At 10 years old, I found myself in a small, crowded living room in Northern Ireland — the gathering place of the Bible club of a growing church plant. Whether or not a formal preacher, the woman leading taught Scripture. And at the end of the session, she invited anyone interested to begin a relationship with Jesus Christ.
That was the beginning of my faith journey. Today, I am so thankful that she preached the gospel to me.
Likewise, we as the Brethren in Christ U.S. are indebted to — and celebrate — the women who use their gifts through ministry leadership. In 2016, more than 130 women led as BIC pastors, chaplains, and ministry staff (both in paid and volunteer positions) across the United States. And as of today, 19 women have been ordained, and 31 are licensed.i I’m thrilled we’re releasing the Women in Ministry Leadership Statement, documenting our position on this subject and making it accessible online.
While I’m delighted to publish this Church statement, for more than 30 years, we have publicly celebrated women leading at all levels of Church life. In 1982, General Conference formally affirmed women in ministry leadership. Ten years later, at General Conference 1992, we as a body reaffirmed our commitment to supporting women leading the Church.
And prior to that, women have led BIC ministry formally and informally. For example, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, women were instrumental in missions domestically and globally: In the 1890s, Rhoda Lee mobilized BIC global missions.ii Sarah Bert founded the first BIC city mission in 1894 (later becoming its superintendent).iii In 1906, Hannah Frances Davidson established Macha Mission in Zambia — where the world-renowned hospital and malaria research center were later birthed.iv
As we celebrate women in ministry leadership, we acknowledge a minority wrestles with having women in Church leadership. (Only a two-thirds majority is needed to pass a General Conference vote; thus, a minority often exists who voted against the decision.)
In this case, the minority viewpoint has diminished over time. In 2006, just over 50 percent of the denomination supported ordaining women.v By 2014, 84.5 percent of BIC members surveyed said they believed women and men had equal ministry positions in their congregations.vi
In the 2014 survey, BIC members also shared what responsibilities they welcomed women leading in their local congregations. Analyzing the responses, Ronald Burwell gave the following percentage breakdown:
- Preach sermons (79.6 percent)
- Plan and lead worship (93.3 percent)
- Provide pastoral counseling and care (88.4 percent)
- Teach adults (96.3 percent)
- Teach children (98.9 percent)vii
Only 0.3 percent thought women should be excluded from all of these pursuits.
However, the minority continues to face the reality of living in a community with divergent viewpoints from its own. It is one thing to disagree on a topic that may be considered merely theological with little, if any, practical implications. (As if a theological issue without practical implication exists.) But supporting peacemaking (in a world of hatred and war) and women in Church leadership has practical ramifications on congregational life. As a family, our challenge is to come together despite our differences on these topics.
Because I love our history, I conclude with 1982 General Conference’s words celebrating women in ministry leadership:
God has gifted men and women for service in the church through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit; and …
… the Christian church has been built up through the faithful service of women as well as men, in many spheres of service—missions, education, medicine, languages, etc., and, …
… the Brethren in Christ Church has specifically prospered through the service and leadership of the sisters, in both the past and present. …
… We therefore RECOMMEND … that General Conference affirm the ministry of women in the life and programs of the church. …
… ACTION: Recommendation adopted as amended.viii
i “History,” Awaken, accessed July 31, 2017.
ii “Facts About Women in Ministry and Leadership in the Brethren in Christ Church,” Shalom: A Journal for the Practice of Reconciliation 27 (2007): 10‑11.
iii “Facts About Women in Ministry,” 10‑11.
iv E. Morris Sider, Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1978), 159-212.
v “Facts About Women in Ministry,” 11.
vi Ronald Burwell, “Results of 2014 Global Anabaptist Profile: Brethren in Christ Church in the U.S.,” Brethren in Christ History and Life 38 (2015): 335-376, accessed August 10, 2017.
vii Burwell, “Results,” 335-376.
viii Minutes for the General Conference, Brethren in Christ Church (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1982), 85.