Two medieval saints who model Christian womanhood

By Audrey J. Krumbach, GCSRW Director of Gender Justice and Education

When we first dreamed up a Women’s History Month Blogging Project, I knew I would want to write a post to participate in the project. Today is March 26 and my post is not yet written.   I have been busy with other projects, but that is not why I have waiting so long. I have waited because every time I think of a woman or group of women I would like to thank and honor, I am flooded with awareness of the dozens of other vital women who mentored and formed me to become who I am. That list is hundreds of names long, and I refuse to publish it because I would never remember each one, and no woman’s contribution should ever be overlooked. So rather than write about a personal friend, mentor or role model, I’m going to retell the story of two Christian saints whose combined influence radically altered the shape of my life.

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich

In my second year of college, I took a British literature class that included Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. Julian was an anchorite (anchoress) — a set apart lay person who withdraws from secular society to an ascetic life of prayer. Julian’s theology includes God’s mother-like love for all, Jesus’ compassion and grace, and, most unusual for her time, a steadfast faith that God’s will for the universe would bring all things to good in the end.

Julian’s theology absolutely resonated with my understanding of the Bible and God; however, it was her life and being itself that inspired. Julian was a woman who wrote a book in a time when teaching even the most wealthy woman to read was almost unimaginable. Julian dared to express theology that was more optimistic, graceful and inclusive of feminine images during a century when inquisitions often tortured and executed heretics. This was a woman who submitted wholeheartedly to God, but did so in a way that was radical and unique. Women did not withdraw for a life of prayer in those days; marriage and children was the standard. But by choosing something uncommon, Julian became one of the earliest women writers in English, a powerful spiritual mentor to another English writer – Margery Kempe – a theologian and saint.

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen

The second woman is actually another medieval saint: Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard was a Benedictine nun and abbess who prioritized God and charity over obedience to her ecclesial superiors. As an Abbess, Hildegard would have had a tremendous amount of authority over the daily and spiritual running of the women under her care, and would have also born the responsibility for caring for those townspeople and individuals in her area. However, she was also merely a woman, and thus subject to the authority of the local priests.   Late in Hildegard’s life, a man died and was buried in the churchyard — a step considered necessary at the time if he were to be admitted into heaven. However, the church officials soon found out and reported that he had been previously excommunicated and his body should be exhumed and moved to unconsecrated ground.

Hildegard refused, and for a time she and all the nuns in her abbey were not permitted to receive the sacraments (in other words, their salvation was in question). Considering that Abbess Hildegard was in her eighties at the time, this was a major decision that she understood to have the ability to put her eternal salvation into jeopardy. Regardless, Hildegard remained steadfast and appealed the decision, suggesting that because the man had confessed his sins before his death, he had died reconciled to the church. Eventually, church officials decided to both leave the man in peace and to lift the ban against her abbey.

This act of direct defiance contrasts sharply with some of Hildegard’s writings, which not only support a vision of the universe with a strong hierarchy led by God through church officials, but also described herself as only a woman and of the weaker sex.

Both Julian and Hildegard’s writings possess this fascinating dichotomy: women who refused to accept the standard roles and expectations of their community identifying as primarily obedient and subservient to God. Julian and Hildegard were pious, obedient, gentle women who served God humbly through prayer, writing and service.   Julian and Hildegard were revolutionary, powerful, brilliant women who served God humbly as faithful role models, leaders and theologians.

Sometimes, I feel torn between two extremes: will I be loud, brash, passionate and assertive in my calling to advocacy and service, or will I be quiet, gentle, peacemaking and nurturing? But this is a false dichotomy. The answer is not that I will be one OR the other, but that I will seek to embody each of these virtues. I will be empathetic and powerful, passionate and nurturing, loud and gentle.   Julian and Hildegard model such powerful lives for us as Christian women – lives which are not limited to that once demanded by a sexist society, but guided by the instruction to “pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace” (2 Timothy 2:22).

