by Dorothy J. Marple

The Spirit moves where it will. The inflaming and renewing spirit worked for women’s ordination throughout the history of Lutheran Church in America’s Lutheran Church Women (LCW) and its predecessor groups. But the catalytic experience that gave the final push to women’s ordination was a workshop on racism. These three streams—the work of the Holy Spirit, the legacy of predecessor women’s auxiliaries, and the workshop on racism—paved the way for the statement adopted by the LCW Board of Directors in support of women’s ordination. The statement laid some of the groundwork for the 1970 Lutheran Church in America (LCA) convention action that made the ordination of women possible. It gave public notice that Lutheran women intended to unite and open doors to ordained ministry long closed to them in the church.

Building on a Legacy

For more than a century women’s organizations were identified as promoters and financial supporters of the church’s mission task at home and throughout the world. Even though in the early years the dictates of men circumscribed their purpose and existence, these organizations were major vehicles for women’s involvement and leadership in the church.

Integral to their witness and service in local congregations and in the “uttermost parts of the world” was an emphasis on the nurture of women and their relationship to the triune God through prayer, daily offerings, and educational activities. Leadership training affirmed God-given gifts and prepared women to use these gifts in service to others. The recruitment of women for overseas missionary service accompanied by scholarship and salary support, cracked open the door for a role in the church beyond that of volunteer. National church women’s organizations learned to adapt to change as church mergers took place over the years and in doing so began to set the stage for the transformation of the role of women in the church.

Building on this legacy, LCW, from its beginning in 1962, explored ways the understand its mission within North America and worldwide. The escalation of the war in Vietnam and the racial unrest and upheaval in urban centers in the United States made it a tense and tumultuous time. Rapid social change was pervasive. The roles of women and men were changing dramatically in society. Board and staff tracked social trends and probed implications for women striving to live as Christians. Social concerns of the 1990s—hunger, illiteracy, women and children in poverty, ecology, criminal justice, welfare reform—were beginning to emerge in the 1960s as challenges to our engagement in mission.

Two years before the 1970 LCA action to ordain women, the 1968 LCW Triennial Convention adopted “New Ways to New Days,” three-year objectives that affirmed the “necessity of examining and responding to diverse and complex changes in the world in which we live.” Specific goals called for strategies to work for justice through legislation and social planning, in joining with others to gain basic human rights for all people, in making commitment “to the development and use of unique personal resources in responsible concern for self and others.”

Advocacy for deeper self-understanding and responsibility as Christian women was implicit in these objectives and goals. Educational resources prepared by LCW sharpened understanding of current social issues and trends and challenged women to be bearers of love and justice in family, church, and community life. Bible studies introduced new insights into being the people of God and stressed applying what was learned to life situations. Lutheran Women, the official periodical, attuned women to changing emphases in the church’s mission, to new roles of women and areas for serving and seeking justice, and to the importance of advocacy for Christian social action. Leadership training experiences, designed to include membership development, reflected the calling of women to be whole persons in Christ and equipped them to assume leadership roles. In short, the hard shell of custom and tradition that circumscribed roles of women in the church was being cracked.

The president of LCW, Doris H. Spong, an energetic and committed churchwoman, was a lifelong supporter and advocate for the full participation of women in the church. She brought a compelling, far-reaching vision for the education and training of women for leadership in church and society, and for expanding the opportunities for the service of women in all expressions of the church in North America and globally through the Lutheran World Federation and the World Council of Churches. In later years she disclosed her deep frustration with the church leaders who would not open the doors through changes in policy and practices to expand the role of women in the church. Spong used every opportunity to help women affirm themselves, to value their gifts as from God and use them with abandon. She never hesitated to challenge the president of the church and other leaders when women were not given their due representation in church delegations or recognized for their contributions in leadership and service in the church.

A Catalytic Experience

Advocacy for women’s full participation in all areas of the church’s life took a new turn as the result of a catalytic experience in an intense twenty-four-hour encounter with a team of black American community leaders and LCA staff. This encounter was a part of the churchwide Priority Program for Justice and Social Change aimed to expose the sin of white racism. Board members and LCW staff peeled back layers of accumulated and entrenched attitudes, thoughts, and behavioral actions that enslave others. Their own participation as white Americans in discrimination and injustice became recognizable as they grappled with the reality that racism was their problem and they needed to change. They came face to face with their own involvement in structures and practices that denied the equality of all people before God.

The effects of the encounter experience were both penetrating and empowering. The quiet but articulate and powerful story of one of the leaders who spoke of what it meant to be a black American laid bare oppressive structures that not only prevented persons from exploring their full capacities but also distorted personal identity and self-image. Dealing with negative and false images of black Americans frequently projected by white persons opened up the discussion of the image of women and their subordination in the church. It was a short step to a more profound understanding of the structures within the church that stunted the personal growth of women and limited the possibilities for creative expansion of talents and abilities for service.

In the hours that elapsed between the close of the encounter experience and the plenary meeting of the LCW board when the statement supporting the ordination of women was adopted, board members and staff talked together in twos and threes, some into the night. They wrestled with what equality before God and freedom in Christ meant—not only in race relations, but also in relationships between husbands and wives, in work settings, and in service and leadership opportunities within the church. A small committee, appointed by the president, drafted a resolution in support of women’s ordination. “It was God at work that night among us,” called Spong. “Not only were we thinking about our own racist feelings and actions, but also how women needed freedom to use their God-given gifts in service to others in every part of the church’s life.”

