More Than “Just a Deacon”: Celebrating 25 Years of The Order of Deacon

By Jenn Meadows, Director of Communications

“Oh, that clergy person is just a deacon.” This remark is unfortunately heard occasionally when discussing the work and ministry of a deacon. Despite their rich contributions to the church, some deacons report feeling like they are treated as the “lesser than Order” by fellow United Methodists. In reality, deacons have been crucial to the life, work, and ministry of The United Methodist Church for the past 25 years. As we move forward into unchartered territories and unknowns as a denomination, United Methodists can look towards deacons as an example of how to move forward in justice and compassion.

2021 marks the 25th anniversary of the creation of The Order of Deacons within The United Methodist Church. In 1996, United Methodists had gathered in Denver, Colorado for that quadrennium’s General Conference session. During this session of General Conference, The Order of Deacon was established, allowing those who were called to bridge the church in the world to be ordained within our denomination.

With 66% of ordained deacons being women, the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women has often walked alongside deacons in their unique ministry settings. In 2019, we dedicated our Women’s History Month series to highlight the importance of deacons within The United Methodist Church because during our travels, we had heard stories of how often deacons were being told they were the “lesser than Order.” Where does some of this conflict and misunderstanding stem from? Some of this conflict arises because deacons are not able to administer the sacraments except under special circumstances. Elders are ordained to the ministries of word, sacrament, order and service. Deacons are ordained to the ministries of word, service, compassion and justice. While an elder is leading a congregation full time, a deacon will be in an appointment that bridges the church and the world.

For example, an ordained deacon may serve in an extension ministry setting or nonprofit and be associated with a local church. A deacon may also work full-time in a church, but will have a specialized focus in an area such as youth ministry or music ministry. A deacon may serve in a role at an annual conference or a general agency. The work of a United Methodist deacon is diverse, but with that comes misunderstandings on what exactly the purpose and role of a deacon even is in ministry settings.  

Since the Order of Deacon is a relatively new Order within the denomination, there are still individuals who remember the older process of ordination for elders. Before the 1996 General Conference decision, before someone was ordained an elder in full connection, they were first ordained as a deacon. There are still many elders today who went through that process, being ordained a deacon as a step before elder.

During these past 25 years, we as United Methodists have been striving onward to perfection to understand and celebrate the Order of Deacon. For GCSRW’s own celebration of this important milestone in our denomination’s history, we interviewed board members and colleagues of board members that were either connected to that historic 1996 General Conference decision or who have answered their own calls to become deacons.

Dr. Sandra Lutz has served in multiple capacities across the connection. She has served on Judicial Council, been a first-elected lay delegate from East Ohio Annual Conference for General Conference, served on the original East Ohio COSROW, and currently is serving as Board Governance Chair for GCSRW’s Board of Directors. “It’s been a wonderful journey!” Lutz stated.

Lutz’s first general church service was being part of the Board of Directors for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM). While on the board, she was assigned to the Division of Diaconal Ministry. She was introduced to the legislation that would go to the 1992 General Conference that first proposed the Order of Deacon. That legislation was defeated, but it taught Lutz how the general church functions.

Lutz was a delegate at the 1996 General Conference and a series of events led her to chair the legislative committee that would be taking on the creation of The Order of Deacon legislation. Lutz recalls that she was considered because supporters of the legislation thought “someone who might not have a personal fight in The Order of Deacon would be a good fit as chair.” She was more than happy to serve her denomination in this function. While reflecting on this role, Lutz remembers that the main concern in 1996 coming from former Methodist elders was the two-step ordination of process of first being ordained as a deacon and then later as an elder. Former Evangelical United Brethren clergy helped shift this perspective because before the merger to become The United Methodist Church, the EUB did not have a two-step ordination process similar to the Methodist Church before the two denominations merged. The creation of The Order of Deacon eventually came out of the legislative committee and onto the plenary floor of General Conference. When the legislation passed, Lutz recalls the excitement on the floor. “What a gift it was from the Church that I was able to be part of that,” Lutz shared.

Lutz sees the role of the deacon to be critical as we head into whatever is in store for The United Methodist Church after General Conference 2022. “Deacons and everything they stand for are what this denomination needs because they embody what it means to be community.”

Rev. David Dodge was part of the first class of deacons that was ordained in 1997 after the creation of The Order of Deacon and attended the 1996 General Conference as a first-time delegate. Dodge remembers the buzz regarding the creation of The Order of Deacon legislation leading up to when it appeared on the plenary floor. This piece of legislation was not put on the Consent Calendar for the day which Dodge gathered meant this legislation was a big deal. After the motion passed, the creation and logistical work of The Order of Deacon started, and Dodge started his journey towards ordination as a deacon.

