Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Reflects on 50 Years of Ordination for Women

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, center right, participates in a service celebrating 50 years of women’s ordination during the ELCA Churchwide Assembly on Aug. 9, 2019, in Milwaukee, Wisc. Photo courtesy of ELCA

As they entered the worship service on the last full day of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Churchwide Assembly, some of the pastors clapped along with the upbeat music.

Some danced.

Others draped their arms around each other’s shoulders as they filed into the worship service, two by two. All were women, ranging in age from their mid-20s to the 104-year-old Rev. Maria de Jesús.

The processional was the kickoff of a year of celebrations leading up to the 50th anniversary of Lutheran women’s ordination in the U.S. in 2020, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said in her opening remarks at the assembly.

Along the way, Lutherans will mark 40 years of women of color being ordained and 10 years of LGBTQ people serving freely in the mainline Lutheran denomination, one of the largest Protestant denominations in the U.S.

“This is not just a celebration for women, or women of color or for the LGBTQIA+ community,” said Eaton, the first woman elected presiding bishop of the ELCA.

“These are decisions of this whole church, and this is a celebration for the whole church. This church has been blessed by the ministry of those formerly excluded.”

Here are the stories of several ordained women serving the ELCA today.

The Rev. Jessica Crist

The first time The Rev. Jessica Crist encountered sexism in the church, she was a preteen in confirmation class.

The pastor teaching the class asked students to raise their hands if they were interested in pursuing ministry in any of the following professions: secretary, educator, missionary, musician.

When he reached “pastor,” Crist’s hand shot up.

The pastor told Crist she couldn’t be a pastor.  The Lutheran Church didn’t ordain women.

“So immediately I decided that was what I did want to do,” Crist later recounted.

The Lutheran Church in America and American Lutheran Church, which preceded the ELCA, both changed their language barring women from ministry in 1970. Later that year, the Rev. Elizabeth A. Platz was ordained by the Lutheran Church in America.

Nearly a decade later, Crist was ordained, too.

She remembers being one of three ordained women in her synod. People often remarked to them that they were “so nice” — the implication being the women before them had not been, she said.

“I would smile nicely and say, ‘And, you know, we can be nice because our predecessors broke down the doors so that we could walk through.’ They were bruised, breaking down those doors, and it’s not that we’re not bruised, but it’s a lot easier for us to walk through,” she said.

Crist, 66, now chairs the ELCA’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of women’s ordination, which includes Bible studies and other resources for congregations to use.

She’s also retiring as bishop of the Montana Synod, where she was the first female bishop, not just in the synod, but also in the entire Western U.S. She also was the first female bishop to head the ELCA’s Conference of Bishops.

Crist said she hopes Lutherans will remember their history and not take for granted the fact that women now serve at every level in the ELCA. That’s not the case for Lutheran women in some parts of the world.

Despite five decades of ministry, ordained women still face challenges in the ELCA. A 2015 surveyshowed a 9% gap between the compensation female clergy receive and what their male counterparts make in the denomination. And clergywomen are less likely to serve as bishops, senior pastors, and college, university or seminary professors.

But, Crist said, “We pioneers have broken down a lot of doors. I think sometimes younger, newer folks don’t realize what their foremothers did.”

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Source: Religion News Service