Post Author: Elizabeth Grasham
I don’t belong to the same faith tradition as my grandfather did. Our denominations are cousins (mine the liberal cousin) that emerged out of the Stone Campbell movement of the Second Great Awakening. His tradition was non-instrumental, led by non-ordained clergy, absolute in its congregational polity, and literalist in its interpretation of much of Scripture. Grandpa’s tradition didn’t allow women to read Scripture, pray in worship, or teach boys over the age of 12, let alone serve as pastors of congregations.
When I was in the second grade, my parents moved us out of my Grandfather’s tradition and into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), mostly because of the institutional treatment of women. Raising two daughters made my parents keenly sensitive to the unjustness of their childhood church’s position. I, however, grew up blithely unaware of the sexism I’d been fortunate to avoid; I was unequivocally supported by my immediate family once I discerned a call to ministry (at the tender age of 14). But once I realized the difference between the tradition of my extended family and the tradition of my immediate family, I started to worry: would Grandpa approve? Grandpa had served as a pastor for many years, taught at a local seminary, had two PhD’s; his disapproval would be hard to combat. I should have remembered, though, that my Grandpa was a gentle, loving, intelligent, and kind man. I should have known my fears of rejection would be unfounded. He and my Grandmother participated in my ordination, and they never hesitated to support my ministry.
Grandpa may be in my Cloud of Witnesses, but I am convinced he stands also in the Cloud of Witnesses of countless women in the Church of Christ. You see, Grandpa taught his church that women could be deacons; he never failed to praise my preaching to every Sunday school he had, subversively asserting the validity of women’s proclamation of the gospel. In and out of the pulpit, throughout his career, Grandpa was always working to normalize the ministry of women in his own context. In his retirement, he continued this support, personally encouraging and championing women who pursued ministry within his tradition. After his funeral, which was held on Holy Saturday, an older woman took me aside to tell me the story of how Grandpa always asked after her daughter who was serving as a minister. Grandpa not only continued to encourage her daughter, but also encouraged this woman whenever she was asked to read scripture or lead prayers.
Women I will never meet know they are supported in their calls because my Grandfather dared to speak up for them. People who would never have challenged the status quo of their tradition were presented with solid interpretive possibilities because my Grandfather wasn’t afraid to teach them. And I? The story of his call and faithful submission to God is a bright beacon that keeps me strong as I follow my calling. His gracious love, steadfast commitment to teaching, and joyful celebration of my ministry in a context that was occasionally hostile to female ministers reminds me that I, too can have an incredible impact on the churches and members that I serve. I can be brave, like he was; I can push the church, like he did; but I can only do those things if I am committed to deeply loving my flock, just as he did.
I know there are many men like my Grandpa, who stay within their traditions and remain steadfastly committed to the inclusion of women in ministry. Praise God! But today, I’m thankful just for him. Whenever I affirm the call of another woman, I like to think I’m carrying on his legacy.
Elizabeth Grasham is the Solo Pastor of Heights Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Houston, TX. She serves on the Board the Coastal Plains Area of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Southwest Region, and will soon begin serving the Board of The Young Clergy Women Project. Elizabeth blogs at And Yet I Sing, and draws napkin notes for her son’s lunches on Instagram. She is mom, a step-mom, and an avid lover of many geeky things, including but not limited to Star Wars, Neil Gaiman, and Dungeons & Dragons (3rd edition, obviously).