Leading up to the 1996 General Conference, Dodge had served as a diaconal minister for Trinity United Methodist in Gainesville, Florida as the Minister for Program and Administration for fifteen years. Dodge never saw his calling to fit the elder role. When The Order of Deacon was established, Dodge said, “It seemed to me that the Church had finally caught up with my call.”

In January 1997, Dodge joined the staff of the Florida Annual Conference as the Executive Director of the Division of Ministry, later the Office of Clergy Excellence, by Bishop Cornelius Henderson’s invitation. Up to this point, the role had always been staffed by an ordained elder.

Dodge recalls that many on the Florida Board of Ordained Ministry were very collegial. There were a good number of deacons on the board. Both the elders and deacons respected one another and their respective calls, but Dodge did hear of other deacons struggling in other annual conferences being seen as almost as lesser than within the ordination circles.

In Boards of Ordained Ministry, the question came up over and over again, “Why do you need to be ordained to do this? Can’t you do this as a lay person?” Dodge noticed this came up more with more untraditional paths for deacons, having their dominant foot more in the world than in the church. But for Dodge, his hope for The Order of Deacon is seeing more deacons serve in roles where the church is not present. “The need of bridging the church and the world is greater than it’s been before,” Dodge stated.

Rev. Cathy Jamieson is currently an ordained elder and District Superintendent for the Columbia District in the South Carolina Annual Conference, serving alongside GCSRW board member Rev. Cathy Mitchell. Jamieson graduated seminary in 1989 and was ordained in the previous process before The Order of Deacon was established. She remembers shortly after The Order of Deacon was established in 1996, there was confusion and tension amongst clergy understanding one another’s roles. “There was always this uncertainty of what exactly is the new deacon role and how does it fit with the elder role.”

Even today as a District Superintendent, she finds that she has to help clergy understand both the new ordination tracks because they are familiar with the previous process and helping clergy understand the roles that deacons can play in an annual conference in conjunction with the roles of elders. From her experience, she hears a lot of tension coming from elders not understanding why a deacon needs to be ordained. During those conversations, there seems to be a misunderstanding of deacons pursuing this ordination because they want all the benefits of an elder in salary and insurance, but do not want the itinerant life, even though deacons are not guaranteed salary and health benefits. Jamieson believes that this can be helped if deacons and elders had more intentional conversations with each other set aside by each annual conference, and more visibility and sharing of deacon’s call stories and ministries. She expressed the power of representation. She had never seen a woman in ministry until she saw Rev. Susan Henry Crowe as Furman University’s campus minister. This set in motion Jamieson finding her own call into ministry. Jamieson believes that if there were more visibility of deacons, other young people may see and understand their calls in line with that of the deacon.

Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain was recently ordained as a deacon in the North Alabama Annual Conference. Chastain recalls that she has always had a servant heart and a call towards justice and advocacy. While working as a layperson within the church, she started to realize after spending some time within the denomination, she could continue the work that she felt called to, but there would be a little bit more knowledge and authority if she pursued the ordination process. She is currently pursuing PhD work at Boston University School of Theology and was ordained by Bishop Debbie Wallace Padget in the North Alabama Annual Conference in mid-June. “I will have been commissioned and ordained by a female bishop which means a lot to me as a clergywoman,” Chastain shared.

Chastain pointed to how Margaret Ann Crain and other deacons have been sharing how being a deacon is an identity, not just a role. People decide to be ordained as a deacon not because of the jobs they are doing, but rather, because it fits their identity as people. Chastain encourages the church to have a conversation with a deacon and listen to how they talk about justice, advocacy, service, and compassion. In those conversations, deacons are doing the crucial work in modeling that there is not just one way to serve. “Now, more than ever, we are seeing more expanded ministry,” Chastain said. Ordination to the Order of Deacon is a continued affirmation and trust from The United Methodist Church put into deacons to show leadership in those expanded ministry roles. Since being a deacon is more of a way of being versus just a role to serve, deacons are bringing their full selves into bridging the church and the world.

With so much uncertainty facing the denomination at this time, Chastain recommends that the church turn to deacons as an example of how to navigate these uncertain waters. “If being a deacon has taught me anything, it really has taught me how to embrace the difference compassion can take,” Chastain said. Compassion is something that deacons are specifically focused on and something they as an order can model for the rest of The UMC. Chastain thinks with the deacons’ example, the church can step back, putting our individual needs of control aside and let compassion run forth as the denomination wrestles with how together we will move forward in this uncertainty.

Katrena King grew up in the church with a father who was an ordained elder. Growing up, she didn’t feel called to ministry. While she was attending law school, she started feeling a call to something, but didn’t quite know exactly what that call really meant at first. As she pursued her career, she recognized that the call she was feeling was more external, more outside of her home congregation and “to the people of the world.” King is a regional planner in Louisiana working on community, economic, and transportation development. In her work, she empowers communities to see, “that they have their own value in where they are and what they do.” With her calling to the Order of Deacon, King would like to empower those in the church to see their value and how that connects to everyday life, their careers, and their spiritual wellbeing. “I’m really trying to make that bridge happen,” King shared in reference to how deacons are often described as being the bridge between the church and the world.

