In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Reflection on the Propers for 6A

Pentecost 5; Proper 6 - June 15, 2008, By Jacqueline Schmitt

"The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."

Women have always answered this call. When I wrote a history of Episcopal campus ministry, I learned that from the 1920s to the 1950s, the number of women doing campus ministry, as professional church workers, paid by the Episcopal Church Women, equaled the number of men, priests usually, paid from the Religious Education budget, which came from the assessments of parishes and dioceses, of the Episcopal Church. I’m not sure of the exact numbers – I wrote this a few years ago – but I do know that the women and men were peers, equals, in this domestic mission field. This was not remarkable; it was effective. The young adult years are the most fertile time for people seeking to understand their faith and their place in the world, and many, many people found their callings fulfilled in the Episcopal Church during their young adult years.

The 1950s and ‘60s were a different story in American society, and in the leadership of the church. Women got married, stayed home, and men were the priests. Although professional training schools for women church workers were established and thriving, graduates were less and less likely to spend a full career in the ministry. By the late 1960s, the vocation of professional women church worker crashed and burned – due to sweeping changes in social and sex roles, due to the General Convention Special Program which completely rearranged the budget of the Episcopal Church away from funding domestic mission and toward direct grants to people in need, and due, of course, to the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Those two paragraphs were a wild gallop with the broadest brush strokes imaginable, through the history of women’s vocations in the Episcopal Church. Much has been left out, but the point is: the harvest has always been plentiful, the laborers always few, and among those few have always been women.

I just came back from CREDO, which was fabulous. The Church Pension Fund DOES know how to take care of us. A group of 27 priests, one-third of whom were women, met for over a week of rest, vocational retooling, spiritual refreshment and wholistic revitalization. If you’ve been, you know what I mean; if you’ve not been yet, be sure to reply to your invitation right away. The Pension Fund, as we all know, is loaded; they can afford to treat us well, one or two weeks out of our ordained lives. (I heard last week that there is a CREDO 2 on our horizon; I’m already looking forward to it.)

There was a time when the Pension Fund was not the friend of ordained women. It took a few General Conventions for us to get equal treatment in all ways, but now we do. The benefits bring me, who can retire in about five years, after 30 years of credited service, a sense of security for which I and my family are very grateful. Am I at risk of writing a p.r. puff piece for the Pension Fund? Yup. Am I similarly championing the track record of the Episcopal Church and its bishops in the deployment and support of ordained women? Not on your tintype.

Episcopal leadership has, and I think continues to treat, ordained women rather shabbily. Oh, yes, we can be cardinal rectors and bishops etc etc, but when I sat down with the financial consultant at CREDO to go over my estimated pension, she remarked that I am one of the few women who can take advantage of the 30-year option. That was a disturbing fact. I thought, oh, not all that many women have been ordained that long … but then I heard the story of a woman ordained in 1981 (I was ordained in 1980), who has only seven years of credited service. She’ll never be able to take advantage of most of the benefits of the Pension Fund. What made the matter worse is that her first years after ordination, when she was in the employ of the Episcopal Church, her diocese or her bishop or some priest or some combination of the above, advised her NOT to enroll in the Pension Fund. Someone must have assumed that her work in the Episcopal Church would never amount to anything, and so now, in her 50s, it’s probably too late.

"The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."

Perhaps the line to quote here is another one from the lessons for Proper 6, June 15: “Sarah laughed.”

Women have answered God’s call, even when it was laughably improbable. The rewards of service, vocation, ministry, scholarship, prayer, community are of course far greater than money. Our lives are enriched beyond the wildest dreams we had when we heard those first faint twinges of something calling us. If we only knew what it meant to be as wise as serpents in doing this worthy work. Maybe then we would still be as innocent as doves, or at least able to look forward, in our old age, to shake the dust from our feet.

A postscript:
If any woman reading this is underemployed, paid so little for her work or in such debt that she cannot feel she can take a vacation, I urge her to look into Adelynrood. This retreat center of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross was founded early in the 20th century to give working women a place to go for summer vacation. The earliest visitors were factory girls, but as the Society grew, Companions, too, were working women – church workers, social workers, settlement house workers, office workers, teachers, professors, researchers. Adelynrood became a quiet, hospitable place where all kinds of women found welcome. Today, there is ample scholarship money to underwrite your stay. There is even money to help you get there. Go and find some rest, in this place prepared for us by women for over 100 years. It is a worthy house, a house of prayer, refreshment and peace.


Imogen Nay said...

Thanks for this - I'm just entering ministry and realising the need to be as wise as a serpent.

mompriest said...

jackie, I've been to CREDO, it is wonderful. I thank you for this thoughtful reflection, cause to laugh indeed...there are so many ways women are marginalized in our society, I have felt it myself...but also I have felt the blessings of our changing world...not perfect, but changing...