By Bishop Rosemarie Wenner
“Why do we need special ministries for women? Aren’t they well integrated? We even have a female bishop!”
I hear those comments in my Episcopal area. Some women say: “I am emancipated. I am done with gender questions!” In response to those statements I often tell my story. The United Methodist congregation where I learned to follow Christ was a tiny one where it was difficult to hide my gifts even though I was shy. I developed leadership skills in scouting ministries and was encouraged to preach for the first time when I was 17. Discerning what to study at university, I realized that I would love to learn more about God, Jesus, the Bible and the world.
Could it be that I was called to study theology in order to become a pastor? I struggled with that question.
All the pastors I knew were men. The first woman who had been a candidate for the ordained ministry in our conference happened to be a friend of mine. She encouraged me to follow God’s call at each stage in my journey. After seminary, I was the first woman in every one of my appointments. Several worshippers in my congregations had never before heard a sermon from a female preacher. For most of them that was just a new thing. They tested me, and I passed the exam. Some struggled with questions of Biblical interpretation, especially 1 Corinthians 14:34: “Women should be silent in churches.” So I shared my faith story and led Bible studies.
With other female clergy, I began to develop a more appropriate understanding of our role as female theologians and pastors. I learned more about God by listening to women in my churches. And I realized that far too many women – even in Germany – had never been given any opportunity to develop their skills. Violence and misuse even in “normal” Christian families and churches hindered them from walking with confidence. That observation challenged me to re-think my mainly male-dominated images of God as father, king and ruler. God is also a mother and a midwife. And God is seen in the broken body of Christ.
My journey continues. Today, I know that it is too easy to speak of the two groups — “men” and “women” — in order to describe gender roles. There are more transgender people in our churches and communities then we might be aware of. We are also diverse in many aspects of our personalities. I bring a German perspective into our global church. You have to tell me how life looks like in the U.S. and on other continents.
I myself struggle to accept diversity, even though I know how painful it is when people tell you, “You are not supposed to preach!” or “You should better live according to the role that women have to fulfill!” I often wish I could transform others to think like me and become like me so that we might live in perfect harmony. But that does not happen. I have to learn that the more I am annoyed by others the more I broaden my perspective of God and the world.
The body of Christ is incomplete whenever we push out those whom we do not understand. Christ accepted all and challenged them to go beyond their comfort zones. There is more to explore than we can imagine. Far too many women still cannot exercise their right to learn and lead; therefore, we need opportunities where women are challenged to grow. We need men and women working toward the same goals with all the different gifts that each one will bring.
Bishop Rosemarie Wenner is president of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church. She studied theology at The United Methodist Theological Seminary in Reutlingen (Germany) and was ordained as an elder in 1981. She was appointed a District Superintendent in 1996 and has been a bishop since 2005, the first woman elected in the UMC outside the United States. She leads 60,000 church members in the Germany Central Conference.