What I Think Is Essential for People to Know about Ordained Women in Ministry in the ELCA and Elsewhere – Rev. Julie Ryan

Picture 002Rev. Julie Ryan, interim pastor for the ELCA Synod in Metro-Chicago and writer for Augsburg Fortress, gives a reflection on women in ministry so dynamic and so moving you have to read it out loud. A literal exploration of this month’s focus statement – “What I think is essential for people to know about women in ministry” – Pastor Ryan’s creation has a step and a rhythm that sounds as much like a work of bee-bop as it does a sermon. So give it a whirl – read it out loud to yourself and friends and feel hard on what it means for women to follow the call.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”



I believe I can confidently speak for all women in ministry, everywhere, when I say that we would like a spa. Or a multitude: “Spring up, O well!”

The Book of Numbers says that as our ancestors wandered in the wilderness, they sang, “Spring up, O well!—Sing to it!”[1]  I was honored to be asked to write for this blog, but have struggled with the title I was given, laboring over abstract disclaimers and definitions.[2]  “Spring up, O well!” had sprung up in response to the spa.  But, “Sing to it!”  The prophet Miriam was dead, but new generations needed to be able to join their voices in song.  Sing to it!  An invitation, an enticement, a rubric. 



We’re a   r  e  a  l  l y   b  i  g   category.  In so short a piece I write about women primarily as distinct from men, even though we all keep learning how gender and sexuality are more complex.


“Ministry” is also a voluminous category, encompassing more than ordination.  Many women serve for decades, having earned all the qualifications of their brothers, but without the benefits of public recognition.  Some of us who sensed a call had to leave the church body that had awakened it in order to respond.  While ordained ministry complements other forms of service which reveal the gifts of the whole body of Christ, I focus on it as the newest (in recent centuries) and most conspicuous form for women.[3]




We exist.

There are people who don’t know that.


And those who think we shouldn’t exist, or that we constitute a fad, or portent of church decline.  In the late 1970s I used to walk up University Avenue and frequently see a car parked near LSTC with the bumper sticker, “There’s nothing sinister about a woman minister.”  I’ve always wondered whose it was.  In most of the world the idea has yet to catch on.

But we’re here;  we may or may not be queer;  some of us like to rhyme our verses and our bumper stickers;  but all of us love to play with words—because being entranced[4] by God’s visible, audible, delectable words is what drew us to this crazy profession in the first place.  They sang to us.  The Word became flesh in the communities and in the loving, capable, leaders we knew.  The living waters sprang up in us through chances to participate and lead.  We found joy in singing to them:  learning, practicing, developing our identities and skills.



Globally, women are nearly half the population, yet a fractional minority of religious leaders.[5]  Locally, though our numbers have increased exponentially, we exist in small enough percentages to continue in the church as tokens.[6]   

Numbers matter—but how?  Some of us felt utter elation the first times we saw and heard women vested, ordained, celebrating the eucharist, and preaching.  But deep-rooted, lasting change will take several lifetimes.  A long view is essential;  progress isn’t smooth, but advances in zigzags or waves.  Many of us still await equal respect and opportunities in our profession.[7]

We take heart from the parables of Jesus and the ironies of Paul:  God’s power and life work among us as through small things like grains of yeast and mustard seeds—hidden leavening and flavor.  Through people and crosses the world deems foolish.  We trust that our presence has impact beyond what we can perceive.



While women have long served as ministers in Pentecostal and some mainline denominations,  ordination is a relatively recent phenomenon in the more liturgically centered ones.[8]  Often, especially after leading life-cycle rituals, we’re still the first “live ones” somebody has experienced.  Sometimes it’s fun and uniquely satisfying, but there is also cost to being a symbol.  As the saying goes, we have to be twice as good to be thought half as effective.  We are treated less as individuals than as representatives of a type.  Many of us always hold in our consciousness how anything we do reflects upon all women in ministry.

My generation was making up ministerial identity as we went along, and relying upon one another.  We had to be creative in searching for models and mentors, since there were so few who looked and sounded like us.  We found them in men, women in other professions, and women religious.  We also looked to fiction for inspiration.[9]



Our world in many ways is a wilderness, as we consider the lives of women.  Violence is everywhere:  trafficking, honor killings and actual witch hunts, mutilation promoted as adult initiation.  Less dramatically, hostile workplaces and unsafe homes.  The world needs both justice to right the wrongs, and beauty to counter the chaos.  The world needs our song. 

