While women have been in leadership positions in the church for a long time, I still meet people now and then who are surprised that I am a pastor or who think that women’s spiritual gifts are such that they are not suited to be pastors. Women in ministry have often been called false teachers and kept from positions of authority. However, in my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the value of women is celebrated and women have been ordained since 1970, serving in all leadership roles. In fact, as of 2022, we have more female bishops than male bishops. In addition, the presiding bishop over the whole ELCA is a woman. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Eaton)
There are other denominations in the United States that have been ordaining women since much earlier than 1970.
Two women must be mentioned when we look back to the beginnings of the ordination of women and women preachers in the United States:
1. Jarena Lee (1783-1855) – Minister Jarena Lee was the first authorized female preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. In 1807 Lee heard the voice of God drawing her to spiritual leadership and encouraging her to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. She was reluctant to preach God’s word and pursue ministry, given that church leadership at the time was dominated by male leaders. However, she decided to confide in Bishop Allen and revealed to him her call to preach to the body of Christ. Allen told Lee that he could not grant her permission to preach because he was required to uphold the A.M.E. Church’s ban against female ministers and to expand the role of women in the ministry of the church. In 1819, during a worship service at Bethel Church, a guest preacher began struggling with his message and suddenly stopped preaching. As he stared into the congregation at a loss for words, Lee sprang to her feet and began preaching on the biblical texts for the first time. After Lee’s sermon, she was afraid that Bishop Allen would punish her for preaching God’s word without permission. On the contrary, Allen was so impressed by Lee that he gave her authorization to preach the good news. Allen asserted that God had called Lee to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.. Shortly thereafter, Lee became a prominent leader in the Christian community and began to travel to various cities for to preach and was highly praised for her powerful sermons. (source: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/lee-jarena-1783/)
Antoinette Brown Blackwell – (May 20, 1825 – November 5, 1921), was the first woman to be ordained as a mainstream Protestant minister in the United States. She was a well-versed public speaker on the paramount issues of her time and distinguished herself from her contemporaries with her use of religious faith in her efforts to expand the rights of women. Brown was eventually given a license to preach by the Congregational Church in 1851 and then offered a position as Minister of a Congregationalist church in South Butler, NY in 1852. She left that position in 1854 following a hard time due to her growing insecurity of belief in the orthodoxy of the Congregational ministry, compounded with a lack of sustainable resources for her work. Following her separation from the ministry, she focused increasingly on women’s rights issues. While many women’s rights activists opposed religion and the Christian church on the basis that it served to oppress women, Blackwell was steadfast in her belief that women ministers served an important role and could serve to further their status in society. In 1920, at age 95, she was the only surviving participant of the 1850 Women’s Rights Convention that took place in Worcester, Massachusetts, to see the passage of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. She voted for Warren G. Harding in the 1920 presidential election. (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoinette_Brown_Blackwell)
In the church today, hundreds of thousands of women serve in ordained Christian ministry throughout the world. The question of women serving as spiritual leaders and having the appropriate gifts of the holy spirit to serve as a pastor or a deacon is outdated and antiquated question.
Married women, divorced women, and single women have received extensive theological training (most mainline denominations require at least a Master’s degree), served effectively as Senior Pastor, led public worship, can tell you the Greek term or Hebrew term for prominent words in scripture, have served as church planters, and in every capacity of ministry.
The days are long gone that women who are interested in ministry must settle for being the pastor’s wife or be satisfied with leading only the women’s groups or the women’s gatherings. The status of women is equal to that of men in God’s eyes and in the eyes of any educated denomination that understands the Spirit of God will move as it will move.
If you are a woman interested in ordained ministry but have grown up in a tradition that does not embrace this calling, please know that there are so many faithful denominations that will welcome you. I invite you to check out the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America http://www.elca.org, The Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, The United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, the PCUSA, the American Baptist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and many others.
The Bible’s teachings show that God has given us all gifts of ministry and they are not limited by our gender. Throughout scripture, God used people of all kinds to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God!