Spong and other board members were aware of the continuing work of the Commission on the Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of Ministry that the LCA convention authorized in 1964. Despite the conclusion of the committee report to the 1968 LCA convention stating there were no biblical or theological reasons for denying ordination of women, it made no recommendation to ordain women lest such an act would threaten ecumenical fellowship. However, the LCW board learned that the 1970 commission report stated that “both men and women are eligible for call and ordination” and would be accompanied by a recommendation to make this position a reality. This came as good news. The time was right, even past time according to some board members, for women to be ordained. The question was no longer whether women should be ordained. It was a matter of rights and justice for women. Now was the time for women to do something for women, to provide support that would allow them to make vocational choices freely according to their aspirations and gifts. Church tradition, customs, and structures that denied equal opportunity for women were barriers to be penetrated. Freedom in Christ meant freedom for all regardless of race or gender.

After hearing a proposed statement supporting women’s ordination newly drafted by a committee appointed by the LCW president, the board decision came quickly and decisively. The unanimous action put the LCW board on record as advocating the ordination of women and calling the entire church to take next steps “creatively and vigorously” in implementation.

The board’s action was comprehensive. It called on seminaries to publicize that they welcomed women students, to create a climate of acceptance, to provide adequate personal counseling for them, and to call women to their faculties and encourage women to pursue advanced study. The action asked LCA synodical presidents actively to seek calls for women candidates and encourage congregations to call women pastors. The LCW board urged churchwide and synodical boards, commissions, and committees to provide for the full participation or ordained women as elected representatives or professional staff in decision-making, planning, and administrative responsibilities.

Advocacy at LCA Convention

The full text of the comprehensive statement was widely distributed to all seminary presidents, synodical presidents, and board agency executives. Minimal and generally lukewarm response intensified the need for strong advocacy. LCW board members attending the 1970 LCA convention as delegates from their respective synods prepared to speak on the convention as delegates from their respective synods prepared to speak on the convention floor in support of the necessary constitutional and bylaw changes that would enable the ordination of women. Caucus meetings of women delegates and visitors provided mutual encouragement and strengthened the resolve to stand together for justice for women. Women seminarians and women with previous theological education who had been denied the possibility of being ordained brought energy and passion for an affirmative convention action. When the question of women’s ordination came before the convention, it took less than an hour for a decision to be made, with a resounding “yes” voice vote. Board members at the convention planned strategy to lay before the church the next steps to translate this ground-breaking action into reality. The Reverend Frederick K. Wentz, president of Hamma Theological School, had received the LCW board statement and had made a supportive response. Spong talked with him about giving public support to the concerns addressed in the LCW statement. Wentz agreed and presented in slightly modified form from the concept of the statement. The motion was quickly adopted and became a reference point for action strategies in support of ordained women.

Follow-Up to Convention Action

Lutheran Church Women did not view the LCA convention decision to ordain women as the time to step aside and leave the implementation to others. Rather, the organization made intentional decisions to continue its role as supporter and advocate over the long term. These decisions permeated the program of the organization during the seventies and eighties. A long-time provider of scholarships for women in higher education, LCW immediately recognized the need for financial assistance for theological students from minority groups and women in continuing theological education. It earmarked a specific portion of its gift to the LCA for such assistance.

When possibilities for appointing women to seminary faculties were reported to be limited due to lack of a sufficient number of candidates with the necessary academic credentials, the LCW board designated one-half of the Centennial Observance Offering in 1981 for women preparing for church leadership, providing grants to women doing graduate work in the theological disciplines. The challenge of helping to create a climate of acceptance of women pastors in congregations was a continuing concern. Deliberate efforts were made to give all LCW members chance to recognize and appreciate the gifts of ordained women. These women were engaged as writers for Bible studies, educational resources, and magazine stories. Lutheran Women consistently featured articles about the ministry of both ordained and lay women. Lutheran Church Women synodical unit leaders were alerted to the contribution they could make by inviting women pastors as preachers, Bible study leaders, and major presenters at conventions and other gatherings. To build bridges of friendship and mutual support, LCW gave women seminarians scholarships to attend triennial conventions. Systemic and organizational issues and theological considerations related to the participation of women in the life and work of the church were pursued through participation in the LCA Consulting Committee on Women in Church and Society. Regular reports to the LCW Board of Directors reinforced the need to be persistent and engaged in providing support and initiating change in attitudes and actions.

Twenty-five years is a relatively short period of history but significant in reflecting on the ordination of women. The action to ordain women was an important sign of accountability to the gospel. It was a new beginning. No longer could the ministry of word and sacrament be assumed to be a male province or prerogative. All women benefited because ultimately the struggle was not only for rights and equal opportunity for ministry according to talents and ability, but for recognition of all women as persons of worth. The struggle persists and the Spirit continues to move where it will. Lutheran Church Women was privileged to be an advocate and continuing supporter of women’s ordination.

This essay is excerpted from Lutheran Women in Ordained Ministry, 1970-1995, published by Women of the ELCA. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of women’s ordination in the Lutheran church, we have published a number of excerpts from this resource. Browse other excerpts here