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New book explores impact of ordination of Mennonite woman pastor

Mary E. Klassen

March 13, 2013

Emma Sommers Richards (right) is greeted by Frances Ringenberg, pastor of Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart. Frances told Emma,

Emma Sommers Richards (right) is greeted by Frances Ringenberg, pastor of Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart. Frances told Emma, "You are the first woman pastor I ever saw!"

By telling the story of the ordination of Emma Sommers Richards, a new book from the Institute of Mennonites Studies aims to show that “all church members will share in the benefits and blessings that God will shower on faithful Anabaptist Mennonite congregations.”

The impact of this first ordination of a Mennonite woman pastor is shared from a variety of perspectives in According to the grace given to her, just released by IMS at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Three editors, James E. Horsch, John D. Rempel and Eldon D. Nafziger, and nearly 20 contributors describe the influences and themes of Emma’s life that led to her ordination and reflect on what it meant in their lives and ministries.

The book begins with Miriam Book describing the setting of the call to women to serve in the Mennonite church. Then Elaine Sommers Rich, Emma’s sister, tells about influences in their family life; Arlene Mark tells about other early influences through education and church involvement; and Nancy V. Lee tells about the ministry of Emma and E. Joe Richards, her husband, as missionaries in Japan. Following each of these and the additional chapters are testimonials from pastors for whom Emma was a mentor or source of inspiration, including Dan Schrock, John Gray, Rachel Fisher, David Sutter and Janice Yordy Sutter.

Emma Richards was ordained in June 1973 by the Illinois Mennonite Conference at the request of Lombard Mennonite Church where she was serving on the pastoral team. “It was an ordination that marked a breakthrough in North American Mennonites’ understanding that the Holy Spirit calls forth both women and men,” Mary H. Schertz, director of IMS, said at a February 26 celebration of the book’s release.

Also at this celebration, Gayle Gerber Koontz, AMBS professor of theology and ethics, emphasized the significance of this ordination for the church. By 1987, a little more than a decade after Emma’s ordination, in the General Conference Mennonite Church there were 44 women licensed or ordained in ministry positions, an estimated ten percent of pastoral leadership. “In what we used to call the Old Mennonite Church, by 1986 about 32 women were serving as licensed or ordained pastors, copastors, associate or assistant pastors,” Gerber Koontz pointed out. “Two years later the number of women with credentials for pastoral ministry in the Old Mennonite Church jumped to 62. That decade after Emma was ordained was a huge shift.”

The editors in their preface to the book, say they hope “through the story of Emma’s call to ministry, all brothers and sisters in the church will see that Holy Spirit gifts given to women need to be encouraged for the well-being of the whole body of Christ.”

The book is available from Mennonite Cooperative Bookstore at AMBS, [email protected]; and from MennoMedia, www.MennoMedia.org/store.