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.
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