About a week ago, I got a real education… not only did this Florida girl brave the winter weather of Chicago (with all of the customary January flight delays and headaches), but I also got to sit in with some of our brightest and best from the ELCA as I attended a consultation organized by the ELCA staff to inform the work of a task force being established to develop a social statement on justice for women. I shared this weekend with many talented and amazing women from our church, including Carmen Richards, a former Women of the ELCA president. This group included a diverse and innovative gathering of female theologians, a law professor, women of color and many other women from the ELCA with connections to programs that work diligently for this issue of justice for women.
We were all brought together to consider the theological, moral, social, economic, legal and personal issues experienced by women in this society. Certainly there was a commonality among the issues both here and abroad. Think about the many staggering statistics on women in poverty. Consider the need to focus on international issues of war and gender violence. There are also tremendous global differences in education for women. But, we were brought together to offer our unique perspectives on issues of justice for women, and as president of Women of the ELCA, I offered as a point of discussion the essential need for gender equality within the leadership structure of our church.
More specifically, I asked that this group (and ultimately the soon to be appointed task force) to consider what the true role of “women’s ministry” could be in our church if Women of the ELCA were able to be viewed as more than just a historical institution. We know that our organization is often viewed through the lens of the past… something we have always had but don’t necessarily need anymore. Or we have church leadership that reduces our congregational units to just being the sum total of our dedicated activities (quilt-making, altar guild, etc.). To do this is a failure to look deeper and to understand our mission and purpose… to understand that we are more than just a “ladies’ auxiliary” with no purpose beyond the work of our hands.
I am so grateful to know that Women of the ELCA… this community of women… is a living breathing body of women who constantly seek to help each other live out the Gospel in their everyday lives. This organization is not simply a quilting society. Nor are we something separate from the church. As an organization, we have long been advocates for social justice and gender equality. We have provided grants and scholarships to women and girls, both here at home and internationally. We have co-sponsored federal legislation to fight for better health education for women and we have established seed grants for programs that promote health and wholeness for women and girls in our communities.
Women of the ELCA is that place in the church for women to discover and to receive the resources they need so that they can refine their gifts and equip themselves to be leaders of this church.
When the only service requested of a local Women of the ELCA congregational unit is to host the coffee hour or to knit the baptismal blankets, it reinforces outdated practices and stereotypes. It doesn’t provide an opportunity for us to live into the modern reality of our mission statement, “mobilizing women to act boldly on their faith in Jesus Christ!”
But we, too, must share in the responsibility for this stereotypical view of our organization. When we continue to only operate within that comfort zone of the familiar pursuits, we limit the chance for our congregations to see us as relevant and innovative. When we seek no deeper goals than the same “tried and true” events (and never stop to listen to our inner voices that might want to push us to do more), we stunt our spiritual development as leaders in the church.
I THINK IT IS TIME FOR A CHANGE! And the beginning of a New Year is just the time to get started!
Think about what you might want to explore in the coming year… what new area of ministry might your congregational unit want to engage in to spark new life within your congregation? We certainly have some people within our congregations who want to keep us “pigeon-holed” as an organization. But with your enthusiasm and passion added to the mix… it will be hard to contain us. All we need to do is give it a try!
Share with me what you see on the horizon for yourself and for the future of Women of the ELCA…
Jenny Michael, of Pensacola, Florida, is the churchwide president of Women of the ELCA.