An Interview with Mary Miller

Ordained five years after the 1976 vote to ordain women in the ECC, Mary Miller conducted the very first decadal study on Covenant clergywomen. At the 2017 ECC Midwinter Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, Miller was honored with the North Park Theological Seminary Alumni Award for Distinguished Service. I was fortunate to sit down with Miller to discuss the 40-year survey, how it compared to her own findings thirty years prior, and what she hopes for the future of women in ministry in the ECC. Here is a portion of that conversation, lightly edited for publication.


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Mary Miller accepting the North Park Theological Seminary Alumni Award for Distinguished Service, January 31, 2017

Mahon: After comparing the results of the forty-year study to your own experience with the ten-year study, what changes do you see that should be celebrated?

Miller: The way the author, Lenore M. Knight Johnson, concluded the study was a celebration. She didn’t say we’re in crisis pain or in the sharp pains of trying to figure it out and feeling rejection, but that there were more celebrations. There still are horrible situations, but there are more good ones. You know, on a percentage, on a holistic, wider vision, that’s really nice to hear. For people in my generation, we have not done anything. We have not gotten anywhere. We have one woman in a church over two hundred. One woman. One, after this many years. You have a tendency to get into a funk about what has not happened rather than what has….

We’re quite adept at saying, “Oh, we have so many women who are ordained!” And we changed it so that it’s not Word and Sacrament and Specialty Ministry – it’s all lumped together. I do affirm the priesthood of believers; I do affirm specialty ministries. But the role that challenges authority is Word and Sacrament – predominately preaching these days, more than other sacraments, with our theology. So I do so very much grieve that. I also really appreciated the author bringing in contemporary readings on the subject, because I don’t know that literature.

Mahon: I also appreciated that Knight Johnson brought in other studies. It’s one thing to look at where we are, but it’s helpful to know it’s not just us. It’s systemic among evangelical denominations.

Miller: Yes. We hardly ever bring in the Holiness Movement, women who were part of their founding. I knew a woman in her nineties from the Church of God in Indiana, Anderson, and they would brag on their women preachers. There is no second-guessing or anything, and I thought, “You know, they’re evangelical.” But we only bring in a certain kind of evangelical.

Mahon: In the ten-year study, you quoted a woman saying, “When I began ministry eight years ago, I did so with full hope that there would be others, women as ‘settlers’ who would follow, surpass, better us ‘pioneers.’ Now I find that hope not just frustrated but pretty much shattered.” As one of those pioneers, have you seen “settlers” follow you? Or do women graduating from seminary today still need to be ‘trailblazers’?

Miller: I would say there are more settlers. There are some who will go into much more difficult situations and take on the challenges….Some [men & women] are not fitted, temperament-wise, to do any challenging – or they challenge itty-bitty things, rather than the main things. There’s some wisdom, and Lord knows, I challenged wrong things. I have some really stupid and embarrassing situations (but I’m not going to tell them!). But you know, you have to pick and choose. You can’t just say that everything is important…

It’s been three years since I was on the Biblical Gender Equality Commission. At my last meeting I distributed a chart depicting the number of female pastors ordained to Word & Sacrament compared to the whole ministerium. That percentage was somewhere around twelve percent at one time. Over the course of forty years it has reduced to about two percent.  It marks a huge change in the landscape of ministers in the denomination. Even if new leadership made women in senior ministry a significant thing – like we as a denomination have done with racial diversity – it would take a long time to restore.

Ministry areas affecting that decrease are hirings for church planting and some of the conference visions rejecting egalitarian relationships. I asked if I could plant a church and was denied. The percentage of solo men to women as church planters is significant. Many of the women accepted are co-pastoring as complementarian planters with their husbands. We keep adding new planters from outside the Covenant who have no commitment to theology of women in senior leadership. I think it is a justice issue that Covenant money is being given predominantly to men for this specialization. Ha! I think I know who would win a class action lawsuit!

Mahon: One of the questions you asked respondents in the ten-year study was, “If you had a magic wand, what would you do with it to aid the progress of women in ministry in the Covenant?” How would you answer that question now?

Miller: I would bring that two percent up to about fifty-one percent.

Mahon: Do you have any advice or encouragement for beginning women pastors and seminary students?

Miller: The world is getting smaller with all the technology, all our relationships and traveling, so find alternate role models, encouragements, skills, and behavior sets. They’re out there and available now, which is different than when I started. You can borrow from other traditions. You can borrow from stories of people who are now known…. I’m going to accept this award tonight on behalf of my husband who paid for my degree and then died. It was an investment that we couldn’t afford, but it gave me my whole life. I’m also accepting it for Victoria Welter. In 1903 she was the first woman to get a theological degree from North Park Theological Seminary, and the class was allowed to vote whether or not she would be in the class picture. They voted no. Now, everybody thinks the story ends there, but the grace is that she became a missionary in China. So, I know that one illustration. It’s insidious, but I’m sure they were very nice about telling her she couldn’t be in the picture. Now, though, there are enough examples like that that we know, as well as the positive ones where they were stout and it worked. In some ways those resources – they don’t do the work for you, but they shore you up and encourage you.