King is now a certified candidate for ministry in the Louisiana Annual Conference. She believes the work of the deacon is crucial for building the future of the church. “I see the Order of Deacons more and more fully as part of kingdom building because of the inherent need of tying into the outside world. The majority of the work is outside of the church. How can we guide some of those people in? And if they don’t want to come in and they are not ready, how can we connect with them on a level that makes them feel acknowledged and valued anyway? I see the role of the deacons growing more and more in this capacity.”

During this 25th Anniversary of The Order of Deacon, GCSRW would like to uplift and celebrate all of the deacons and individuals who laid the foundational work to make this milestone happen. The ministry and life that deacons have given our denomination are abundant and as a denomination, United Methodists must celebrate alongside deacons. GCSRW would also like to uplift and celebrate the future generation of deacons that are coming up through the process. They will build upon this foundational work and continue to develop new, innovative ways to bridge the Church and the world.


Author’s note: I would like to thank GCSRW’s board members, Dr. Sandra Lutz, Rev. David Dodge, Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain, and Katrena King for contributing to this piece by sharing their connection to the Order of Deacon in interviews. During our spring board meeting, we learned of the connections that Dr. Lutz and Rev. Dodge had to the 1996 General Conference session and wanted to uplift their stories. We also wanted to lift up all of the deacons on our board because they are bringing the future of the Order. Thank you all for your time and your willingness to share your stories with me. I am truly honored that I was able to speak to each one of you about your calls and the love and hope you have for our denomination.

North Alabama Annual Conference COSROW’s Parity Resolution

by Rev. Dr. Kelsey Grissom

In 2017, the North Alabama Conference COSROW felt that women clergy in our Conference were not receiving the same opportunities in appointments that male clergy were. Increasingly, clergy and laity were expressing the same concerns to COSROW. In order to determine whether this sense of disparity in the appointive process was accurate or not, the North Alabama COSROW decided to designate two members to research appointments in our Annual Conference and, if the data supported our suspicions that women were receiving fewer opportunities for advancement, to write a Resolution to address the issue.

The Reverend Henry Gibson and I volunteered to compile and analyze a list of clergy and salaries. Each year, salaries are reported along with appointments in our Annual Conference Journal, which are publicly available online. Henry and I made a spreadsheet of salaries broken down into ranges and calculated the percentage of each gender in every range. We then compared this to the overall percentages of male and female clergy in our Conference. This was an extremely basic way of compiling this data, but it was enough for us to see a consistent history of disparity in appointments.

We chose to focus on salaries for that first data analysis because the numbers were publicly available to us. However, clergy salaries are not entirely straightforward. Housing allowances or parsonages are not reported in our Journal, and neither are continuing education budgets or such “perks” as lawn care and church daycare availability. However, we decided it was better to start simply with the salary numbers we had and could easily compare over time. Because our Cabinet makes appointments based solely on salary and not housing allowances or other compensation, this would also mean that we were basing our Resolution on the very numbers they used for appointment making.

We decided to talk over the data with our District Superintendents because we wanted to work with them on improving these disparities, and we wanted to ensure that the changes we sought were realistic. Initially, the Cabinet was defensive about our salary study. They explained that the numbers did not portray the complexity of the appointment process, and stressed that the Cabinet could be prevented from making positive changes toward parity during years with few appointment moves. Henry and I countered that while the process is surely complex, the Bishop and Cabinet’s office is the only structure in our Discipline that has the power to make these changes; therefore, the responsibility must lie with them. We pointed out that because our data was based on salary, it was possible to improve the numbers even without making a great many moves: churches who were already led by appointed female clergy could be persuaded to increase salaries to match those of their male counterparts.

The Cabinet’s further objection was that a major impediment to appointing female clergy to any church was the local churches’ resistance to female leadership. In response, we asked the Cabinet to consider that a Resolution for Parity in Appointments, should it pass the Annual Conference, would give them a mandate to help convince churches to move forward with the appointments of female clergy. (If the Resolution did not pass, then one interpretation of those results would be for the Cabinet to be validated in its belief that churches did not want female leadership. However, we felt confident that many more churches were ready for female leadership than perhaps their SPRCs expressed.)

After discussion, the Cabinet asked to sign on to the Resolution itself, on the condition that we agree to a few editorial changes, and they agreed to supply more accurate numbers than what had been published in the Journal. COSROW accepted this partnership and Henry and I analyzed the data again with the new, more accurate numbers. The Resolution that Henry and I authored and submitted to the Annual Conference can be viewed in the 2018 North Alabama Conference Pre-Conference Journal. (Volume One is here and Volume Two is here.)