To learn more about Julian of Norwich, the Penguin Books translation of Revelations of Diving Love (Short Text and Long Text) includes an introduction chapter which offers a good deal of information about her life story and context. ISBN: 0140446737

For Hildegard of Bingen, a number of books are available, but a fairly comprehensive study can be found in Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias (Classics of Western Spirituality) ISBN: 0809131307

Additional resources exist; feel free to email Audrey J. Krumbach, director of gender justice and education, at with questions or to identify additional resources.

Two seamstresses

By Bishop Linda Lee

As I thought about the theme for Women’s History Month 2014 — “Women of Character, Courage and Commitment” — two women came to mind. One is Tabitha (also known as Dorcas, Acts 9:36-43). She was a successful businesswoman of her time and a disciple of Jesus known for her good works. A seamstress or garment maker by trade she was so loved and respected by her community that her name was known in both Aramaic and Greek. This was a testimony of her ability to relate to and care for people across language and culture and — as the grief of the widows attested after her death — across class. As I remembered Tabitha, another woman I know who was a seamstress came to mind.

Her name was Lillie. She was born to a sharecropper and a school teacher in Mississippi in 1922. She was a lively and hard-working young woman on the family farm. She taught herself to sew because the family didn’t have extra money to buy pretty dresses for her or her younger sister, Ida, or ‘fancy’ shirts for their four brothers. The first dress Lillie made was from a flour sack that she transformed into a beautiful garment. Lillie took this gift and skill of garment making with her as she finished high school, married and had two children. She worked in clothing factories and was an active member of the Garment Workers Union, becoming one of the negotiators for workers rights at the factories where she worked. But Lillie also made garments for women in the community. Like, Tabitha, women from all walks of life came to Lillie for beautiful garments. But they also came to confide, to pray and to dream. I realized these two women, one then and one now, were not too different. Both were followers of Jesus, known for their good works. Both of them had character, courage and commitment. Some of the women who came to each of them were not otherwise able to buy new dresses. Some of them had families, husbands, children. Some were widows or childless. Others just needed someone to listen to them , to pray with them or to remind them that if they kept their trust in God, everything would be all right. All of them were marginalized by the context in which they lived, socially and economically oppressed.

I didn’t know Tabitha. But when I read her story and how the widows wept when she died I thought about Lillie and the women who mourned when she died. And though Lillie was not brought back to life like Tabitha was, her memory and witness live on in the people whose lives she touched – like me. Her witness and courage, her teaching and advocacy for African American women and for others inspired and uplifted many.

Lillie Williams Lee was my mother (1922-2003).

I write today as a tribute to her and other unnamed women of character, courage and commitment in our congregations and communities, who minister to the souls of other women and men as they live out their faith in day to day tasks. This is a tribute to those who share their God given gifts and their faith so that others can have hope and find God for themselves.

God bless those who are with us and those who have passed on to the other side. Let us remember them this Women’s History Month and go and do likewise.

Bishop Linda Lee is Bishop in Residence and Student Life Pastoral Care Team member at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She is an affiliate member of the Church Relations and Vocational Formation Committee of the Board of Trustees. Lee made history in 2000 when she was the first African American woman to be elected bishop in the North Central Jurisdiction. She is editor of the book “A New Dawn in Beloved Community: Stories with the Power to Transform Us.”

A Woman of Words, Poetry and Power

Rev. Kennetha J. Bigham-Tsai

My mother taught me how to preach. She did not give me lectures on homiletics, and she never entered a pulpit herself. But she taught me how to preach by teaching me a love for words.

It began with poetry. My mother would read poetry to my siblings and me. We read Emily Dickinson together and Langston Hughes, Longfellow and Whitman. And much of what we read we memorized.

It was from memorizing poetry that I learned the cadences of speech, the rhythms of oral expression—rhythms and cadences that quite naturally flowed into my preaching.

