It’s God’s Call
When so many other voices said no, the Covenant made a momentous decision. We commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the church’s vote to ordain women.
July 4, 2016
In 1976 the Evangelical Covenant Church voted to ordain women. Two years later Sherron Hughes Tremper and Carol Shimmin Nordstrom were the first women to be ordained. For forty years we have continued to support and ordain women in the church—a road that has included plenty of challenges as well as celebrations. In this issue we mark the fortieth anniversary of that momentous vote by sharing stories from some of the scores of ordained women in the Covenant.
Carol Shimmin Nordstrom: My journey reflects a path of twists and turns, unexpected opportunities, and some disappointments. I sensed that God was calling me to serve while I was at Covenant Park Bible Camp in Mahtowa, Minnesota. I earned my MDiv at Bethel Theological Seminary in May 1976—the first woman to earn that degree from Bethel.
On the agenda of the Covenant Annual Meeting that year was a recommendation from the Board of Ministry to ordain women, and I was there as a delegate from my home congregation. When the vote was taken, Glenn Anderson, then dean of North Park Seminary, approached me and said that he looked forward to having me in Chicago in the fall for orientation to Covenant ministry. I knew then that I wouldn’t have to change denominations in order to be an ordained minister.
Mary Miller: My ministry has been put as “first” in many things—first North Park Seminary class with women entering the pastorate, then the first woman to be called to a second church, first woman denominational officer, then first old lady pastor seeking a fresh position.
My first pastoral position was as associate at Farmington Hills, Michigan. At the time I was one of two women in the denomination who were pastoring churches. It was lonely. But ever since I was a teenager, I knew that I wanted to be a minister. When the Covenant voted to affirm the ordination of women, I assumed it was part of my call into ministry.
Marilyn Sandin-Ross: Upon graduating from North Park College, I accepted a job on campus, which included the opportunity to take courses at the seminary. I began taking Greek on my lunch hours and enrolled in the seminary in the fall of 1976. From the beginning I found acceptance and encouragement from faculty and classmates.
The denomination had voted “in principle” to ordain women to pastoral ministry. I was meeting with the Daughters of Sarah group—women who were discussing and writing about issues of women in ministry. From time to time, a few of us women seminary students were sent out to area congregations, along with faculty, to tell our stories and discuss the biblical issues of ordination.
Karen Palmatier: In grade school I told people I wanted to be a theology professor. When I realized that would take a PhD, I decided I’d become a pastor instead. Then in about ninth grade someone in my church told me I had to go to college before I could go to seminary—I was shocked and I often prayed, “God, if you don’t want me to become a pastor you better hurry up and get me interested in something else.”
Anne Vining: I liken myself to the reticent prophet Jonah when it comes to embracing my sense of call. If God had made clear to me as a young woman in my mid-twenties that the journey ahead would lead to being ordained as a pastor and devoting my life to serving in the church, I surely would have run the other direction.
Diane Stevenson: I’ve always felt called to staff ministry—I love being collaborative and using my skills and gifts as part of a staff. Though I clearly felt called to serve in the church, I didn’t feel called to be a “preaching pastor,” nor did I feel confident that I was strong enough to be under the microscope as one of the early ordained women. Though I’d tried to say no to “full pastoral’’ ministry, God wouldn’t let that call go.
With fear and trembling, I asked God to show me clearly. Though it wasn’t a burning bush, it was equally clear as I stepped through the open door to pursue an MDiv and ordination. When I was finally ordained in 1998, it was a truly amazing spiritual experience.
Camille Wooden: I married my husband, Barry, in 2002 and started a church in 2003. Especially in the beginning we would go places, and people would say, “Pastor Wooden,” looking at him. He volunteers with the youth, but he would say, “No, there’s only one pastor in this family and it’s her.”
People are still warming up to women in pastoral ministry. Women in the public realm—as CEOs and bosses—are a little more accepted than women in clergy roles. I know people have come to visit our church, thinking, “There’s no way I’m joining this church.” But the Lord pricked their hearts and showed them a different view of what it means to be in the church.
JoAnn Deasy: It took me almost a year to find a position after seminary. I became the director of Christian education at a church that did not support the ordination of women, but I didn’t understand the depth of their resistance. The search committee understood that I was on the path but when it came time for me to pursue ordination in my second year, the pastor almost stopped the process. In the end, he honored their commitment to me, and I was allowed to preach my ordination sermon at the church—but it was during a children’s ministry service and it wasn’t called a sermon. Even so, several families withdrew their children from participating in the service because I was delivering the main message.