Henry and I spoke to as many people as possible about the Resolution ahead of Annual Conference. Our Conference hosted District Meetings to prepare delegates for Annual Conference, and Henry and I drove to each district that would have us to explain and answer questions about the Resolution. Most of the delegates were receptive and excited about the Resolution. It did become apparent early on that numeracy was an issue: many people struggle with the ability to interpret numerical data, particularly statistics. Henry and I had to learn how to educate delegates about the meaning of the statistics we reported, what they did and did not mean, and what we were asking the Bishop and Cabinet to achieve in terms of results.

When Annual Conference arrived, I was able to give a very brief overview of the Resolution during COSROW’s report. I shared that COSROW knew it was the belief of United Methodists that everyone God has called, regardless of gender, should be treated with fairness in the appointive process. While salary markers are not a complete measurement of appointment opportunities, they were a way for us to begin the work of equalizing opportunity, audience, and pay for all clergy. When the Resolution came up for the vote on the following day, it passed almost unanimously, with only one “no” vote.

Our Resolution allowed two appointment cycles for the Bishop and Cabinet to work to correct the disparities and charged COSROW with reporting on their progress in the 2021 session. For those two appointment cycles, the Reverend Henry Gibson and the Reverend Emily Nelms Chastain (who is also a GCSRW board member) analyzed the data with the help of a lay sociologist, Dr. Philip Gibson (brother to Rev. Gibson). Their analysis included not only salary comparisons, but also average worship attendance of the local churches. This information is reported weekly on our Conference website, and added an additional layer of insight into the gender bias we have seen in the appointive process.

This year, as stipulated by the Resolution, our COSROW chair did report to the Annual Conference on the progress made. Unfortunately, we have seen no significant changes, and in some respects appointments for clergywomen have regressed. The only positive change that could be documented was the appointment of an additional female DS to the Cabinet. While these results are disheartening and raise greater questions about our appointive system, we feel our efforts were worthwhile to draw attention to disparities and to secure a formal clarification that the body of our Annual Conference does want to see women represented proportionally in our higher-salaried, larger churches. The conversation with our Bishop and Cabinet will have to move to a deeper level to understand why they did not meet the markers we had all agreed to work toward. But in the meantime, women entering our Conference as clergy can accurately judge the climate they will be working in, and current clergywomen as well as laity and clergymen who support parity can see that their suspicions—that our system is not utilizing the gifts of men and women equally in clergy leadership roles—were not unfounded. 

Rev. Dr. Kelsey Grissom

Rev. Dr. Kelsey Grissom is the pastor of Camp Branch United Methodist Church in the North Alabama Conference. Her pastoral interests include preaching to all ages and practical theology for the home. Kelsey is married to Lee and they have four children.

Top Ten Success Principles for Career Women

by Dr. Larine Y. Cowan, PhD

Pray Often and Put Christ First

The Bible teaches us in numerous scriptures the importance of putting and keeping Christ first in our daily lives. Matthew 6:33: “But seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” So, for Christian women, putting Christ first must be the number one principle when striving for success in one’s career and in life generally.

Prepare

For any career choice, one must get prepared. Do your research. Find out what skills are needed in order to be successful in your chosen field. There are those in ministry who subscribe to the thinking that all they are required to do is pray and the Good Lord will supply their every need. They don’t have to prepare when asked to speak or participate in strategy meetings or when counseling parishioners. They say the Lord will tell them what to say and what to do. It’s true, the Lord can do everything that they’re saying, and some people may be blessed in that way. However, some of us must do our part and study the Bible so that we are knowledgeable and better able to faithfully follow Jesus, and teach others how to live a Christian life. So, preparation is just as critical for women clergy as it is for women in other professions.

Once you have completed your research on what is required to be successful in a particular area, then be willing to put in the work to learn your business from the ground up.

Get a good education. Depending on your area of interest, you may need a college degree, an advanced degree, professional school or other types of specialized training.

Also, identify someone who is already successful in your profession and learn as much about that person’s strategies and principles that they applied in order to achieve their success.

Develop Self Confidence

Very early in my life, I can’t recall exactly when, but I purchased a small book that was based on Proverbs 23:7. That little book taught me that whoever and whatever I thought of myself would determine how I presented myself to the world. That Christian principle has been most powerful in my development. It has guided and directed me in my professional and personal life for many years! And it continues to do so, even today! Women in the clergy, like women in other careers, can benefit from this principle. Because unfortunately, women in ministry face many of the same challenges that other women experience in the workplace. Issues like under representation, unequal pay, and fewer promotional opportunities are common problems. Therefore, women must develop a strong sense of self confidence in order to achieve their goals.

Listen

Be a good listener. Really listen when others are speaking. Frequently, when someone else is speaking, we’re thinking about our response. I’ve learned that when you focus on what others are saying, you can actually gain important information from them. You also validate that person and the give and take process is deeper, richer and more meaningful. Listening is an essential art for success.