One of my mother’s favorite poets was Walt Whitman. One Mother’s Day, when I was about ten years old, I wrote out on parchment all 16 stanzas of Whitman’s “When the Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Then, I memorized the poem and recited it for my mother.

The poem is Whitman’s haunting and lyrical elegy to President Lincoln. It mourns his death and the death of those killed in the Civil War even as it welcomes death as rest. A central image in the poem is a sprig of lilac which the poet imagines casting upon the coffin of Lincoln. My mother loved lilacs, and she loved the words of that poem.

Today, this woman who loved lilacs and words sits in a nursing home–her once beautiful brain paralyzed by Alzheimer’s and dementia. She does not know where she is or who she is most of the time. She no longer recognizes me. And my mother, who so loved words, sometimes cannot make them make sense.

And so when I visited her some time ago, I did not know what to say to her. So I started to recite poetry. And, my mother, who could not remember my name, or that my father had died, or who she was, or how to put words together into sentences, began to finish my sentences. And we recited together, from memory, the poem I had given her in recitation so many years ago.

“When the lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed,” I began.

“And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night, I mourned, and yet shall mourn with ever returning spring,” said my mother.

That poem, which Whitman penned in 1865, was about the death of a president assassinated for setting free people like my mother and me. That poem was about a war that ripped a country apart yet set it upon a road to justice and liberty. That poem was about all of these things, but at that moment when I was with my mother, it was about none of these things. Instead, in that moment, it was about a mother and a daughter performing a dance of words—a dance that was beyond memory, and Alzheimer’s, and loss.

“O powerful western fallen star,
O shades of night,” said my mother.

“O moody tearful night! “ I continued.

“O great star disappeared—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless
O helpless soul of me….”

The final stanza that we remembered together was this one:

“In the dooryard fronting an old farmhouse, near the white-washed palings stands the lilac bush tall-growing with heart–shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard…
A sprig from its flower I break.” *

A sprig from the flower of a lilac bush, I imagine breaking now in memory of my mother. With every leaf a miracle, I celebrate now the miracle of that day with her. She is the woman who taught me poetry and a love for words. She is the woman who taught me how to preach.

This reflection is in honor of Kennetha’s mother, Bobbie Jo Sneed Bigham, a woman of great faith, intelligence and creativity who currently resides in Austin, Texas.

*”When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” by Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Bantam Dell, Division of Random House, New York: 2004, p. 274.

BighamTsaiRev. Kennetha J. Bigham-Tsai serves as Superintendent of the Lansing District in the West Michigan Annual Conference. She is a member of the Conference Leadership Team and is the cabinet representative for the Conference Trustees and other annual conference bodies. Before entering pastoral ministry, Kennetha served at Grand Rapids Trinity UMC as director of Christian Education and as the director of the Grand Rapids District Peace With Justice Community. She also has served on the West Michigan Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, as the chair of the Conference Board of Church and Society, and on the board of Worship Arts magazine.


The praying woman

By Berit Wested

I want to tell about something that happened when I was a leader in an organization. Somebody in a local part of the organization, in the countryside, several hours travel from the city where I worked, wanted me to visit them. They had asked me to come to speak in a meeting on a Friday evening and I had promised to come. When this Friday afternoon came I was tired and wanted to go home.

But, to keep my promise I had to travel four hours by train and one and a half hour by bus. I did not know how to find the house where the meeting should take place and I was tired, very tired and longed for home, husband and children. I complained a little to God: Why didn`t you ask me to be an ordinary women who can go home and be in my warm, quiet home on Friday evenings? The work of the week is done, the weekend is coming with rest.

My secretary had found a comfort-ticket, a more simple ticket was not available, it included dinner, coffee, newspapers and a quiet comfortable seat . I said thank you, a little surprised about the comfort. The traveling was a quiet blessing. When I left the bus and asked the driver for the way to the chapel, he said; “I see somebody is meeting you, don`t worry!”

