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A letter from Sarah Henken, regional liaison for the Andean Region, in Bolivia

December 2011

“We shouldn’t be stepping on each other’s skirts.”

“We need to help and encourage one another in using our God-given gifts.”

three women

Sarah presents at a panel on women's participation in the church, La Paz, Bolivia.

These statements sparked lively conversation at an ecumenical panel on “Rethinking our [women’s] participation in the church.” Women’s leadership in the church is relatively new here in Bolivia and continues to face significant obstacles and resistance. I was privileged to sit alongside Bolivian women who are leaders in Pentecostal, Lutheran, and Methodist churches and share our hopes and struggles together.

That panel filled me with energy and hopefulness. Something that Pastora Yolanda said really spoke to me: “We hear a lot about what I [as a woman in the church] can’t do. But what can I do?”

All who were present shared stories of faithful service and struggle, and it was deeply moving and energizing to be in that space together with other women who are passionate about their participation in the church. The invitation provided an opportunity for me to reflect on my own experience as a woman in the church, what I have seen and learned in the church in different places. I came away with a new sense of the importance of sharing space together, and having role models.

As a child, I grew up in a lovely Presbyterian congregation that nurtured and molded and encouraged me in the faith. But I didn’t know any women pastors, and I didn’t fully realize they existed. It’s not that anyone told me women couldn’t be pastors, I simply had no introduction to that possibility. It wasn’t until I was in high school and my father took a job as choir director at another congregation that I got to know a woman minister up close, Rev. Janet Winslow. Something about seeing Pastor Janet’s leadership and preaching turned on a light bulb in the back of my mind, and I perceived a call to serve as deacon. Shortly afterward, when I started at Occidental College, I met another role model in ministry, Rev. Anne Cohen, who was the director of the campus interfaith center. By the time I graduated, I felt a call to pursue pastoral ministry.

A few years down the road, while I was in seminary, I got involved with the Colombia Accompaniment Program and found myself forming friendships with strong women in the Colombian church, both pastors and lay leaders. I also met Rev. Alice Winters, a longtime Presbyterian mission worker in Colombia. Alice’s witness and dedication encouraged me to listen to the pull I felt toward mission service.

It was startling for me to come to Bolivia and experience a very different culture of women in the church. Here women’s ordination is a much newer idea, accepted in some of the Protestant churches but not all. Even in the churches that affirm women’s ordination, there continue to be very few women pastors. In the Independent Presbyterian Church in Bolivia women’s ordination is clearly endorsed in the statutes, but it is a tiny denomination and at present there are several women elders but not pastors.

I am the first woman pastor that many of the members of the church and Bolivian society have ever met, and it’s a peculiar position to be in. On the one hand, I’m grateful to be able to offer my own life and vocation as a witness to the fact that women are called and affirmed in pastoral ministry. On the other hand, it can feel like a burden, constantly answering questions and facing confused looks, doing my best to respond with love and the right balance of humility and authority to the resistance that is sometimes expressed, whether overtly or more subtly.

At times I worry about the effect my example will have. As a misionera from the United States I am invested with a position of power and privilege in the local churches, and even though I am a woman my voice is not easily ignored. I do not want to abuse that power to impose my perspective or the PC(USA)’s practices, but at the same time I recognize a sacred opportunity to bear witness. Will I encourage women to follow their own sense of call and show both men and women in the church that we too can be called to preach and teach? Will I somehow offend the church leaders and cause them to question the validity or wisdom of welcoming women as pastors?

When I get wrapped up in those worries, I turn to call stories in the Bible and support from my peers and mentors. I remind myself, too, that I am not ultimately responsible for the response of others. In preaching, my job is to diligently and prayerfully prepare a sermon and trust in the working of the Holy Spirit as it is preached. So too my role here is to faithfully and lovingly offer myself to this community where I have been sent, and trust that the Holy Spirit is at work among us. With the apostle Paul I say, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been in vain” (1 Cor. 15:10a).

As Hermana Justina, coordinator of the Methodist Women’s Federation, said at the panel, “It’s wonderful to feel called by God and affirmed by community.” I give thanks for community here in Bolivia that welcomes me in spite of differences and questions. I give thanks, too, for the global community of the church that I have met in Uruguay and Argentina, Chicago and Los Angeles, Colombia and many other places, women and men who serve faithfully and help shape my response to God’s call.

My prayer this Advent is that all of us, men and women, old and young, will be awakened to the new things God is doing in our midst and blessed with the wisdom and the courage to support one another in discerning our calls and using our gifts to the glory of God.

In hope, peace, joy, and love,

Sarah

The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 280
The 2012 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 2

Blog: Andean Journey

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