Sing to it!

The word became flesh.  In our incarnationally-centered faith, the ordination of women as leaders of ritual is an embodiment of the hopeful eschatological vision where baptism into Christ—Spring up, O well!—does away with socially-constructed barriers:  no more Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female.[11]  Ideally, it’s a sacramental expression of the fullness of a humankind that is created in the image of God, redeemed in Christ, and graced by the Holy Spirit who is poured out upon both daughters and sons.  Having every form of ministry open to women is a nonverbal testimony of what we believe about God, and about the will of God for human flourishing.  

The Archbishop of the Church of Sweden, Antje Jackelén (former LSTC Professor of Sytematic Theology and Religion and Science), attends her installation mass at the Uppsala Cathedral, on June 15, 2014. She is the first female archbishop in the Swedish Church’s history. AFP PHOTO / TT NEWS AGENCY / Pontus Lundahl


Sing to it!  Our songs need words, yet our words cannot ever capture the holy.  We encounter God deeply, intimately;  at the same time, God remains a mystery.  Our loving triune God is paradoxically  known through metaphors of human relationship while also existing marvelously beyond gender—or any other finite idea or pattern.

We remember Jesus, who put his life on the line for us and said, This is my body…my blood.  As his words are spoken, and bread and cup are shared, God is revealed with greater resonance through the variety of those speaking and serving, and the bodies of all are dignified as they participate.

703 Woman Singing Earth rgb (936x912).jpg
Mary Southard, CSJ, “Women Singing Earth.” (Courtesy of Ministry of the Arts / http://www.ministryofthearts.org)

Sing to it!  We believe that the gifts of God are poured out upon all—no exceptions;  and the gifts of all are urgently needed.  As we welcome those both like and unlike ourselves, we learn new rhythms and harmonies for the song, and hear expanded meaning in the Scriptures.

Worship is practice for the reign of our lavishly generous God.  The sum of the assembly is more than its parts.  As women in ministry we bring to the assembly and to God’s table something that hasn’t been there for nearly two millennia.  Like Jesus, we alienate those who judge our very presence as a sign of contradiction.  But we inspire people who never had the chance to experience it before, and sometimes even convert the alienated.

Forty years ago, most children had never seen a woman pastor.  Today, there are girls and boys who can’t imagine a church without us. 

The font of vocational dreams has widened, refreshing the earth.

Spring up, O well!—Sing to it!  Sing to it!


IMG_20160318_2205182_rewind.jpgI was baptized at 10, confirmed at 18, ordained at 32.  I’m white, straight, and married, although single during the first years of ministry.  I’ve worked for five years each at LSTC and the ELCA Churchwide Offices;  served two settled and seven interim pastorates;  and continue to write worship resources for Augsburg Fortress.

Notes and Resources:

A wonderful internet resource for young female clergy.

[1] Numbers 20:17, NRSV.  After the unpleasantness with the plague and the bronze serpent.


It’s vital to acknowledge both that there has been significant progress for women in ministry, and also (good Lutheran paradox) that we still have a long way to go.

I take for granted that each of us is an unrepeatable individual, and—another paradox—belongs to various overlapping group identities (gender, race, culture, etc.,) that play indispensable roles in who we are.  Honoring individuality means receiving people as more than categories and types.  Owning our distinct social location means accepting our history with its responsibility and gifts.  Both are essential.

To state the obvious, there’s not an automatic direct connection between being part of a particular group or having a common set of bodily experiences, and thinking or acting in a particular way.  Think college professors Condoleezza Rice and Elizabeth Warren;  first ladies Nancy Reagan and Michelle Obama.  Because of multiple factors in play, there usually are connections, but we can’t assume how they operate.  Moreover, even if we have the same goal as other people at the table, we might well disagree about how to get there.

My own well-being is best articulated and served by both me (as the person living my life) and others, who can perceive or do things I can’t.  Both viewpoints are necessary.

[3] Scholars have found ample signs of women’s liturgical leadership in the earliest centuries.

[4] Not to be confused with the transitive verb, “entranced,” from the ELCA candidacy process!

[5] The Pew Center estimates that 32% of the world’s population is Christians.  Among Christians, those who do not ordain women are the majority:  62% are Roman Catholic or Orthodox.  Among Protestants, some large denominations don’t ordain women, and have even moved in the past couple of years to reiterate their prohibition of ordination.  These numbers don’t account for people of other religious traditions.

