Each Annual Meeting we highlight one of our five mission priorities. This June we focus on Develop Leaders, especially appropriate because this year marks a double anniversary of women in leadership: the hundredth anniversary of Women Ministries, and the fortieth anniversary of the ordination of women in the ECC.
At our most elemental the Covenant is simply people of the Book who have joined together to do mission. For us, then, two questions are paramount: What does the Bible say? And what does the mission need?
As we read the entirety of Scripture, we are convinced the Bible normatively affirms women in leadership throughout both the Old and New Testaments. From Miriam and Deborah to Lydia and Priscilla—the stories of women in leadership are many. Of particular interest to me is Romans 16, where the Apostle Paul lists twenty-seven people of importance and influence, seven of them women. There appears to be no distinction in leadership roles based on gender, notably listing Phoebe as a deacon and Junia as an apostle.
As for what the mission needs, it is hard to imagine the impact of the Covenant without the leadership and contribution of women. Women Ministries, originally Covenant Women’s Auxiliary, began as an avenue for supporting Covenant causes. Early beneficiaries were Chicago-based institutions, including North Park University, the Home of Mercy for the elderly and orphaned, and benevolent care at Swedish Covenant Hospital.
It’s hard to imagine the impact of the Covenant without the leadership of women.
As Meagan Gillan, current head of Women Ministries, notes, efforts expanded to children’s homes and senior residences, support for Covenant youth, camping ministries, Covenant Service Men’s Ministry, Covenant Mountain Mission, and Minnehaha Academy.
Need more? How about constructing parsonages from Alaska to Kansas, supporting Covenant Bible College in Canada, promoting women’s literacy in Africa, and supporting women missionaries.
Women Ministries gave leadership to developing the first Covenant Enabling Residence. Spiritual growth events like regional retreats and Triennial, and initiatives addressing domestic abuse and human trafficking mean our churches are strengthened in discipleship, evangelism, loving mercy, and doing justice.
This year we likewise recognize the fortieth anniversary of ordaining women. I see the difference women are making every week as senior pastors, church planters, staff ministers, missionaries, chaplains, faculty, camping staff, leaders at conference and denominational offices, and in parachurch and nonprofit settings. The Covenant is seeing an acceleration of women serving in vocational ministry. Since 2000 we have gone from seventy-six credentialed women to some 400, now one-quarter of our active Ministerium. Our mission would be irreparably impaired were we not empowering women to use their gifts in every context.
Yet we would be less than accurate if we thought we are where we ought to be. We are not. The trajectory is in the right direction, but overall it is too low and too slow. At times our women seminary graduates lag in placement. Movement from one call to another can take longer. Some would prefer to serve in a church but do not find the opportunity, so serve in contexts beyond the parish—good for those organizations but a drain of talent for us. In supporting the giftedness of women, may we all find our place in supporting the call of women in that giftedness as well.
Sherron Hughes Tremper and Carol Shimmin Nordstrom were the first two women ordained. Being first would mean little if they were the only. But they were the first in a company that follows still. And the kingdom is stronger for it.