From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Clergywomen Challenged to Lead Church
04 May 1996 18:52:09
96160 Clergywomen Challenged to Lead Church
out of its Doldrums
by Alexa Smith
ATLANTA--The Rev. Katie Cannon says she's never seen the Presbyterian
Church this scared before. Not in her 46 years of being a baptized
Presbyterian can she remember the denomination so shaky and uncertain: too
fearful of diminishing budgets to speak like prophets, too willing to waste
energy in factional fighting to put it into ministries that liberate.
"There was no fear in my experience of being Presbyterian. No doubt
about [prophetic work], about where you were called to be. We stood on the
side of liberation -- that's the church I knew," she told the Presbyterian
News Service, remembering white Northern Presbyterians who came south to
help end segregation.
So Cannon, who in 1974 was the first African-American woman ordained
as a Presbyterian minister, believes that now is the time to speak up and
remind this church not to become "anemic in your justice work" just because
the ground is shaking.
Blacks and women, she says, have been living on shaky ground for a
long time -- and they have some wisdom about how to survive it. And she
told the National Association of Presbyterian Clergywomen (NAPC), which met
April 12-15 here for its triennial conference that quietly celebrated 40
years of women's ordination in the Presbyterian Church, not to hesitate to
be prophets and ministers to a church that needs them badly.
She's not the only one who thinks that way. Poet Ann Weems, another
NAPC keynoter, told clergywomen it's up to this denomination's ministers to
lead the way into liberation and out of fights about sex and money. And
Atlanta-based preacher Joanna Adams urged them to preach so Presbyterians
feel part of the gospel's "fantastically wonderful story."
As for NAPC itself, scarcity and uncertainty have been part of its
life as an organization for the past 10 years: Its budget is built on
members' $25 dues. And its membership hasn't climbed much over 500,
despite increasing numbers of ordained women.
Members at this meeting voted to commit to more thorough organizing at
presbytery and synod levels so women clergy have year-round and less
expensive access to skill-building, professional development and the
natural kinds of networking that evolve through relationship. And its
steering committee was authorized to devise a financial strategy to support
more local programming.
"There's a myth of scarcity [in the church], that there is not
enough," said Tiare Mathison-Bowie of Eugene, Ore., NAPC's outgoing
moderator. "But look at all this -- all these women doing all these
ministries in a variety of settings and placements. They're in churches of
250 members to 30 members. They're hospital chaplains. The diversity is
just phenomenal, and for me that's an image of plenty.
"We keep making a way ... making a way out of no way," she said,
noting that NAPC keeps plugging along with minimal budget and small
membership -- just like many of its members. "That's one thing women do so
well. Make do, take whatever resources are available and make something
That's a skill, Cannon says, that people on the margins learn and one
that middle-class white society -- and its churches -- needs to learn as
the economy tightens, as jobs get more scarce, as fear and uncertainty
build and stands for justice become harder to take.
"White people, for the first time, are experiencing what it is like to
be not sure of the ground beneath their feet," she said, noting that while
white men still hold 95 percent of the top jobs in all sectors, some are
losing jobs. "And this is a gift blacks can give to whites: We know what
it's like to be marginalized, to be outcast, to be told we're throwaway.
"And the wisdom of my community is, don't give up. ... We as a church
know we're called to be prophets," Cannon told the Presbyterian News
Service, drawing on her sermon for NAPC about Gideon's call. "I don't
think the vision's lost and that's the pain. The church is under siege,
it's threatened. ...
"But God never leaves people without a prophet in their midst," she
said, adding that NAPC's clergy are ministering now in churches where
uneasy previously comfortable people are losing jobs, retrenching
politically, socially and ecclesiastically, and hurting.
Weems, too, thinks the church has lost its way -- and getting back on
track means clergy have to lead the way by telling the story and not petty
adaptations of it.
"He who was dead is alive. But Presbyterians continue their
quarreling, flipping through Bibles to find passages to support their
private theologies. No wonder the children have left," Weems told NAPC.
"We taught moralism instead of the Word of God. We've put Jesus back in
the tomb, rolled the stone back in place and continued to behave a though
he is dead. ...
"We spend our energies creating more rules, for fear of losing
control. The rules have become more important than the freeing Word of
Weems said, "We in the church can vote all we want to, but the Spirit
of God will move where it will no matter our voting. The gospel is still
God's story, and God, the Poet, says: Return to me. ...'"
Knowing that congregations -- with all their aches and pains -- wait
on hearing that story every week is scary, Adams told NAPC members. But
she urged them to plunge into the story and to "stop being obsessed" with
all their fears, for the power of the Word is what everyone, including the
preacher, is waiting on. And it takes prayer and preparation to find it,
"This is reality," she said, "the Word. It is witness to reality.
[Worship] is the only hour during the week we get inside the truth, inside
what is real. ... It's about being inside this fantastically wonderful
That story doesn't say anywhere that bigger is better or that results
of hard work come simply or quickly, according to Mathison-Bowie, who has
been part of NAPC's steering committee for six years. "Where does it say
bigger is better? We don't get it from the gospel. It's not in our Bible.
But it sure is in our institutional culture," she said, pointing out the
importance of NAPC's triennial for the percentage of women who attend and
the impact of that realization on a shrinking denomination. "There's
something when you're very much the minority ... [to seeing] Hey, I'm one
of many. ...
"We think here. We laugh our guts out. We have disagreements -- and
we still stay in relationship. We find Hey, I'm not crazy [for thinking
what I think], I'm just the only woman clergy in my town,'" she said,
stressing that creating "sacred space" for women to talk is a NAPC
priority. "And there's just not a lot of opportunity for that in our
complicated daily lives."
For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
phone 502-569-5504 fax 502-569-8073
E-mail PCUSA.NEWS@pcusa.org Web page: http://www.pcusa.org
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