Mary Council-Austin, Wisconsin Annual Conference
In the Old Testament, the phrase “Tent of Meeting” principally refers to a place where God would meet with His people, Israel. It was also used as another name for the Tabernacle in Exodus. As Moses went into the “Tent of Meeting,” the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses.
Growing up, my nine siblings and I were very familiar with the phrase “Tent of Meeting.” We learned about it in Sunday school, youth gatherings, and worship services. We also learned of it in a special room at home my father called our “Tent of Meeting.” This weekly tradition was passed on by my grandparents. It was an intentional gathering place in our home. In our “Tent of Meeting” our family prayed, read scripture, and worked on educational goals and life lessons of service to God. My father would admonish us by saying, “Galvanize your best hopes and dreams and hold on no matter what you face.” Growing up, we faced some pretty extreme prejudice and harsh realities of life in our segregated community.
I was raised in the AME Zion Church and followed both parents into ordained ministry. As a child, pictures of African Methodists like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Richard Allen adorned our walls. There were also pictures of John Wesley, his mother Susanna, and Francis Asbury.
In the fall of 2017, we celebrated my mother’s ninetieth birthday, marking Rev. Martha’s journey of more than sixty years in ordained ministry. The beginning of her ministry was not easy. As a young girl attending church meetings, I witnessed the rejection of my mother’s ministry and heard her call belittled. Her testimony was referred to as “a vapor that would soon dissipate.” But God had a plan for her life and ministry.
Our family moved three times before Dad and Mom built what is our Council Family homestead in eastern North Carolina. In earlier years, we sharecropped, and Dad worked at the mill; this provided us housing and some limited income. The women of the community canned and preserved food, which was shared across families in the neighborhood. We dreamed under canopies of quilt creations and wore crocheted table coverings and modeled doilies on our heads. We were told that our hopes and dreams and prayers would guide us from earth to glory.
The first six children picked cotton and harvested other crops alongside our parents and other families. The remaining four grew up in integrated schools able to experience a range of new opportunities. Among my siblings are a stay-at-home mom, an airport staffer, a social worker, an educator, a healthcare worker, military veterans, and ordained ministers.
I began my ordained ministry in The United Methodist Church in 1978, as a pastor in Wisconsin. My parents and I were still Methodists together in a larger mission around the world.
The journey of women in ministry across the church and in society, for the most part, has been a road with celebrated achievements. The dreams and intentional laboring of our grandmothers, mothers, and sisters—who carried the torch through the early work of missionary societies, powerful networks, and organizational structures—provided more than stepping stones to help women attain full participation in the life of the church and society.
On March 23, 1869, eight women gathered in a prayer meeting at Tremont Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston, Massachusetts, and organized the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society, which would become United Methodist Women. Those women raised money to send a doctor, Clara Swain, and a teacher, Isabella Thoburn, to India as missionaries to serve the women of that nation.
The Methodist Church granted full clergy rights to women in 1956. Maud Keister Jensen was the first to receive such rights. We praise God that the 1968 merger of the Methodist Episcopal and the Evangelical United Brethren churches, forming The United Methodist Church, affirmed full clergy rights for women. We praise God for clergy sisters who have become outstanding leaders across the church as bishops, district superintendents, agency leaders and staff, and pastors of local congregations and ministries.
A retired United Methodist colleague reminded me of a day on the journey when we were dreaming of the time when the church would begin to embrace outstanding clergywomen as episcopal leaders for our church. The late Bishop Leontyne Kelly was standing on a table with a bullhorn, directing traffic, as excited clergywomen arrived for the bus ride to our meeting site at the Glorietta Baptist Conference Center in Glorietta, New Mexico. On the bus ride, one of our great clergywomen, who was also a distinguished teacher from one of our seminaries, walked the aisle of our bus as we traveled, encouraging us and reminding us of the work ahead. Out of the prayer services and working groups in every geographic area of the church, the election of sister bishops became a reality: Bishops Matthews, Morrison, Kelly, Brown Christopher, Sherer, Zimmerman Rader, Swenson, Kammerer, and Hassinger, just to name a few. They took their places among global leaders. Many others continue to follow.
Clergywomen gatherings in the United States and across the globe remind us that we must be ready to stand in the gap of leadership for which the world cries out continually. Faithful service demands constant prayer and vigilance, while we build partnerships with other clergy and lay colleagues across the church and community.
Clergy sisters have gathered in partnership with colleagues from across the connection in worship, study, and strategy sessions to continue the journey toward full inclusion in the ministries of the church. Our gathering places were “Tents of Meeting.” Our call was to write the vision plainly, so that even the person running could see it. We are working hard to do so. With every chapter, we are called to write the next.
All across the church, clergywomen are working to help shape a church that will continue to be relevant as we face extremely challenging times across the global community. The work can never just be about clergywomen succeeding, however, it reflects a burning desire to see the church realize the power of God at work through all of us.
The Babylonians had destroyed Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The people felt removed from the sense of God’s presence they once knew when the temple stood as a symbol of God’s ever-present power. Even after they began the process of rebuilding their Temple, the work stopped after just a short time because of opposition from the Samaritans. Similarly, there is discouragement across the church today as people seek to experience the power of God in the face of economic distress, anxiety over health care concerns, racial tensions, and terrorist threats at home and abroad.
Disappointment and fear is the theme of the people in Israel during the ministry of the prophet Haggai. Haggai writes to them to challenge them and to encourage them to carry on God’s work.
In our current, troubled world the feeling is strong that the church has surrendered its leadership to political pundits and self-serving individuals playing in the marketplace of life. The church finds itself facing giants of disbelief, church members and leaders who are out of touch with the historical significance of the roles women have played in moving the church and the society forward for good.
God raised up the prophet Haggai to call the people back to their task of rebuilding the Temple. That is a message I think we could all use today. Haggai reminds us that, while some of the people and settings may not look the same, God will remain faithful.
Clergywomen have known triumphs, and we have faced disappointment. We have realized some of our hopes and dreams. Some churches have received women pastors, and the partnership was very positive. For some, both congregation and pastor experience unexpected disappointments. Other clergywomen, despite hard work and positive impact in their ministry settings, face the continuing resistance toward women as pastors in local churches.
Are you discouraged at times? Are you disappointed in your work for the Lord? We may all feel this from time to time. Some of our best hopes and dreams for a ministry may not be realized in every setting. One friend called it “facing the impassable mountain.” Looking back at the rivers we have crossed and mountains we have climbed, occasional disappointment will not derail us or cause us to lose faith.
My mom continues to remind me that this work is God’s work! We are invited to share the load. God stands just as ready to bless us today as in years past. God will neither leave us nor forsake us. God will meet us in every situation and will dwell among us and bless us for God’s glory.
 See Women’s Ministries: United Methodist Women: Faith, Hope, Love in Action, Guidelines 2017–2020 (Nashville; Cokesbury, 2016), 10; see https://www.cokesbury.com/product/9781501830020/guidelines-womens-ministries, accessed October 30, 2017.
 For more information on notable women in Methodist history, see http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/archives-notable-women-in-methodist-history; for a timeline of women in Methodism, see http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/timeline-of-women-in-methodism; for a full list of Methodist bishops by year of election, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_bishops_of_the_United_Methodist_Church. All sites accessed October 30, 2017.