Be Inclusive

When I speak of inclusion, I’m thinking about two factors. First, be open and when appropriate, involve others in the discussion and the decision-making process. It is important to brain storm and exchange ideas and strategies. 

Second, when possible, seek to work with a diverse team of people from various backgrounds, such as people from different racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, social, and gender backgrounds and people with various physical abilities. Significant research has shown that diversity and inclusion in these areas greatly contribute to our knowledge base and overall success in the workplace and in society overall.

Maintain Integrity

Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God…” Although this verse can be used to remind us to put Christ first in our lives; it can also remind us to maintain our integrity as Christians. When we remember that we are ambassadors for Christ, and whatever we do or say, is in the name of Jesus, then we strive harder to make good decisions based on integrity and fairness. When people know that you’re honest and trustworthy, you gain a level of respect that can be more valuable than money, which many feel is the ultimate measure of success.

Mentor Others

Set aside time to help others. Whether they are members of your team or you’re volunteering as a mentor, make time to give back, even as you’re on your journey to success. Although women have made significant strides in just the last ten to twenty years, with the election of the first woman Vice President, a record number of women in congress, elected as governors, mayors, and women rising to leadership positions in the military, education, business, industry and in our religious institutions, women still face many challenges, thus mentoring is essential to helping our fellow sisters achieve their goals in life.

Subscribe to Continuous Learning

Because of technology, daily, there is literally so much new information that one must commit to constantly learning in order to just stay abreast of what is happening in the world. We must constantly learn to gain and maintain expertise in a particular area. In order to be successful and to keep that success, one must continue to sharpen their skills, expand knowledge and be willing to re-examine policies, procedures, values, and assumptions and to learn and implement new methods, practices and policies when needed.

Continuous learners seek out others who spend their time learning new skills and thinking critically about society in general. In other words, continuous personal development is key to becoming and maintaining success.

Health and Wellness

In order to give one’s best, one must be in good health! One must be well! Most highly successful people take care of their physical and mental health. Of course, I would add one must also take care of their spiritual health as well. Most women are overwhelmed with responsibilities both at home and in the workplace, so they seldom take time for themselves. Successful women develop a good support team at home and especially in the workplace. Successful women ensure the success of their team members by improving their qualifications through training and exposure. Then they are able to comfortably delegate important responsibilities to others and share the challenges in the workplace. At home, women with families, learn to involve all family members in performing chores so that they are not overly burdened.

To achieve good spiritual and mental health, I subscribe to Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge God and God will make straight your path.” For good physical health, eat clean foods, exercise and take care of yourself.

“We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own to do list!” -Michelle Obama, Former First Lady.

Balance Work and Personal Life with Family and Friends

Having “balance” is key to success! When successful women spend too much time on their careers, often their family life suffers and may result in failure. So, it’s critical for successful women to learn to use balance early on in their careers.

In addition to the many demands on the job, working women must also balance challenges from their immediate family, spouse and children, as well as providing care for aging parents.

Work life balance is critical to maintaining productivity, healthy stress levels, and good mental and physical health. The challenge of work life balance is learning to keep one’s priorities straight.  Make sure you have someone in your life who can hold you accountable to balancing work and life well. 

The Bible reminds us that, “It is useless for you to work so hard from early morning until late at night, anxiously working for food to eat; God gives rest to his loved ones” (Psalm 127:2, NLT).


Dr. Larine Cowan has more than 35 years experience in Human Resources and Community Engagement with the City of Champaign, IL and the University of Illinois. She also taught as an adjunct professor for women’s leadership development.

Nevertheless, She Preached

by Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff

Author’s Statement Added on 3/27/2021

This article was clarified on 3/27/2021 at the request of the author, myself Ashley B. Dreff. In attempts to be more intentionally inclusive of Black Methodist women, I was unintentionally exclusive of Black Methodist denominational histories. I embodied the white Methodism that I was attempting to dismantle. For this, I take full responsibility and offer my clarifications and sincerest apologies. Jarena Lee and Sojourner Truth were members of the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion denominations, respectively. These denominations left the Methodist Episcopal Church in the early nineteenth-century because of the white supremacy and racist biblical interpretations of white Methodist clergy and lay persons. Their legacies live on in those denominations today. It was wrong of me to explicitly name “United Methodism” without also naming African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion. In true Wesleyan spirit, I will seek to continue to strive for perfection when it comes to detailing and honoring our pasts.

“O how careful ought we to be, lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life. For as unseemly as it may appear now-a-days for a woman to preach, it should be remembered that nothing is impossible with God.” — Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, 1849

From the pulpit to the podium, from the preaching circuit to the campaign trail, Methodist women have broken barrier upon barrier, ensuring not only their successes but the successes of future generations. The handful of women highlighted in these next few paragraphs skim the surface of those who have changed the religious and political landscapes, primarily in the United States. There are countless others whose stories have yet to be told or uncovered. But as we celebrate Women’s History month, let us acknowledge the persistence of these women.