The meeting went well; afterward I had to stay overnight in the village. A man and his wife took me to their home, it was a big well-kept farm. The night was clear with a big moon shining all over the valley and the mountains. It was cold and the snow was glittering. A wonderful sight, it gave me a relaxing blessing itself.

When we had entered the house the wife said, “I want to show you something.” She showed me a plant with no flower, almost no leaf. I almost laughed: if it had been mine I would had thrown it away long time ago. Then she said; “I got it for you. I look at every day and I pray for you every day.” I was ashamed, sat down and asked her why she did that and when she got this flower; I had never seen the women before. We had a wonderful talk that late evening, and I was very thankful to this women and to God who give me this lesson. We had a taste of heaven together and the remarkable experience was for me like the words in Isaiah 45.3. “I will give you hidden treasures or secret riches, so you will know that I am the Lord, the God of Isreal, who calls you by name.”

I did not know about this woman, who was praying just for me. Later I saw that God has many men and women like this. And he wants to show me when I do his will, even if it costs me a lot and when “common sense” tell me not to do this, he has something important to teach me.

Today I am reducing my activity in the church and society, I want to be more like this praying women. I want to give support, coaching, prayer to those I see in need for this. I do not need to tell them what I do, but when God gives me the opportunity I am happy to do it.

Berit Westad
Berit Westad is a lay representative for Norway in the Nordic and Baltic conference of the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference of The United Methodist Church. She also serves on the board of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.

Central Conference Ministers and Their Spouses — A Shared Ministry

By Barbara A. Boigegrain

One of the most important things we did as the Central Conference Pension Initiative (CCPI) efforts began in 2003 was to start visiting the central conferences to meet the retirees—see what their daily lives were like; how they lived; and what it might take to help provide a level of support in retirement for them.

mozambiqueOn my first trip, we arrived in Mozambique in southeastern Africa, below the equator on the Indian Ocean. We were driven to a local community of small, cement-block houses. The minister and his wife warmly welcomed us in front of their son’s two-room home, which they shared with him and his family—foundation set directly on the ground with a garden against the house, hacked out of a little piece of earth. They brought out plastic chairs and set them in front of the house in the dirt, and the retired minister and his wife shared experiences openly and willingly. Through interpreters, we began to understand what their service entailed; the number of villages and lives they touched; the countless miles they walked or bicycled; what little they had; and how great were their gifts of time and effort.

As we talked, we came to understand that the minister had served and lived in northern Mozambique—a very wild, undeveloped area without much infrastructure and almost no roads. He talked about going to one village in particular, where the villagers had never heard the Word of God or been taught about Christ. The couple went and lived among them in little dirt houses, and they carried out their ministry there for years.

In our visits, I found that a minister’s wife normally sat silently by, nodding and smiling as we talked about the minister, his ministry, how he had served, and what his career had been like. I realized that, as we usually do, we were focusing on the man that had provided the spiritual leadership, and I thought, “I’ll bet there’s another side of the story.” Then, I turned to his wife and asked her directly, “So, what did you do while he was doing his work?”

She brightened up and said, “Well, when I got there, I saw many people kept some sheep and they knew how to weave, but only big bolts of cloth. So, the women either wore a bolt of cloth wrapped around them that did not fit well or they went bare-chested.mozambique2

“They didn’t have shirts or tops or blouses because they didn’t know how to sew—they didn’t have any kind of sewing machines—but they could weave the sheep’s wool.” She continued, “I came to realize that being uncovered and having to remain bare-chested actually affected their sense of dignity. So, through my connections, I taught them how to sew and how to shape these woven cloths into tops and blouses. We cut out the arm holes and the sleeves and sewed them together.” And she said with great satisfaction, “I actually was able to help clothe the women of the village and I couldn’t believe how much that helped their sense of dignity.”
What a remarkable story, and what a difference this woman made. I thought, rather than focus just on the person in ministry, we should recognize the actual shared ministry. The work of the spouse may not be the focus of attention, but they are there, carrying out their own ministry of service, helping people in countless ways and making significant contributions in their ministerial partnership.

