Celebrating the women who went first

You drink deeply from wells of freedom, liberty and opportunity you did not dig!

                                                                                                            - Cory Booker

I resist labels – even labels that are accurate! I was deeply offended, in college, when a friend assumed I was a feminist.  I rejected the label and indignantly explained my unwillingness to claim that identity.  In retrospect, I understand what was behind her assumption.

I am the daughter and granddaughter of three working women and three men who appreciated their wives’ work outside the home and assisted with household responsibilities. My mother and grandmothers were professionals who cared for people at work and, with the partnership of their spouses, nurtured their families at home. I was raised in an environment where women were leaders – in the church and in the world. And I was raised in a church – specifically, Parkway Heights United Methodist Church (Hattiesburg, Mississippi) – where women were leaders.

The women of Parkway Heights were active and vocal witnesses of justice, compassion, education and discipleship.  They were professional women and women who committed themselves full time to the care of their families.  They led the congregation as committee chairs and Sunday School teachers and they inspired the whole congregation in its witness to Christ’s mission locally and globally.  In addition to these many women, a female diaconal minister, Rebecca Wimberley, led the congregation in ministry and worship each week.    As a child, Becky’s presence in the chancel each Sunday provided me a “world” in which women could do anything!  I would not know for many years that some people believe women cannot be in ministry.  I give thanks for all these women and for the ministry of the late Rev. John Ed Thomas, who insured that women were in ministry in every place he served. John Ed’s courageous legacy of inclusion continues to shape and inspire me!

In 2006, as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of full clergy rights for women in the United Methodist Church, I participated in a procession of the clergywomen of the Mississippi Conference. In that moment, I was keenly aware of those upon whose shoulders I stand.  My path to ministry and in ministry has been very smooth because of the faithful work of those who go before me. As I watched my sisters file into the arena I was touched with profound gratitude for the work they have done to blaze the trail I walk.   I give thanks for the ministry of all of those clergywomen, particularly the “first women” of the Mississippi Conference – the “first” ordained, the “first” appointed to any particular church, the “first” DS, the “first” bishop.   All – too many to name – are women of courage, trailblazers whose witness continues to inspire me each day!

Men who were District Superintendents and bishops appointed most of those “first women.” I give thanks for those men who have encouraged and supported clergywomen in so many ways, especially those who have encouraged and supported me in my life and ministry.  Since entering full-time professional ministry in 2003, I have been supervised by just two men; for eight of ten years in professional ministry, my immediate supervisor has been a woman.  Not many 42-year-old women can say that! I am deeply grateful for all those with whom I have shared ministry, and I am particularly grateful for three women whose mentoring empowers me each day and who have modeled courageous and selfless leadership in their life and work.

Bishop Hope Morgan Ward’s appointment to the Mississippi Conference came just two days after a vigorous conversation with two young women on the Conference Council on Youth Ministry about what the Bible says about women in ministry. Working alongside Bishop Ward on the Conference staff, I was inspired by her deep centeredness in the Gospel, her courageous inclusive leadership, and her hope-filled spirit. I give thanks for the life and witness of Hope Morgan Ward.  She continues to remind me that the ministry of justice and compassion flows easily from one who is deeply rooted in God’s Spirit.

Dr. Frances Lucas, also a child of Parkway Heights UMC, is a leader in higher education.  She has spent much of her professional life in United Methodist institutions. As President of Millsaps College, recognizing the importance of chaplaincy for the whole College, she adjusted the administrative structure so that the Chaplain reported to the President, reflecting the Chaplain’s responsibility for the institution and the whole College community. Frances’ deep commitment to her United Methodist faith revitalized the relationship between the Church and the College and articulated to a sometimes skeptical College community what it means to be United Methodist. Under Frances’ leadership and rooted in its Methodist identity, the College boldly claimed its openness and welcomed all people.  I give thanks for the life and witness of Frances Lucas.  She has blazed many trails where no woman has gone before, and I am inspired by her bold courage.

The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe served as the dean of the chapel and religious life at Emory University for 23 years and now leads the General Board of Church and Society.  Susan has been my teacher, mentor and dear friend.  At Emory, Susan nurtured a campus culture in which religious life is integral to the University’s mission. She creates a world where all are welcomed to partake of an abundant feast at a large, yet intimate, round table! She dreams big dreams and lives them into reality. I give thanks for the life and witness of Susan Henry-Crowe.  She inspires me to see the potential in everyone, explore the unknown with respectful curiosity, and to be patient, yet persistent.

For all of these who dug the wells of opportunity from which I drink, I give thanks to God.  Their courage and encouragement is the water that nourishes my soul.  Nourished by their love and vision, God grant that I might blaze new trails for others.

An ordained deacon in the Mississippi Conference, Lisa Garvin currently serves as Acting Dean of the Chapel and Religious Life at Emory University.  Lisa serves on the board of the General Board of Church & Society and the Board of Trustees for Millsaps College.

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