Jarena Lee, member of the African Methodist Episcopal church, felt a call to preach twice in her life. When she informed Bishop Allen after experiencing her first call, he told her that the church Discipline, “did not call for women preachers.” Jarena was actually relieved by this information as it removed the social burden from her of becoming a public figure in a time when women were demeaned for daring to step out of their so-called “proper place.” She wrote, “This I was glad to hear, because it removed the fear of the cross.” However, her call to ministry came again. 

In her journal she recollects her second call, a call which came eight years later. She was listening to Rev. Richard Williams preach at Mother Bethel on Jonah 2:9, and, as she records, “he seemed to have lost the spirit.” In this moment, she writes, “I sprang, as by altogether supernatural impulse, to my feet, when I was aided from above to give an exhortation on the very text which my brother Williams had taken.” The words that proceed from her mouth describe her relationship to the text and her denial of her call to preach eight years prior. Upon recollection of her testimony she writes, “During the exhortation, God made manifest [God’s] power in a manner sufficient to show the world that I was called to labour according to my ability, and the grace given unto me, in the vineyard of the good husbandman.” She felt God’s power residing in her, leading her to this moment. When she was finished exhorting, she recalls, “I now sat down, scarcely knowing what I had done, being frightened. I imagined, that for this indecorum, as I feared it might be called, I should be expelled from the church. But instead of this, the Bishop [Allen] rose up in the assembly, and related that I had called upon him eight years before, asking to be permitted to preach, and that he had put me off; but that he now as much believed that I was called to that work, as any of the preachers present. These remarks greatly strengthened me, so that my fears of having given an offense, and made myself liable as an offender, subsided, giving place to a sweet serenity, a holy joy of a peculiar kind, untasted in my bosom until then.” Despite being told originally that she wasn’t allowed to preach, Jarena listened to and embodied the Spirit of God for nevertheless, Jarena preached. 

When asked about the history of women preaching within the Methodist tradition or within the Christian tradition, I always turn to the story of Jarena Lee. She was a free Black woman living at the beginning of the nineteenth-century. She feels a call to preach but knows deep down that embodying that call is dangerous for it would place her as a social outcast, as someone who dares to believe that they have the authority to speak on behalf of God in a public setting. She is relieved when she’s told by her Bishop that she isn’t allowed to preach. But the Spirit doesn’t leave her. For eight years she resists this call until she can no longer do so. And when she lives into that call, she is actually supported by the very Bishop who had previously told her it was improper. 

Jarena’s story is a rare one. It was quite rare to have male religious authorities actually support women preaching.

This story, in my eyes, relates to the story of other Methodist women (and non-Methodist women) who have been told that they are not qualified to be leaders, who have been ridiculed for dreaming big dreams, who have been told to sit down and shut-up. For how often, even in 2021, are women told that they are not good enough to be leaders? That they’re too assertive, too ambitious, or too shy and home-like? That their sex is not becoming of a preacher? That they are not pretty enough to occupy a pulpit or that they are too pretty to occupy a pulpit? That their very presence (i.e. their bodies) is too distracting for persons to focus on God? How often are women told that they are to be submissive to their husbands, because that’s what Scripture dictates. Or does it?

For millennia, women have been intentionally written out of the Christian narrative. Their submissive roles have been assigned to them by the leaders of society and by those who write history—not by biblical mandates. Their theologies, stories, missions, calls, and contributions have been pushed aside, deemed improper, unauthoritative, unimportant. But women have continued on. They kept writing, kept preaching, kept calling others to God. They maintained missions, wrote declarations, gave speeches. They occupied pulpits, legislatures, and homes.

In more recent memory, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a proud United Methodist, was speaking against the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to become Attorney General. In response to her speech, Senator Mitch McConnell, who was at the time Senate Majority Leader, invoked a rule to silence Sen. Warren saying, “Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech . . . . She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Jarena, too, was warned, given an explanation, and nevertheless she, too, persisted for nevertheless, she preached.

Countless Methodist women have had this experience when called to preach, and they, too, have persisted in their ministries, whether those ministries are in the pulpit, the mission field, the episcopacy, or the political arena. 