Ileana Garcia-Soto: Finding a call in the Covenant took time. For a while a friend housed me for very little rent, and I cleaned North Park Covenant Church in Chicago. My first call came from Green Timbers Covenant Church in Surrey, British Columbia, where I served as pastor to children and youth. I remained open to call and that status did not change for three years. I did not want to look outside of the ECC, but I was getting close to doing that. So when Prince of Peace Covenant Church in Mondovi, Wisconsin, offered me a part-time call, I jumped right in. I also work loading trucks for UPS.
Kathy Choi-Lee: My call began in college as a young Christian. I was asked to co-lead a dorm Bible study, but I hesitated because I did not feel capable. Then I heard a sermon on John 21, “If you love me, feed my sheep,” and I felt like God spoke to me. Essentially, God called me into ministry through that sermon. It was preached by Robert Goette—back in the day, he was like a Bill Hybels for Asian American youth in the Chicagoland area. I learned the rare combination of humility, faithfulness, and excellence as a pastor from him. He passed away last year after a long battle with ALS, and I will always remember him for his impact on my life.
Karen Hinz: I was happily working as an editor at a large newspaper. Then I started teaching a yearlong Bible study at my church that changed my life. I fell in love with God’s word and wanted more. At my five-year North Park College reunion, I asked a classmate who was working in seminary admissions to send me a catalog “just so I could read it.” Because I was living in a party house with people I worked with at the newspaper, I asked her to send the catalog in a plain brown wrapper. She did. And I inhaled it. As I read the descriptions, I longed for every class like a thirsty person longs for water. And so I folded up a life I really loved and went.
To speak of women in ministry in the Covenant Church is to engage in a complex story. The women ten or twenty years ahead of me pioneered the way, and took the brunt of the resistance. My group admiringly called them “the door kickers” for opening a way for those who followed. But maybe they were more like icebreakers. They did the backbreaking work, but freeze-over still happens and tributaries still need to be opened up.
Dany Flores: My journey hasn’t been easy, but it has been edifying. It started when my husband and I, along with three other couples, were sent to a church on the South Side of Chicago. Reverend Gabriel Quiroga saw talent and the call, and appointed us as church planters of what now is Iglesia del Pacto Evangelico Peniel.
Sarah Henry: I began the path to ordination in 2014, but after I forgot to fill out some paperwork, it was pushed to the following year. Then I discovered I was pregnant. If you want to understand an aspect of women in ministry, ask pregnant pastors about their experiences! The Covenant gladly pushed me to the next year (2017). But that changed back to 2016 when we lost our son after five months of pregnancy.
This past winter I sat in the ordination interview with the Board of the Ordered Ministry only two weeks after being in the hospital. They began the interview saying, “We know this is a hard time for you. Usually we begin the interviews by having you tell us about your context. But we’d like to give you the option to just talk about how you’re doing.” It was the church being the church. I was so grateful for the space to mourn even in my ordination process.
When the board approved me, someone said, “We are so proud of you,” and I burst into tears. Ordination wasn’t about taking the next step, it was about joining the ranks of those committed to spending their lives loving and living with the people of God.
Carol: Challenges and opportunities have been plentiful through forty years of pastoral ministry. Covenant churches willing to call a woman as pastor have, at times, been few. Continuing to know that God had called me to ministry and finding a place for service has not always been easy. Finding call(s) for a clergy couple in the early 1980s was difficult.
Mary: Getting a superintendent to put my name (or any woman’s) into the mix for search committees was a challenge—as was being considered a permanent pastor by the national ministry office. It was assumed that I would not be a pastor once I married, or had children, or grew tired of it, etc.
On an ecumenical retreat I met a retired female pastor with pure white hair and lots of wrinkles. I immediately started weeping. Only then did I realize how hard it was to not have a role model.
Marilyn: At one church I was invited to candidate for the position of associate pastor. When the phone call came, I was told that the vote was very close but I had not received the call. The congregation was in considerable turmoil over this split decision, and they decided to continue discussing, and then vote again in a month! When the second vote was taken, many more members voted, again the vote was close, but I had not received the call. So, that was that.
By fall, I accepted an invitation to serve as an interim pastor. My colleagues suggested that once the congregation got to know me, I might well be asked to candidate for the permanent position. The congregation was very warm, welcoming, and receptive. Not too many weeks passed before a woman of the church told me how glad they were to have me there and doing such a fine job, but what they wanted was a “real pastor”—that is to say, a male pastor. Over the next few months the search committee brought in one male candidate after another.
