Women In The Ministry
More women today are deciding to join the ordained ministry than in the past. They still face the prejudice struggles, but things have gotten much easier for them.
Ever since the apostles cast lots to find a replacement for Judas, the church has wrestled with the question of the call to ministry and how it is recognized. Past generations did not grant hearings to women who wished to become official leaders in the community of faith. Maleness was not the only requirement for ordination, but an unwavering one. Women who claimed a pursuit of faith had two options; they could preach outside the church or ignore what they felt.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, claiming a divine call did not eliminate the barriers to women's full participation in mainline churches. It did, however, spur women to act as agents of change and to search for avenues to express that sense of vocation. A woman's call served a number of functions in her life and ministry; it was her start to begin preaching, her refuge when her ministry was challenged or rejected, and the way to account for the fruits of her labor. The ongoing struggle to practice ministry in the face of opposition served to heighten her conviction that this was indeed God's will, no matter what others may say or think. Her call was shared to encourage others and often identified as a turning point in her personal religious experience.
By this time in the United Methodist religion, the women's movement into ministry was rolling forward in full force. 1866 marked the year that Maggie VanCrott received her local preacher's license; the first woman to accomplish this. By 1900 women had formed official religious societies, received degrees in Theology, and been ordained in churches. The 1900's saw a remarkable increase in the participation of women in United Methodism yet they still faced the seemingly insurmountable problem of being accepted.
Times have changed, along with church policies, but the idea of calling continues to be a gender-related controversy today. When contemporary Christian women claim a vocation, some are told they must be mistaken while others find strong advocacy. The belief that she is called by God is a powerful motivating factor for the individual woman preacher or seminary student.
There seems to be no argument that a call is necessary for Christian ministry, lay or ordained. Some regard baptism as a call to be a faithful servant in a Christian community, but this is not a call to assume the leadership role of preaching. Others give accounts of experiencing a specific call to preach at the time of their conversion.
The contemporary woman will find that mainline America's self-image has changed along with its stance towards women's ordination. The relative absence of discussion of one's calling in available sermons by women suggests that this kind of testimony is not expected by a congregation, but it does not mean United Methodist congregations would necessarily welcome or shun its addition.
The absence of female role models for women in ministry is occasionally lamented by contemporary seminarians. It is identified as one more indication of the sexism in the history and modern life of the church. An advantage of this is the freedom to develop her own style of preaching, while males are often compared to one another. Still, lacking a female guide or leader makes it a difficult journey for most women ministers to undertake.
Consciously or unconsciously, the woman preacher models for the congregation what she believes to be important and unimportant in her message. Through clothing, posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures she unveils her understanding of being created in the image of God, female, and called into ministry. She is carefully walking a fine line between being identified as fragile or a liberal feminist; where as men are defined as compassionate or strong.
The focus and reward for any preacher, male or female, is the hope that the congregation cannot shake off the finished sermon by simply shaking the minister's hand. The sermon, not finished yet, lingers beyond the benediction, with conclusions to be reached, decisions made, and actions taken. Those who had heard the sermon heard the Word of God.