Mary Miller was ordained in 1981, five years after the 1976 vote to ordain women in the Evangelical Covenant Church. She currently serves as the chaplain of Covenant Village of Cromwell, Connecticut

Mackenzie Mahon is an MDiv/MNA dual-degree candidate at North Park Theological Seminary and serves as student assistant for the Covenant Quarterly

Image credit: The Covenant Companion

An Interview with John Wenrich

John Wenrich

John Wenrich

John Wenrich serves as the director of Congregational Vitality for the Evangelical Covenant Church and instructor in North Park Theological Seminary‘s certificate in congregational vitality. His article, “The Holy Spirit and Congregational Vitality,” leads our upcoming Quarterly issue. Here John shares his own journey into congregational vitality, how international and seminary teaching have shaped his ministry in North America, and his vision for the Evangelical Covenant Church. (Read the full issue here.)


What led you to the ministry of congregational vitality? What primary factors have contributed to your passion and gifting for guiding congregations toward vitality?

I came into the Covenant as a church planter in 1994. The concepts I learned in church planting prepared me for leading revitalization when I became pastor of First Covenant Church in Portland – a church established in 1887. I experienced firsthand the wind of the Spirit blowing through the valley of dry bones while leading the revitalization of First Covenant. Through the very rewarding experience of pastoring this congregation, God showed me that dying churches can change their trajectory as the Holy Spirit moves and guides. This is why I am passionate about church plants and established churches learning from each other.

As a young boy, I was very close with my grandfather. That significant relationship taught me how to treasure the elderly, listen to their stories and learn from their accumulated wisdom. I remember visiting the oldest living member, Harold Anderson, the very first week “on the job” at First Covenant. I asked him to bless me. I will never forget that experience. Something supernatural happened. God has given me a love for the local church and a passion to see the Gospel burn brightly and warmly in our hearts. I like envisioning, building, and casting a vision of hope.

In your experience, what are the strongest indicators that a congregation should begin the vitality process? Do the indicators look different depending on cultural context or socio-economic circumstances?

There are obvious indicators like flat or declining attendance, decreased giving and a lack of healthy missional leaders. But there are more subtle indicators: apathy, stagnation, a loss of hope, or living in the past. These indicators tend to cross cultures and class.

Yet there is a perception that the pathway is a last resort. Like postponing a doctor’s appointment, some congregations wait until the pain of not changing outweighs the pain of changing. The best time to work on vitality is now. This is true even for healthy missional churches. Our vision is for every church to walk the congregational vitality pathway regardless of their current state of health; we hope vitality becomes the new normal.

Statistics put out by Start and Strengthen Churches suggest that the majority of pastors entering the vitality pathway are white men. How do you interpret this? Is the vitality process culturally-specific? Is there a correlation between white churches and churches in need of vitality? 

It is no secret that the majority of established congregations in the Covenant are white and are led by white male pastors. Statistics refers to this as a distribution sample. This says more about established Covenant churches as a whole than it does about vitality. Most of the multi-ethnic growth in the Covenant is coming through the portal of church planting, not established churches. Continue Reading

An Interview with Chaplain Jeff Saville

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Jeff Saville

Jeff Saville has served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-three years around the globe. As chairperson of the Covenant Chaplains Association, Jeff’s leadership has been seminal to our upcoming Quarterly issue. He shares with us here some of the challenges, rewards, and lessons of chaplaincy ministry.


What do you find most challenging and most rewarding about chaplaincy ministry?

A chaplain works with people of every faith and none. When I was with the national parks ministry, I spent time with students and school administrators from over forty Christian denominations. To be effective, I had to learn to understand mindsets that were very different from my own evangelical background. Over time I learned not to judge but to appreciate and learn from the variety of Christian expression in the United States – from the Assemblies of God to the United Church of Christ, from Roman Catholics to Quakers. As a Navy chaplain, I learned to minister to people of every confession.

How do chaplains contribute to the larger church?

The chaplain belongs to two entities simultaneously—the church that endorsed them, and the secular institution that hired them. Chaplains serve institutions, many of which are secular (hospitals, military, correctional institutions, corporate workplaces, campuses, retirement communities, and more). Chaplains extend the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ into places of deep need for spiritual insight, care, and compassion. Continue Reading

An Interview with Max Lee

MaxLeeTallMax Lee is associate professor of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. Our upcoming issue of the Quarterly took early shape in Max’s course, Reading the Bible Interculturally. We talked with Max to explore further his academic and personal commitment to intercultural readings of Scripture.


Max, outside of being a professor and scholar, tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you do in your free time?

What I want to do is reach the gym and make a heroic attempt to keep myself in shape, but alas, much of my day, evenings, and late nights are spent managing the tension between my vocation as a professor and my investment in my two teenage sons. I hope and pray that they will grow up to be godly men.

When I’m on top of my game, my sons and I all make it to gym and run the treadmill, pump iron, and cool down at Starbucks after we are done.

What do you love most about teaching?

There is a genuine joy in gleaning insight from Scripture and sharing this with others. I love sharing what I learn, and I love learning from those with whom I share. If the Lord uses what I teach to inspire, encourage, challenge, and transform my students, and they, in turn, share what they learn with others through their preaching and ministry, my joy, in the words of Apostle Paul, becomes complete.

When did you first come across the subject of intercultural biblical interpretation? What drew you to studying it further?

My first formal exposure was in 2002, through my participation in the Korean Biblical Colloquium which meets concurrently with the Society of Biblical Literature each year. At KBC, I engaged with scholars who shared different hermeneutical commitments than my own, but nevertheless challenged me to think about how the social and cultural location of the reader affected biblical interpretation. Continue Reading