Reflections on 65 Years of Full Clergy Rights For Women in the UMC
posted on May 04
Reflections on 65 Years of Full Clergy Rights For Women in the UMC:
Dedicated to The Rev. Dr. Nancy Burgin Rankin
…an obligation is laid on me,
and woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel.
-1 Corinthians 9:16b
I should begin by saying I grew up in an amazing church, First Presbyterian Church in Lexington, North Carolina. Worship and service were my firm foundation. I learned a sense of propriety, the importance of generosity and the joy of big-hearted Kingdom efforts. I was baptized at Fort Hill Presbyterian Church in Clemson, South Carolina and confirmed by a Davidson College religion professor, the venerable Dr. Daniel Rhodes. I had what I consider to be the best youth group ever, called Acts Alive. But in all those years, it never crossed my mind to consider ministry as a vocation. I only saw men in the pulpit. They were esteemed men, great preachers and worship leaders, but my imagination could not capture the idea of a woman performing that task week to week.
Then I became involved in a small group College Bible Study in a United Methodist Church. Line by line, through the Gospel of Matthew, I became United Methodist. (Don’t worry, I am still endeared to the Presbyterians and make regular pilgrimages to worship at the Mother Kirk, St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh.)
Then came the longing to receive a theological education, to tie together my love for the Bible and my love for British literature. (John Milton was my jam!) I had in mind to become an English professor specializing in 17th Century British religious literature. That turned out to be a suit that never really fit me. I loved poetry, but I also loved people. Being a student pastor during seminary taught me that.
Later, I would even return to the Presbyterians as a Christian Educator, to live out a desire to benefit the church through my vocation. To make a very long and circuitous story short, in 1997 I landed in the office of a woman named Dr. Nancy B. Rankin. I told her this story, with all the twists and turns and God-whispers and self-doubts. I told her that God was calling me to teach, but to teach faith. She assured me that not only did women receive theological education, they could also lead churches quite well. My imagination grew, and she became a guide and mentor to me. I watched her at work; she showed me “how” to live out my calling. She shared her nerves of steel; she shared her wisdom. I am like her in many ways, and I lack her good qualities in many others.
Today we celebrate 65 years of full clergy rights for women in the United Methodist Church. We’ve come a long way. There are 43 women currently appointed as clergy in the Northern Piedmont District, and we look forward to receiving 6 more in July. (Welcome Nina, Katey, Sue Anne, Lisa, Lauren, and Christi!) In many cases, they are not the first women who have served their appointments; in some cases, they are. Most imaginations are fully engaged to receive; some imaginations are still growing. Even today, my greatest compliments about my ministry come from the parents of young girls, who say, “thank you for showing my daughter that women can do this.” I celebrate that our District has 6 female candidates for ministry, and I pray for more women to hear God’s call, especially women of color. We have a long way to go, and the need is great. Come and join Marykate, Patricia, Jill, Laura, Caroline, and Emily!
For today, I simply celebrate. I celebrate Nancy and all the women who were my older sisters in the faith… the ones who were the pioneers in their churches, who faced ridicule and bullying, and people saying “I don’t believe in women pastors.” As Nancy often quoted to them, “woe to me if I don’t proclaim the gospel.” She knew she was called and that it was an irresistible calling. To not answer would have been unfaithful; she continues to answer her call in retirement, as a coach and mentor and inspiring preacher.
To all who come behind me, come on. I am waiting to encourage you, cheer for you, and advocate for you in every way I can.
Rev. Bev Coppley
District Superintendent (because somebody mentored me)