by Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader, Retired
Carolyn Oehler (1940-2021) and I met in college where we were both students. The college was North Central College in Naperville, IL, a college of the Evangelical United Brethren Church. We were both children of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, a predecessor church to the United Methodist Church. The College student body was predominantly white and middle class and our heritage was in a denomination committed to prayer, Bible study, evangelism, and mission. Who would ever have guessed back in the 1950s that our lives would be taken up in advocacy and justice matters, not to mention denominational leadership as women?
It’s been many years since I first met her, but my first impressions of Oehler remain to this day. Even though predominantly quiet, calm, and centered, Carolyn was also smart and a force to be acknowledged and responded to wherever she went. Throughout her life, she took on many leadership roles in church and community, not because she sought out the positions, but because she was so capable and willing to offer herself in whatever ways were helpful. The first hymn sung at her memorial service held at Scarritt Bennett Center last July was “O Jesus, I Have Promised” and begins with the affirmation “O Jesus, I have promised to serve Thee to the end”. It concludes with the words “O give me grace to follow, my Master and my friend.” That was the commitment Carolyn had made and the way she lived her life, I think.
One person at her funeral remarked there are so many today who do not know how Oehler helped create the world and church in which we now live. It’s hard to remember the sexism and oppression existing in the late 1970s when Carolyn became the second President of the Commission on the Status and Role of Women for the UMC. The Commission was established by the General Conference in 1972 as a “provisional” Commission hoping the work could be accomplished in a few short years and then go out of existence! The Commission is ongoing today and there is yet change to be enacted and support to be given for women to be full participants in a safe and just church. Oehler wrote the history (and then the update) for the Commission: The Journey is Our Home.
Toward the end of her life, Carolyn was asked how she hoped she would be remembered. She replied: “For work on language (both in church and everyday life) that includes and supports women.” While leading the Commission from 1977-1982, the Commission produced “Words that Hurt, Words that Heal. The booklet caused much discomfort and outright resistance for many in the United Methodist Church. Oehler led discussions and forums educating and training church leaders, including the Council of Bishops, on the importance of biblical, church, and everyday language that includes all and expands understandings of God.
It’s interesting to note that there was another woman leader who was part of the Commission from ’77-82 as well: Beverly Shamana (1939-2021). Shamana, born into a Baptist family, joined the UMC in adolescence and would become a bishop in 2000. She was most certainly joined with Oehler in working for the full empowerment of women and equality for all. As the second black woman elected to the UM episcopacy and sustained by her investment in the arts and prayer, Shamana nurtured and supported many women clergy and subsequent women bishops. “Women bishops stand on the strength of her shoulders. Her commitment to the episcopacy and for women bishops was paramount. She offered her constant love and support to all the bishops but particularly the women bishops who had accepted the responsibility to lead,” Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey said following Bishop Shamana’s death.
Women bishops celebrated and grew in spirit and sisterhood as Beverly led us in retreats over the years. For some of us seeing beauty and possibility in a gourd was challenging, but Beverly helped us relax and experiment and discover new possibilities in ourselves and in the gourds with which we worked. And oh my! I shall never forget the morning when Bishop Shamana preached at a Council of Bishops and set our hearts and feet afire. It’s not often you see the entire Council of Bishops on our feet singing and dancing and releasing our love for God and one another in such joyous abandon. Thank you, Beverly.
These two women, now deceased, lived and taught lessons through their lives that continue to guide me yet today. In recent years in the Council of Bishops, a workshop on clergy ethics found Bishop Shamana standing on behalf of women bishops to address the Council with the words, “Us, too.” Quietly, but with determination and skill, Shamana shared with our colleagues that even in the Council of Bishops women had been oppressed, poorly treated, and sexually abused. The Council listened. Oehler envisioned communities where people from diverse backgrounds, races, and cultures could engage one another and led to the development of a program “Diversity in Dialogue” in Nashville TN. The program grew and has been adopted in Nashville for training with police and fire department personnel.
Two women from very different backgrounds: loving Jesus, loving the church and world in which God set them to work. Both of them quiet, but strong. Calm but willing to confront. Faithful Christian women and strong feminists.
I remember Carolyn Oehler and Beverly Shamana. I remember and learn and give thanks.
Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader is a Retired Bishop of The United Methodist Church, having served from 1992-2008. Bishop Rader was ordained deacon in the Detroit Conference by Bishop Dwight Loder, and elder in the Northern Illinois Conference by Bishop Paul Washburn. At the time of her election to the episcopacy, she was the Grand Rapids (Michigan) District Superintendent. Bishop Rader was elected to the 1980 North Central Jurisdictional Conference and to the 1984, 1988, and 1992 General and Jurisdictional Conferences. She served on the General Council on Ministries (where she chaired the Division on Research, Planning and Futuring); the General Commission on Communications; the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry; and for two years worked for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women as the developer of a Talent Bank of Women in the United Methodist Church. Bishop Rader was elected to the episcopacy by the North Central Jurisdictional Conference in 1992 and assigned to the Wisconsin Area. She retired as an active bishop in 2004 and served as Bishop-in-Residence at Garrett Evangelical Seminary until 2012. Bishop Sharon Rader and Blaine Rader are the parents of Matthew and Mary, and the grandparents of Ethan and Abigail Rader and Jasper and Zimm Davis.