I began to consider my other options. The superintendent told me there was nothing anyone could do if congregations would not consider a woman for their pastor. I recall saying to myself somewhat facetiously that I could spend the next thirty years seeking a call to a congregation. I just wanted a chance to serve.
Some Presbyterian pastor friends of mine suggested I consider transferring my ordination to the Presbyterian Church, which had been ordaining women for a couple decades. In the fall of 1982 I began the process. Since then, I have served Presbyterian churches in Minnesota, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Iowa.
Karen P.: Before I got to seminary, no one had ever questioned my goal of being there. But once I got there, other students started telling me I didn’t belong. Suddenly the plans I had had since childhood were being questioned! A superintendent said, “The Covenant probably should apologize to you women for deciding to ordain you and giving you hope that you will find work.” One Sunday during my internship I did pulpit supply at another Covenant church. A gentleman in the back of the sanctuary apparently couldn’t bring himself to look at me and held his bulletin up in front of his face throughout my entire sermon. For years I felt great guilt about this, wondering if he would have heard a word from God that day if I had been a man.
Kathy: Sure, there have been comments but none that have traumatized me. The biggest challenge has been myself, my own thoughts about entering a male-dominated ministry, but I want to be faithful to God’s call. When is it God’s voice rather than other voices? Some may stem from my Asian-American context. In a sense, it may be more of an advantage than a challenge—perhaps it’s good to take the time to question and process the decision to be a minority voice.
Diane: When I first pursued my license—which meant my church had to pay into the pension fund—the church chair told me they could get someone cheaper to do my job. It was difficult to hear people tell you to your face that if the church was going to have a female pastor on staff, they were leaving.
Many times, especially early in my ministry, I felt like a second-class citizen in the Covenant, more because of being staff than female. I was commissioned in staff ministry before I was ordained, and it was the practice for the ordinands to serve communion at the Annual Meeting. That year they didn’t have enough ordinands and filled out the numbers with their wives. None of those being commissioned into full-time ministry were asked to serve.
Camille: My first challenge was myself. I was raised in a tradition that said women don’t preach. If women don’t preach, that means you don’t pastor. A second challenge was people just didn’t open doors for women back then. Bishop Vashti McKenzie once told me, “When men come in, people automatically think that they’re called, but when a woman comes in, they have to prove they are called.”
Doors still don’t open easily. What was different for me was that I planted a church. I just went out and got my own. I really felt that God was calling me to plant. My affirmation was the call itself. I had to focus on that.
Anne: In the past decade my challenges have had less to do with my gender and more to do with my race. In my urban setting I’ve had to continually confront my blind spots regarding my own sense of white privilege and assumptions I unknowingly make based on my middle/upper-middle-class background. Even though I’ve lived and served in an economically and racially diverse community for the past fourteen years, I find that being a white female pastor can limit my credibility.
Dany: Some of the barriers and challenges that I have faced in ministry have to do with culture shock. At times I have also felt alone, in part because my family is still in Mexico. I have often had to get out of my comfort zone.
JoAnn: I have often encountered people diminishing the pastoral work I have done. I served as dean of students and community life at North Park Theological Seminary for seven years and in that capacity would counsel students in ways similar to male faculty. But I was often called a friend while the male faculty were described as mentors.
Perhaps the most painful times for me were at the church where I served as minister of Christian education. I loved the church, but on communion Sundays an all-male elder board served communion. Male staff administered the sacrament, including the youth pastor who had just graduated from college and the administrative pastor who had not gone to seminary. I had graduated with an MDiv and was on track toward ordination, but I was not allowed to serve during communion in any way. On Good Friday, when Christ died on the cross, the curtain was torn in the temple allowing all to have access to God. I began to feel as if the curtain had been put back in place, that I was separated from God, not allowed to serve at the table.
Ileana: One thing that has happened in both congregations I have served is that people left because the church had hired a woman. I am aware that this will continue to happen—the hard part is knowing that Christians will reject me because I am a woman, not because of my ability to do the job.
I wonder if I will ever minister in a Spanish-speaking context. At an ECC Annual Meeting two Latino pastors questioned my call. They asked me if my husband will permit me to serve in ministry. I told them I am single. They countered, “You will not be able to counsel men.” I answered, “But men can counsel women!” They could not convince me that women should not be pastors.
Sarah: When I was dating my now husband, his youth pastor took him out for lunch. He asked Brad to reconsider dating me or to convince me that pursuing a life of ministry was wrong. The deep-seated belief that women are not supposed to do ministry because women are less than men has been embedded into our subconscious.