Susanna Wesley, the mother of Methodism, was told to be silent, to stop leading. While her husband, Samuel, was on a trip to London, Samuel left their parish in the hands of Rev. Inman. Finding his sermons lacking sustenance, Susanna began hosting Sunday afternoon gatherings in her home where songs were sung, psalms read, and Susanna preached. Word got out about Susanna’s so-called inappropriate religious meetings, and she wrote a letter to Samuel to try to get ahead of the news. In his reply, he asked her to cease the meetings. She responded, “If after all this you think fit to dissolve this assembly, do not tell me you desire me to do it, for that will not satisfy my conscience; but send your positive command in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting this opportunity for doing good when you and I shall appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, she felt called to preach in her husband’s absence and wanted to ensure that if she stopped that he would be held responsible for impeding the Spirit of God, not her. Nevertheless, Susanna preached.

The spirit of God manifesting itself in and through women continued into the nineteenth-century. An enslaved woman had an immense religious experience at a Methodist camp meeting that resulted in her taking the name, Sojourner Truth, and aligning herself with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion tradition. After escaping slavery, she joined the woman’s suffrage lecture circuit where she gave one of the most memorable speeches of her time. In Ain’t I a Woman? Sojourner calls out the different ways that white women and Black women were treated. She criticized the way that men repeatedly go out of their way to help white women but Black women are left to their own accord. Despite this egregious misogynoir, Sojourner’s point in the speech is to address the inconsistencies that men made about women not deserving equal rights before the law because Jesus was a man. She says, “Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.” She continues, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.” In these few lines, Sojourner Truth connects the stories of Mary, mother of Jesus, and Eve, the alleged-first sinner. She connects the two most powerful women in the Scriptures. She uses these references to show that no matter what, women in the nineteenth century, would persist, and in their persistence the world might once again be made right.

Anna Howard Shaw felt a call to preach while a teenager. Her family threatened to disown her is she dared live into that call. But she couldn’t resist. She enrolled in Boston School of Theology, the only woman of her class. The men who studied alongside her were given free room and board and a guaranteed appointment. Anna was not. She had to pay for her apartment, find her own food, and hope that she would be paid in cash, not compliments (or insults) for her preaching. In her autobiography, she recalls overcoming the fear of starvation for the sake of her call to ministry. Anna went on to also earn a medical degree and to be president of the National American for Woman Suffrage Association. She is one of the first women ordained in the Methodist tradition. After graduating Boston School of Theology, the Methodist Episcopal Church refused her ordination, based solely on her gender. She transferred to the Methodist Protestant tradition where her ordination was granted in 1880. Despite being treated so differently from her male peers, Anna preached.

These women’s persistence paved the way for others. One hundred years after Anna, in 1980, Marjorie Matthews was the first woman elected Bishop in The United Methodist Church and in a mainline Protestant denomination. In later interviews, Bishop Matthews recalled the obstacles that she had to overcome, not as a Bishop, but as a female preacher: “They would tell people in my church they were going to hell for having a woman minister.” But, nevertheless, she preached.

Lifting as she climbed, Bishop Matthews broke the stained-glass ceiling for others like Leontine T. Kelly, the first Black woman elected Bishop. Bishop Kelly recalled a story from her baptism when the Bishop who baptized her said, ““How I wish you were a boy, so that my mantle could fall on you.” In 1983, the then Rev. Kelly was endorsed as a candidate for the episcopacy, but was not nominated for this role by her home jurisdiction, the Southeast. It was the Western Jurisdiction that had the courage to break barriers, electing Bishop Leontine Kelly as the second woman and first woman of color to serve as bishop. Bishop Kelly lived into the notion that the work of the Spirit, the call of God, knows no barriers, those of gender or of jurisdiction.

Methodist women in the political sphere have also moved mountains and broken ceilings. In 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton, another proud United Methodist, was the first woman nominated to run for President of the United States as the candidate of a major political party. On her campaign trail, she often quoted John Wesley and credited her Methodist upbringing with the phrase, “do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” In her work as Senator and as Secretary of State, Clinton centered the care of women and girls around the globe, again living into a Methodist mandate and Methodist emphasis. Her groundbreaking nomination paved the way for other women to seek and hold this high-office, women like, now, Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman to hold an office this high in the United States (but certainly not the last!). Like others before them, Kamala and Hillary faced undue pressure and high expectations. They were judged prior to opening their mouths based solely on their gender, and in Kamala’s case, the color of their skin. They knew going into debates or speeches that every word and movement would be judged not for its merits (or lack thereof) but because a woman dare say it. Women approaching the political stage or the pulpit face the same stigma, the same high standard, the same pre-conceived notions. They have to intentionally, and gracefully, claim their space. This is perhaps no more apparent than when, after repeated interruptions, Kamala dared tell, then, Vice President Mike Pence, “I’m Speaking.” 

“I’m speaking.” Those two small words spoke volumes. With them, Kamala claimed her place, her space on the podium. She insisted that she be heard. Kamala spoke these words with a smile on her face and with a steady, assertive sense of place. It should be noted that these words of hers came in stark contrast to the invective rife on both sides during the presidential debate, overtly enacting white privilege as a white male speaking to another while male while on a public stage. Nevertheless, Kamala spoke her truth. 

