that exploded spiritually, theologically and emotionally. It took me three years to be put back together again. It was my female colleagues and mentors that supported my journey toward ordination. I was heard; there was space for me,” she recalls, citing Henderlite and Cannon as both trailblazers and heroes of the women’s movement in the Presbyterian Church.
On the day of her ordination, Reyes’ maternal grandmother called her to say, “I want to give you a blessing and I want you to know you are ordained to do ministry inside and outside the church walls. Always remember that!”
Her grandmother’s blessing proved prophetic. Reyes followed her calling into diverse ministries. “I know I was called, no doubt about it. Whatever ministry I was doing, I knew I was there because I was called to be there providing a space for holiness, for sacredness, for inviting people to tend to their spirit and soul.”
2016 marked another historic moment in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) when two pastors, Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston, were elected as co-moderators at the General Assembly, the first all-women moderatorial team in the history of the church.
Discrimination still prevalent
As women continue to strive to make headway as ordained ministers, few are being called to serve tall-steeple churches. Female ministers report that they are often confronted with criticism, sexism and sexual harassment.
Statistics back this up. Women make up only 38% of active ordained ministers in the PC(USA), even while the denomination is majority female. Women are also more likely to hold part-time and temporary ministry positions or to be called to serve struggling churches. The gender pay gap among ministers is wider than the national average, due in part to these discrepancies in the type of work women receive, according to a recently-released study, “Gender and Leadership in the PC(USA).”
The study projects that gender parity in terms of the number of ordained pastors will not be achieved until 2027 — 71 years after women’s ordination was approved. The statistics are even more discouraging when it comes to women of color and women in immigrant church communities.
In addition to structural barriers to leadership, female pastors face anecdotal, but daily, realities of sexism in the form of snide comments and inappropriate evaluations of everything from their bodies, to the pitch of their voices, to their hair. In addition, eight out of ten female teaching elders have experienced discrimination, harassment and/or prejudicial comments due to their gender. Four out of ten feel that they have experienced gender bias in hiring, promotion or selection for an official position within the PC(USA).
The study concluded with two main findings. First, gender discrimination is still pervasive within the PC(USA). And second, almost half of members are not particularly aware of it.
Most Presbyterians feel that men still have a better chance than women of being called to the position of head pastor, which suggests that while most Presbyterians think women and men should have equal opportunities for leadership, they recognize that this is not the reality.
When the now-retired Karen Nickels, who currently lives in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, approached her session about enrolling in seminary, she was asked, “You are a wife, and a mother, why would you want to do that?”
During her Princeton Seminary education in the mid-1980s, she said that some female students shared with her that their husbands walked away from their marriages when they answered the call to ministry and enrolled in seminary. She also remembers how when she was interviewing for a position as pastor in the late 1980s, nobody wanted to hire a female minister unless it was for an assistant or associate position and then they could feel good about their “token woman.”
Yet, she says there was an advantage to being a woman in ministry. During her tenure as an installed pastor for more than 20 years, she received calls from male colleagues seeking counseling about personal and pastoral concerns. “Being a woman, wife and mother, I was nonthreatening. I think they felt they couldn’t confide as comfortably with their male counterparts,” Nickels says.
Female students are often advised to break gender stereotypes during seminary. For example, one professor suggested that when female pastors cry in the pulpit, it is the kiss of death, but for a male pastor, it is the kiss of life.
Respondents to the “Gender and Leadership in the PC(USA)” study reported other factors, besides gender, come into play when it comes to discrimination, including age, race, theological orientation, parental status and even height.
Beth Utley, who graduated from seminary at age 56, says there is no doubt in her mind that both gender and age worked against her as she pursued a call, even though she brought with her Masters of Divinity 25 years of experience as the director of Christian education.
She recalls, “A woman from a pastoral nominating committee in Virginia told me that I was on top of the list as far as preaching goes, but the church wanted a young man with a family.” Utley waited three and a half years to be called as a solo pastor to The First Presbyterian Church of Stroudsburg, in Pennsylvania.
Pet-lamb to shepherds
There is much work to do and even the “pet lamb” approach to women in ordained ministry still has a cultural stronghold in some churches, but women have proven to be worthy shepherds, feeding and leading their flocks. They continue to transform the church through leadership and the nurture of spiritual life, often in solo pastorates.
Cannon once said: “What we need to be free is right here in this religion. It just hasn’t been unleashed, and that’s our job as liberating liberation theologians: to get the good news of the gospel, to set the captives free.”
As Towner looks back, she reflects: “The most important thing to know about women in ordained ministry is that they are only there because they have been called by God to serve in various capacities. All have been called. It’s something we couldn’t say no to. I’m a great believer in the Holy Spirit who is with us at all junctures in our lives.”
Sherry Blackman, a journalist, poet and author, serves as the pastor of The Presbyterian Church of the Mountain in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, as well as a truck stop chaplain at the Travel Center of America in Columbia, New Jersey, a validated ministry of Newton Presbytery.