How far the Lutheran church has come and how far we have yet to go! Not quite 50 years ago I was entering college for the first time. I was not sure where God was leading me. I felt called to enter the pastoral ministry, but the Lutheran church, like most other denominations, was not yet ordaining women. I talked with my pastor, but, as a traditional conservative minister, he did not encourage me. He directed me toward the occupations he thought more appropriate for women, but they did not appeal to me. As a young woman with an intellectual bent, I wanted to study theology and serve as a leader in the church. I saw young men in my congregation preparing to enter the pastoral ministry and wondered what it was that they possessed but I lacked.
I entered Wartburg College, which had a strong pre-seminary program. I wanted to take theology courses, but my advisor would not approve and suggested that I enroll in the social work or education curriculum instead. But that was not what I wanted. After exploring several possible majors as diverse as German and biology, I eventually ended up with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and went on to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in psychology.
You might ask why, if I felt such a strong calling to ministry, I did not pursue it anyway. Surely there were roles I could have played in the church that I would have found fulfilling. To understand my response, it’s important to be aware of the mindset of the times. I grew up in a conservative Midwestern town, in a conservative home, a conservative church. The women’s liberation movement was barely beginning when I entered high school and it would be many years before we would feel much effect from it in small town America. Young women, especially those raised in church-going families, were taught to respect authority, not to question the status quo. We didn’t have role models to follow who were breaking down barriers. We were expected to become wives and mothers. If we had to work, we could be a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher. So pursuing pastoral ministry was just not an option.
During my four years of college I gradually became more and more disillusioned by the church. Attending a church college, there were religion courses that I was required to take. These were taught entirely by males, many of them ordained ministers. And what I heard learned from these professors was disappointing. Women were not encouraged to become involved in leadership roles; it wasn’t proper. The rhetoric was sexist and misogynistic. I quit going to the campus church and went to an off-campus church. The rhetoric was the same, just less intellectual. So I quit going to church entirely for a number of years. I graduated from college in 1970, the same year that the Lutheran church approved the ordination of women. But I no longer cared.
A number of years later I found my way back to the Lutheran church. I had been feeling that something was lacking in my life, but I still wasn’t sure that I could be comfortable in a church that was strongly dominated by males. A few years later, my congregation called a younger minister who was fairly progressive. Through conversations with him, my faith in God was gradually restored only to be nearly destroyed again later by an older, domineering and manipulative male minister. But the embers were not totally put out and my faith has slowly been rekindled and grown stronger. It is a far different faith than I had in high school, scarred and battered, but more resilient. My beliefs are not so tied to conservative church dogma. I focus on loving God and loving my neighbor. And once again, I feel called to serve. I am not yet sure where that call will take me, but I find that I have come full circle. I am enrolled once again at Wartburg, the seminary this time rather than the college, and I am finally getting to take those theology courses that I was interested in so long ago. My goal of obtaining an M.Div. degree and becoming ordained seems possible after all, God willing.
How far the church has come in the last 50 years! The seminary is no longer a closed male society. There are female faculty and about half the seminarians are female. Many females serve in pastoral ministry. But the leadership at the synod level and above is still predominantly male. The election of Elizabeth Eaton as presiding bishop of the ELCA last year marks another milestone in opening the church to women. The church is changing.
I welcome the fresh breezes blowing in the church. I pray that new generations of young people will be encouraged to find a place in the church where they can use their talents to lead and serve regardless of gender or other artificial barriers. “Come, Holy Spirit.”