Women in Ministry: Thirty Years of Ordained Ministry

I want to be Jennifer Burns Lewis when I grow up. What a gift, to celebrate 30 years of ordained ministry!

This week, I celebrated my 30th anniversary of ordination as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Until last summer, the title for clergy in the Presbyterian Church (USA) was Minister of Word and Sacrament, and that’s the office to which I was ordained on June 5, 1983. I can’t decide which title I prefer, which really doesn’t matter, because the denomination decides what we’re called. It also really doesn’t matter, because, at the end of the day, I count it all joy and such a privilege to serve the Church.

I’m a child of the Church, not by birth, but by adoption. I was raised by a single mom, in a household that included her younger sister and their mom, my treasured grandmother. Our family’s roots were Jewish, although none of them practiced their faith or observed their rich culture. New Yorkers, my mom, aunt and grandmother were what many would describe as seekers; they were very bright women, questioners, avid readers, deeply involved in politics and as avid National League Baseball fans. I grew up in a household where one might have mistaken the Kennedys for the disciples and Sandy Koufax for the Messiah. Walking distance from our home in suburban Westchester County was a medium-sized Presbyterian Church, and from the time I was in kindergarten, my mother and I would walk down the hill from our house and into the arms of the Mount Kisco Presbyterian Church. It seemed to have something for everyone, or at least for the two of us. The “Minister of Word and Sacrament” was a tall, serious man with a kind smile and an affinity for raising gladioli, which graced the chancel every summer Sunday, it seemed to me. His gift to my mother, and to many in the congregation, I feel sure, were his very thoughtful, very beautifully crafted sermons. She loved to go and listen and think. I don’t remember a word of any sermons. I remember standing on the pew next to my mom, sharing a hymnal as she kept our place, for me, with her finger. I remember a huge hug every week from the minister’s wife (also the superintendent of the Sunday School). I remember feeling like I was at a family reunion every week, which was a pretty big deal for an only child from a family full of women. My mom was smart; it takes a village to raise a child (or at least a congregation in that village). I remember feeling loved, safe, nurtured and encouraged, and I remember giving my heart to God and God’s son, when I was baptized on the day of my confirmation at the age of thirteen.

The congregation was a teaching church for seminary field education students. I distinctly remember a young woman who served our congregation preaching one Sunday morning and thinking, “I could do that!” As it turns out, that wonderful, nurturing congregation had already spotted some gifts or other in me, and I was active in many parts of the life of the church by the time I was a young teenager. Ordained as a ruling elder at the age of fourteen, I learned a lot about the underpinnings of the church, serving on Session and as a member of the Pastor Nominating Committee while still in high school. A steady stream of field education students and the calling of a dynamic young pastor who kept up the tradition of encouraging all people to share their gifts further reinforced my sense of belonging and the welcome of a church family that welcomed all people.

By the time I graduated from high school, there was no moment I can pinpoint when I heard “a call” to ministry. Rather, my sense of call was like a tune in my head that was unshakable, and my loving church family said, “Well, of course!” to my request to be taken under care as an inquirer while still in college. I went to a Jesuit university specifically to explore and have challenged by sense of call to ministry. I received support and affirmation from my thesis advisor, a older Jesuit priest who said, in the mid- 70s, that he believed I would see the ordination of women as Catholic priests in my lifetime, although probably not in his.

I went from college to seminary, and only then did I encounter a few students who told me and others, forcefully, that I should test my sense of call, citing 1 Timothy and grumbling about women not having authority over men. They were few in number, and I had a wonderful and inspiring seminary experience.

I was the last person ordained in the former United Presbyterian Church, on the evening of the historic reunion of the UPCUSA and the PCUSA in June 1983, and some folks say I was one of the youngest ordained to pastoral office, just days after my 24th birthday. My first call after seminary was to a small Presbyterian (then) all women’s college in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I served as college chaplain and as a member of the faculty. At 24, I wasn’t much older than the majority of the students. Great faculty mentors and regular opportunities to teach and preach, counsel and walk alongside students at times of rich discernment in their lives was such a joy. Since that first call, I’ve had a panoply of delightful calls. I’ve served as an associate pastor on the staff of a large church, the director of a not-for-profit, an interim pastor, co-pastor with my dear spouse, a new church development pastor, a solo pastor, and for the past ten years, pastor and head of staff at a vibrant mid-sized congregation in the western suburbs of Chicago. Our two children, now young adults, have worshipped in 175 year old sanctuaries and a barbeque barn. They’ve enjoyed the nurture of people of all ages and have been privy to the joys and the headaches of life as the kids of two pastors. In every case except one, I’ve been the first female pastor those congregations and agencies have experienced in those particular roles, and while that has been challenging and even daunting at times, the joys of ministry have far outweighed the travails. At 53, I’m feeling more and more like a Teaching Elder, even though the immense privilege of standing so close to folks as we share in celebrating the sacraments is still what causes my soul to sing.

About Today's Contributor
Jennifer Burns Lewis serves as Pastor and Head of Staff at the Presbyterian Church of Western Springs, a gem of a community, just west of Chicago. She lives in the manse with her spouse, the Rev. Dan Lewis, her step-dad, and their exceptionally spoiled three year old Golden Retriever, Lucy. She is a sinfully proud member of Women Touched by Grace III, a three -year Lilly Endowment funded program for clergy renewal for Protestant clergywomen, hosted by the Benedict Inn and Conference Center, a ministry of the Sisters of St. Benedict at Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, Indiana. She gives a shout-out to her WTBG sisters and to the enormously talented Katherine Willis Pershey, her colleague, neighbor and friend in Western Springs.

About the Women in Ministry Series 
The Women in Ministry Series is a collection of guest posts that aims to provide an alternative to the women in ministry debates by telling the stories of women in ministry and encourage women to explore their God-given callings.

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