Many things strike me as I reflect on these women, Methodist and non. But one thing that certainly sticks out is their ambition. Susanna, Jarena, Sojourner, Leontine, Hillary, Elizabeth, and Kamala all faced obstacles in their lives particularly when it came to their speaking in public. They were told to sit down, to shut-up, to assume their “proper place.” But they didn’t. They were called. They preached. They persisted. And now it’s our turn to pick up where they left off and to continue to find our own places and spaces to persist and say, “I’m speaking.”


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Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff is the General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History. She is the author of Nevertheless: American Methodists and Women’s Rights (2020) and Entangled: A History of Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality (2018). Dreff earned her PhD from Drew Theological School’s Graduate Division of Religion, specializing in both Methodist/Wesleyan Studies and Women’s/Gender Studies. She earned an M.A. from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, specializing in American Religious History. She has previously worked as staff at the General Commission on Archives and History (2012-2014) and the Connectional Table of The United Methodist Church (2014-2016). She was the Director of United Methodist Studies and Assistant Professor Christian History at Hood Theological Seminary (Salisbury, NC), an AME Zion Seminary, from 2017-2019 and was the Director of Women’s and Gender Studies and Assistant Professor of Religion at High Point University (High Point, NC) from 2019-2020. Dreff is a lay member of the Arkansas Annual Conference and the daughter of two ordained United Methodist ministers. Her Methodist lineage dates beyond this, back to the early 19th century when her great-great-great grandfathers were Methodist circuit-riders.

A Woman’s Right to Life

by Rev. Pamela Pirtle, Director of Leadership Development & Accountability, GCSRW

It was the year 1851, in Akron, Ohio when Sojourner Truth gave her now-famous speech at the Women’s Rights Convention.  Sojourner emphasized the phrase “Ain’t I a Woman?” four times as an expression for equal rights for African American women.  She spoke of the equality that was due to all women regardless of the color of their skin.  It has been 169 years since that day when she spoke up for African American women to be given the same rights as their non-Black counterparts.  Though we have made many milestones during the course of 169 years, we are still seeking equal rights for Black women in comparison to others.

Breonna Taylor was a daughter, a big sister, a niece, a dear friend, and someone who cared for those who were vulnerable due to illness.  She loved her work as an emergency room medical technician and hoped to continue her education in healthcare.  Her friends and family describe her as someone who enjoyed putting a smile on the faces of others.  She seemed to have a happy disposition and a smile that would light a room.

But on the morning of March 13, 2020, her light was snuffed out.  While she lay sleeping in her bed, law enforcement officials entered her apartment under a “no-knock warrant” in an effort to capture another individual who did not live there.  The details of this incident are still under review.  However, what is troubling is how this information did not reach mainstream media attention for almost two months after her violent death.  Where is the outrage?  Where is the accountability?  Was Breonna’s life of any less value because she is a Black woman?  We must ask why this case, and so many others, have been disconnected from the broader narrative of police brutality against Blacks.  Unfortunately, Black women have too often been the invisible victims of police violence.  For this very reason, activists have used the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the countless Black women who have lost their lives due to police brutality.

Some have argued that in many ways, women are not equal to men, or that women are in some way lacking virtue.  Unfortunately, being both Black and female can be a double negative that makes suffering in silence a daily part of life.  Breonna’s story was handled by media and others like an unfortunate casualty rather than the violent murder that has been expressed for the senseless deaths of Black men.

As Christians, we are reminded of ourselves in Genesis 1:27 that everyone is made in the image of God and therefore, should be treated humanely and with respect.  If being created in God’s image means that we are, an image of God the Creator, a representation of who God is, then how can we devalue one group of persons over another?  If we believe we are made in God’s image, then our view of God and our relationship with our Creator are also intertwined.  Therefore, we must believe in the sacredness of all human life, regardless of gender, race, or any other demographic that has been used to divide us.

We must recognize that every human being has been created in God’s image.  Everyone then becomes one of God’s image-bearers.  This knowing should guide how we conduct ourselves toward others at all times, remembering the least of these.  Every woman has a right to live and prosper.  “We affirm with scripture the common humanity of male and female, both having equal worth in the eyes of God.  We reject the erroneous notion that one gender is superior to another, that one gender must strive against another[i]…” Therefore, let us work to create a more just society where the lives of all persons are held as sacred.

GCSRW stands against racism graphic_upload

Contemplative Moment and Reflection

What phrase resonates with me?  Why should I care about this?  What can I do about it?

Prayer

Gracious God, thank you for your loving-kindness that extends to all humanity.  Help us to live by your principles of freedom and justice.  Oh God, in these turbulent times, help us to remove the barriers that separate us from one another.  Make us one to walk in holy peace together.  Amen.


[i] Book of Discipline Part V, Social Principles, Paragraph 161.F.