Meanwhile, we are 25% of the ordained ELCA clergy.  The March 2016 issue of The Lutheran counts us as 35% of active ELCA clergy.

For International Women’s Day 2014, the Huffington Post featured a slide show, “Fifty Powerful Women Religious Leaders to Celebrate.”  They represent different religions around the world.  The Lutheran clergy are  Archbishop of Sweden Antje Jackelén, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, and ELCA pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber:


[6] Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s now classic Men and Women of the Corporation (1977 and 1993) posited a typology of four possible majority/minority distributions within an organization:  100: 0 (uniform);  85:15 (skewed);  65:35 (tilted);  50:50 (balanced).  She accurately described the increased visibility of and pressure upon tokens (vs. dominants) in a skewed group.  Tokens are subject to disproportionate pressure to excel, isolation, and role entrapment.

She speculated that more evenly balanced ratios between women and men would bring about greater equality, but had no data available to work with.  Her research gave rise to the “critical mass” theory:  namely, that as numbers of a minority group rise, so do its fortunes.  People using her research presumed that greater numbers would automatically bring about greater justice, but that presumption didn’t take account of backlash.

“Rethinking Tokenism:  Looking Beyond Numbers” (abstract).  Janice D. Yoder, University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, 1991:  http://gas.sagepub.com/content/5/2/178.abstract

“Critical Mass Theory and Women’s Political Representation.”  Sarah Childs, University of Bristol;  Mona Lena Krook, Washington University, St. Louis.  2008:


“Tokenism” in Wikipedia (last revised 2/3/16):  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokenism


[7] “Female clergy earn 76 cents for every dollar that male clergy earn.  Across all professions, women on average make 83 cents for every dollar men make.”  Moreover, the pay gap for clergywomen widens with experience.  Editorial, “The Pay Gap at Church,” Theological Education issue of The Christian Century, February 17, 2016, p. 7.

Discrimination is more difficult to deal with where it officially doesn’t exist.  Harassment and micro-aggressions, especially being trivialized and patronized, cost significant energy.  Where’s that spa?

[8] The first Lutheran women were ordained in 1970 (ALC and LCA) and 1976 (AELC).  The Episcopal “Philadelphia

Eleven” were ordained in a protest ceremony in 1974;  the denomination came around in 1976.

[9] From my reading.  Surely there are more.  (I’m leaving out nuns for reasons of space.)  Meanwhile:

Fiction featuring African American women of ceremonial power:  Baby Suggs, from Toni Morrison’s Beloved;  August and her sisters, from Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees.

A Navajo healer:  Margaret Cigaret, from Tony Hillerman’s Listening Woman

In the following list, the religious leaders are white, down to the ice age:

Women rabbis:  Rhonda Shapiro Rieser’s Rabbi Lynda Jacobs Klein of A Place of Light;  Jonathan Rosen’s Rabbi Deborah Green of Joy Comes in the Morning.

Women Episcopal priests:  Gail Godwin’s Rev. Margaret Bonner of Evensong;  Madeleine L’Engle’s Mother Catherine of A Severed Wasp.  Murder mystery series featuring Episcopal priests:  Michelle Blake’s Rev. Lily Connor (set in Cambridge, MA);  Phil Rickman’s Rev. Merrily Watkins, also an exorcist (set in the borderlands between England and Wales);  Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Rev. Clare Fergusson (set in far upstate New York).  Very funny murder mystery series:  Kate Gallison’s Mother Lavinia Grey (set in New Jersey).

Hyde Parker Sara Paretsky’s Hardball has a hospital chaplain of another denomination, Pastor Karen Lennon.

Holy women in fantasy:  the central characters in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novels about ancient Britain;  Margaret Furlong’s young adult Wise Child trilogy;  Jane Auel’s ice age Clan of the Cave Bear series

[10] “Bread and Roses”:  famous song of the women’s labor movement, with origins in Chicago.  Text written in 1911, inspired by lectures and/or a sign at a rally.  Lyrics are included in this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bread_and_Roses

It was set to music once again by Mimi Fariña.  Recorded by Fariña and her sister Joan Baez:


[11] Galatians 3:28




3 thoughts on “What I Think Is Essential for People to Know about Ordained Women in Ministry in the ELCA and Elsewhere – Rev. Julie Ryan

  1. Pingback: We Talk. We Listen.

  2. Patricia Shirichena

    Who ever is against the ordination of women shall gave his/ her facts form the Holy Bible. There is no verse in the Bible which says women must not be ordained.


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