Not long after I returned to the States, we learned that the minister we visited had passed away. When I think of the CCPI and the words we often use—caring for those who serve by providing pension payments in retirement for ministers and their surviving spouses—I think of the minister and his wife and what she brought to his ministry. She taught; she trained; she clothed an entire Mozambique village and gave the women a sense of dignity that they could not create for themselves. It makes me very thankful that our CCPI pension fund also provides for the surviving spouse who serves in ministry every bit as much as the minister.


boigegrainBarbara Boigegrain is General Secretary and Chief Executive Officer of the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits since 1994. As general secretary, she oversees all fiduciary services and administrative operations. Prior to joining the General Board, Barbara spent 11 years with Towers Perrin. Earlier in her career, she held positions with Dart Industries in the group insurance benefits function and with KPMG Peat Marwick tax practice.

In memory of Lizzie Glide, a church honors her mission

Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto


As the lead pastor of one of the largest churches in The United Methodist Church, I am indebted to a woman who I never met: Elizabeth Snyder Glide. Lizzie, as she was known throughout her life, was born in Louisiana in 1852. During a family bible study, Lizzie had her own Aldersgate experience. Her father read Matthew 25:31-46 about the coming judgment and separation of sheep and goats, representing those who showed compassion to others and those who failed to do so. Lizzie, even though a child, was deeply moved by this passage and discussed it more deeply with her father. Her father told her that as long as she was a good girl and loved Christ, she would be assured a place in heaven. This was a defining moment upon which would direct her future path and actions.

The family moved to Sacramento, California in 1867 and joined the local Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Lizzie was an active member and Sunday School teacher. It was at this church that she met her future husband, Joseph Glide, who was a cattle baron.

In 1889 evangelist Sam P. Jones came to Sacramento. It was at a revival that Lizzie came forward to consecrate her life to Christian service. Even though she had come to live a life of ease in the Glide mansion, she soon established a mission for the most destitute in Sacramento, working there herself and often giving her own testimony of sanctification. She became well-known and well-loved among the poor, and a highly sought after speaker.

Lizzie’s mission work extended far beyond Sacramento. She began to live more simply so she would have more wealth to give away for mission work in other countries. She even asked her husband to stop buying expensive gifts on her birthday and other special occasions and give her money instead, so she could give more away.

When her husband died in 1909, Lizzie took over his business, quickly acquiring a business sense. She became a very respected business person in California. In the running of the family business, she continued to channel monies to the betterment of others through the work of the Church.

In the early part of the 20th century, San Francisco was a rough and dangerous place for women. One day, Lizzie stopped a woman on the street and asked her what she would do if she had a large sum of money to use to better others. The woman replied that she would build a safe home for working women. In 1914, Lizzie gave her first gift to San Francisco: The Mary Elizabeth Inn. For one hundred years, this United Methodist ministry continues to offer women a safe, affordable place to live in the City. When I was a candidate for campus minister at San Francisco State University, I stayed at Mary Elizabeth Inn for the duration of my interviews (Lizzie continued her commitment to women by building dormitories for women at UC Berkeley and Asbury College).

One day when she was praying in her room in Sacramento, she had a vision of a church is the heart of San Francisco. Even then, the number of unchurched people in San Francisco was quite high. She saw the city ripe for mission, and in 1929 began constructing a church at the corner of Taylor and Ellis. The cornerstone was laid in 1930 with the inscription:

A House of Prayer for All Peoples

Glide Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church, South opened its door in 1931.

