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Ordained Women in the Presbyterian Church

Preparing for the Session, Week One

View the Living History video with Rev. Susan Andrews: https://youtu.be/4KQ9kUXyu3E

Reflect on the following scripture passages:

Matthew 13:33: He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Romans 14: 13, 17-18: 13 Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. 17 For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval.


What seems fairly commonplace now—women serving as ministers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—is a relatively recent development in the life of the church. Louisa Woosley eloquently laid out her case for women ministers in her 1891 book, Shall Woman Preach?, but her ordination in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church proved controversial. In the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the first decades of the twentieth century saw a change in the denomination’s Book of Order allowing women to be ordained as elders, but it was not until 1956 that the PCUSA ordained its first woman as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament, Margaret Towner. Nine years later in 1965, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. ordained Rachel Henderlite as its first female pastor.

Living History

Rev. Susan Andrews was among the second generation of women pastors. Watch together her Living History interview, recorded in 2012: https://youtu.be/4KQ9kUXyu3E

Discussion Questions and Exercises

1. What were your initial reactions to the video?  If this was your second time viewing it, did you hear different things this time?

2. How did Susan’s childhood shape her conception of religion?

3. What do you think she means when she says she understood the offering as about more than money?

4. Why do you think she was so upset by the reading of Genesis, chapter 3?  This turns out to be a pivotal moment for her; she says she heard Jesus say, “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation. The old is past and gone and the new has come.”  Are there moments in your life when strong negative emotions have been transformed through God’s grace?

5. Using a white board or paper tablet, brainstorm together a list of qualities that make a good minister.  Reflect silently on the list, thinking about whether the qualities are inherently “male” or “female.”  Then, discuss together how gender stereotypes are reflected in perceptions of ministers. Have you experienced changes over time in these perceptions?

6. Several times, Susan mentions “the power of the holy spirit.” Write down what that means to you (1 minute).  Then, write down several ways the power of the holy spirit is at work in your church (2 minutes). Conclude by discussing together the passage from Romans: "For the kingdom of God…is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval.”  End the discussion by reflecting on how this passage might hold special meaning for women ministers.

7. In Matthew 13:33, Jesus tells the parable of the yeast.  Why do you think Jesus specifically says a woman took the yeast and mixed it with the flour?  Does this passage give you insight into the work of women in the church?

8. Susan ends the interview by saying, “Yes, I think God keeps surprising us.” Reflect silently and then share together examples of how God has surprised you individually and how He was worked in surprising ways in your congregation.

Closing Prayer

On December 12, 1965, Rachel Henderlite became the first woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. The service took place at the racially-integrated All Souls Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, before an overflow crowd. Dr. Holmes Rolston of the PCUS Board of Christian Education, representing Hanover Presbytery, gave the invocation. Let us now [listen and/or say] together his invocation as our closing prayer, remembering and honoring the service of women in our church.

Let us look to God in prayer.

Our heavenly Father, we thank thee that thy holy spirit is ceaselessly moving in the life of our church. That in and through the work of thy spirit, thou art calling thy church forward into realms of new endeavor and leading us out in obedience unto thee.

We thank thee oh God for this service tonight, for its witness to the reality of thy church as it transcends lines of class or race or sex.

For its witness to the reality of thy church as thy living spirit is moving thy church forward to new endeavor.

For the way in which thy spirit has called the one who is to be ordained tonight and set her aside to special avenues of service.

For the recognition of this call which has taken place in the life of the presbytery and the life of the church. And we would ask thee that this occasion may look backward to the deep historic roots of the church in the past and forward into the paths into which thy spirit is moving thy church. For Christ’s sake, Amen.

Response, Week Two and Beyond

At the end of the first session, class participants divide into groups. Each group will review a particular passage from a woman minister speaking about her call.  An optional group or groups will interview the female pastor(s) at their church about their personal experiences of a call to ministry. During the week two class time (or spread over multiple weeks), each group will give a short presentation about their subject, focusing on the sense of call and how gender may or may not have had an impact on how these women responded to that call and their careers as pastors.

Choose from the list below or pick other selections from The Journal of Presbyterian History, Fall/Winter 2005 special issue on women’s ordination; or from Celebrating Our Call: Ordination Stories of Presbyterian Women (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2006).

Additional Resources for Preparation or Study

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