Yet when people ask me, “How do you respond to those who do not believe women should be pastors?” I tell them I simply do what I always do. I walk alongside them. I allow them the opportunity to re-humanize me and to see that God has always and will continue to work through his children. Whether we be old, young, prominent, or marginalized, God will find a way to speak through us.
Carol: Each Monday morning during my internship, associate superintendent of the Northwest Conference Paul Johnson would call me to learn what had happened at my congregation over the weekend. No matter how discouraged I felt because not everyone there believed I should be the pastor, he advised me to stay for my whole internship. His weekly calls and prayers helped me to realize that, indeed, God had called me to pastoral ministry.
Mary: When we graduated from seminary we were thrilled about the possibility of transformation within the church. If we put a complete sentence together, we were deemed brilliant! We were probably naïve in thinking that momentum would continue, but I enjoy the joyful hope of women graduating today.
The joys of ministry for me included being singled out as a woman and then demonstrating it was of God, reconciling those who originally were anti-women as pastors, having a wide variety of ministry venues and tasks, being used by the Spirit.
Marilyn: I owe a debt of gratitude to many Covenant minister colleagues who have influenced, mentored, and nurtured me in preparation for pastoral ministry, among them: Glenn Anderson, Burton Nelson, Fredrick Holm-gren, Earl Dahlstrom, Philip Anderson, John Weborg, Klyne Snodgrass, John Satterberg, Richard Carlson, Glen Wiberg, Richard Sandquist, Ed Hallsten, Tom Anderson, Bruce Lawson, and Norbert Johnson. A lingering lament visits me from time to time that I did not have the opportunity to continue to share the ministry experience with these colleagues and my seminary classmates, brothers and sisters in Christ within the Covenant community.
Anne: I’ve been a part of helping individuals and families break free from the gripping cycle of poverty and experience freedom in Christ not only spiritually but emotionally and physically. It’s usually three steps forward and two backward, but I’ve seen the difference it makes when individuals within a church are committed to the long haul journey of authentic discipleship.
Diane: One of the most rewarding experiences is helping and watching people grow in their faith. As a child I was scared to death of my pastor, and I remember saying, if I ever have the chance to teach children in church, they won’t be afraid of me. To welcome individuals and families and introduce them to a God who loves them—there is no greater reward.
I had tears in my eyes the first time I served communion and the first time I baptized an infant. It is also a great privilege to be with someone as they are at the end of their lives, praying with them as they take their last breaths and enter into heaven.
Karen H.: I was the first woman to serve as solo pastor at Mission Covenant Church in Ishpeming, Michigan. I found out after I got there that one family had argued against calling a woman, voted against me, and left before I came. The church was okay with that. One retired male member of the pastoral search team even called it a “non-issue.” Rural America may be seen as behind the times, but my experience was that in that setting people become quite practical. They do what works. Having women serving in the area “worked” for them. So they moved quietly into a new era without much fanfare.
JoAnn: Some of the most rewarding times have involved women finding their own calls to ministry. This was especially apparent as I was co-teaching a course called Women, the Bible, and the Church with Klyne Snodgrass. I encountered women on a journey similar to my own, who were doubting their call and struggling to find their voice. It has been a privilege to watch them grow and blossom into amazing pastors.
Dany: Most important, it has been an immense reward to see my children (Meztli, Tietl, and Citlalli) serve in ministry in a variety of capacities. Once I was ordained, other women from the Hispanic churches began telling me that one day they too would like to be ordained in the Covenant and are currently taking classes.
Sarah: Oh, so many rewards! When a student says, “Can we talk?” that’s a reward. When a kid shares their story in connection with a biblical story, that’s a reward. When anyone allows me to enter into their personal lives, whether painful or joyful, that is a reward. I recently went with a student to get his wisdom teeth out. Being invited into that space, to be with him when he was nervous, to keep his mom company in the waiting room was one of my greatest treasures. I thank God every day for the gift of intimate community and the opportunity to walk alongside his incredible children.
Diane: I’ve never known any church with a female pastor to say they were sorry they called a woman as their pastor. My hope is that someday it will be very natural for women to serve in every conference and in churches of all sizes. Yet Connecticut is known as “the land of steady habits” and the Covenant is similar. Change comes slowly. Each woman who receives a call and serves faithfully in ministry continues to pave the way for other women to serve God in the local church.
My advice to women who are called to ministry is, stay true to your call. And my advice to the church: be open. Don’t close the door just because the servant of God is female. You may just miss out on a true blessing.
Camille: As women, let us be strengthened in the Spirit, in spite of the obstacles, and go forward to serve God. He will open doors no one can open and he will close doors no one can close. Let us put our trust in him and go make disciples.