With Lizzie Glide’s firm foundation, the church has grown into her vision. Keeping with her commitment to reaching out to the poorest of the poor, today Glide serves nearly a million free meals, offers free health care, low-income and supportive housing, recovery services, child care and education, and continues to draw people from around the world for engaging and transformative worship. Lizzie’s encounter with scripture as a child is boldly lived out at Glide:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’


olivetoRev. Dr. Karen Oliveto is a pastor, scholar, and activist. She is the lead pastor at Glide Memorial Church and the only woman serving as the lead pastor of a church in the top hundred membership churches in the UMC. A leading voice for LGBTQ justice in the church, she is the co-author of Holy Conversations: Talking About Homosexuality. She holds a PhD from Drew University, where she has taught Prophetic Leadership for the DMin program. She is also an adjunct professor in United Methodist Studies at Pacific School of Religion.

How the church can help women

By Rev. Hazel Jackson

Women have been major players in the function of ministries, management and operation of the church and industry for many years. Often women work tirelessly in positions for years because there is no one else who is willing to assume the position or they are working extremely well for lower compensation. Women often forget about themselves and their health when fulfilling various roles. Industry and the church need to be cognizant of the continuous work of women and find a means to give them a period of respite. Many women do not have personal outlets that provide rest, therefore they have little means of escape.

The church can be the outlet where women can receive unconditional love. Unconditional love can be the catalyst that women need to replenish physical and spiritual energy. Women need to be encouraged to love themselves, as well. When a woman loves herself, she is apt to assume responsibilities for her mind, soul and body in a manner that will help maintain a healthy lifestyle. The church can assist women by offering opportunities for personal pampering and /or host activities that recognize the tireless work of women in the church, industry and at home. Bible studies that cater to women’s issues would be beneficial. Non-competitive recreational activities to release stress would enhance the physical well-being of women.

There are several ministries that would enhance the emotional health of women, i.e. Stephen Ministry; regular organized body exercise; care ministries that can provide emergency childcare when a child is ill or the school is closed for a day or two; care ministries that send “thinking of you” cards to working moms; a means to a safe sanctuary for women who are abused or misused.

It would enhance the performance of women to have a co-leader for each ministry; to know and exercise their limits in industry; and to share the responsibilities at home with their spouses and other family members. When someone has another person to share their responsibilities or to discuss the issues that concern them, it lightens their load and provides options, as well as time for them to be more creative. The church can encourage a confidential buddy system that gives women an opportunity to share their feelings and concerns with someone or a small interest group.

It would be advantageous if leaders were given term limits, so that they will not be expected to maintain a given position for years and years. All women need time to reflect on their responsibilities and their spiritual, as well as physical, health. When a term limit is reached, the leader should be encouraged to relinquish the position to the co-leader or another member. Time off gives one the opportunity to release responsibilities and have the freedom of receiving care rather than giving it.

The church needs to be proactive in offering means for women to retreat and renew themselves spiritually and physically. Many women have the tendency to work continuously until they are burned out. Women need opportunities to be able to escape the demands of the church and society.

Members who accept the offer to display unconditional love could offer their time and talents to help cultivate spiritual, emotional and physical health activities for others. Each of us has special talents and most can be shared for the well-being of others. If people will give of their time, talents and resources to assist others in their areas of deficiency, there would be happier, healthier people in church and in our communities. The giver would be blessed for sharing and the recipient will be blessed as their deficiencies diminish.

Women, let’s slow down and enjoy our journey in life. Let’s read and practice the Serenity Prayer, daily. God please grant each woman the serenity to accept the things that we cannot change; the courage to change the things that we can; and the wisdom to know the difference. Let’s devote time to God and to ourselves, daily, so that we can be healthy and happier. Let’s share some of our time, talents and resources to help another sister live a fulfilling life.



Rev. Hazeline Jackson is a pastor in the Texas annual conference, appointed to serve Ashford United Methodist Church in Houston Texas. A lifelong United Methodist, Pastor Hazel is a strong advocate and voice for women in her church and conference.