One hundred sixty years ago, the first woman was ordained in what is today The Wesleyan Church (TWC). Her name was Mary Will and all these years later, her legacy and impact continues to be celebrated.
Pastor Mary’s ordination was momentous. It took place in a controversial time, amid the events of the Civil War, when the act of ordaining women was rare. In fact, she was only the second woman in United States history to be ordained.
Intense debates were polarizing society and churches. Fervent conversations addressing the ordination of women coincided with the antislavery movement, in which Wesleyans were committed to standing for the rights of all individuals, seeing each person as someone for whom Christ had died, and showing individuals’ worth and dignity as human beings.
As time went on, Wesleyans became more confident in their support of women as they continued in their affirmation that women should be in leadership and service.
The Wesleyan Church remains committed to standing for the marginalized, and although progress is being made toward unleashing a multiethnic and gender-diverse Kingdom Force, work remains.
Dr. Bob Black, coauthor of “The Story of The Wesleyan Church,” notes the significance of the divide between TWC’s commitment and fulfillment nearly two centuries after Pastor Mary’s ordination, “We still have not lived up to our potential. There is still work to be done because the kingdom needs everyone that God has tapped on the shoulder.”
Today, intentionality in honoring the history of women’s rights in TWC’s heritage is significant. God’s kingdom is richer because of the experience, stories, skills and perspectives women offer to the community of God.
Wesleyan pastor Maggie Slusher honors the legacy of her grandmother, Rev. Katherine Dell Lambertson Lashmit, while also preserving the legacy of Pastor Mary, celebrating God’s call and work in the lives of all women in his kingdom. Pastor Maggie never met her grandmother but models her through the pursuit of God’s calling on her life.
Pastor Katherine was influential in her granddaughter’s life as she led in her family and in the church. Her service impacted her granddaughter’s life in ways that helped Maggie approach her own calling to ministry. As Pastor Maggie reflected on the legacy of her grandmother, the word “honor” came to the surface as something she regards with awe, realizing the meaning of being a woman in ministry alongside a history of so many others that walked before her.
Though the two never met, Pastor Maggie’s family members affirm the similarities between her and Katherine, in their leadership style and character. Because of the legacy existing in her family, she carries a personal understanding of Christ’s work as he uplifted women to leadership. As Pastor Maggie approaches a new season in her ministry, the strength of her grandmother encourages her to lead well, knowing she is not alone in the work.
Pastor Maggie serves as the kids’ and online pastor at Mosaic Midtown Church, Detroit, Michigan, and as the online and kids’ pastor at The Mix Church in Lansing, Michigan. She is preparing for ordination in The Wesleyan Church this fall. Reflecting on her ordination preparations during which she has examined her leadership and personhood in Christ, Pastor Maggie said, “Ordination isn’t a box to check, it’s an affirmation of what God has called me to do.”
The 160th year anniversary of Pastor Mary’s ordination and the celebration of the opportunity for women throughout the world to be ordained in The Wesleyan Church offers a reminder and an invitation to continue being strong allies of all people called by God, standing with them and creating space for them to explore what God is saying to them.
Pastor Maggie put the response to God’s invitation to ministry this way, “The healthiest churches have space for men and women to work side-by-side together.” Noting The Wesleyan Church’s affirmation of women in ministry, supporting women’s ministerial positions at every level in the church must occur, creating space and standing for them to fulfill God’s call on their lives.
During the 1996 General Conference, a Wesleyan Church Statement on Social Issues said, “We will not tolerate the blocking of a person’s ordination due to his or her gender, for we believe that both men and women are called to the ministry and thus should be ordained.”
The kingdom of God is made up of a multitude of people. This side of eternity, the church must recognize their siblings in Christ and uplift them, affirming their callings, and living up to the Wesleyan heritage to equip and empower the marginalized.
The Wesleyan Church leads with the Bible in affirmation of women in ministry. From Deborah in the book of Judges, to the Marys referenced in the gospels, to Junia and Phoebe who labored alongside the apostle Paul, women in ministry and leadership are part of our faith heritage. In the ways Christ uplifted and listened to women so, too, must his followers continue in his pattern.
Take a moment to recognize the women you know who serve in some ministerial capacity. Doing so honors Pastor Mary’s legacy and all those who have come after her. Whether ordained, licensed, a ministerial student or serving in a lay position, honor and partner with them for God’s glory and the expansion of his kingdom.
*E2022, a biennial conference designed to connect women in ministry as they continue to explore and pursue their calls to ministry, is being hosted by the Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy in March 2022. The conference, scheduled in Grapevine, Texas, will include Spanish translations of keynote speakers and workshops.