From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Clergywomen Challenged to Lead Church

Date 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 
wonderful happen." 
     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, 
she said. 
     "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   Web page: 


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