Reinventing Episcopal Church Women

Speech delivered to Atlantic District ECW (Diocese of New Jersey), September 8, 2009

The Mission statement for the 2006 – 2009 Episcopal Church Women National Board is “centered in congregations, the Episcopal Church Women (ECW) empowers women to do Christ’s ministry in the world.” Since 1871, women of the Episcopal Church have been organizing what were once known as Women’s Auxiliaries and later became local chapters of Episcopal Church Women. From its very beginnings, the ECW has been noted for their fundraising – both for their local congregations and also for the greater community and the world through the formation of the United Thank Offering.

For many decades, the Women’s Auxiliary or ECW were the only way in which women could readily participate in “real mission” and “real ministry” within the church. However, in the mid-to late-60s women began to be ordained as deacons (although they were not officially recognized by the national church as deacons until 1970). Then, in 1976, the church officially began to recognize the ordination of women to the priesthood – including the “so-called” irregular ordinations of 11 women in Philadelphia and others in Palo Alto. It would be another 13 years until Barbara Harris was elected as the first female bishop in 1989. As I was verifying these dates, I found this interesting tidbit:

“The General Convention reaffirmed in 1994 that both men and women may enter into the ordination process, but also recognized that there is value to the theological position of those who oppose women's ordination. It was not until 1997 that the GC declared that ‘the ordination, licensing and deployment of women are mandatory.’”

1997! - fully 21 years after the national church allowed for women’s ordination to the priesthood! Our church can be painfully slow sometimes, can’t it?! And, of course, we all can remember just 3 years ago when Katharine Jefferts Schori became the first woman to serve as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and the only national leader of a church in the Anglican Communion who is a woman. At the time her election was announced I was serving as curate at Church of the Transfiguration in Palos Park, Illinois. And the Rector, Fr. Lane Hensley and I, put up a huge banner declaring, “It’s a girl!” decorated it with pink and white balloons and posed for a picture that we hoped would be picked up by the local media. It was not. But it didn’t matter because the glass ceiling for women seeking ordination had finally been shattered – at least in the United States.

But what does all of this have to do with the ECW? I think that as soon as other alternatives to ministry became available to women – whether that was through ordination, or through positions in local congregations as wardens and vestry members, the ECW was no longer the only work for women in the church. For a while, the impact was not felt, but I suspect most of your congregations have ECW groups that are facing one or more of the following struggles:

  • Difficulty finding enough volunteers to staff all of the programs and projects you’ve always run
  • Difficulty recruiting new members and/or young members of your congregations to see the value of being an active participant in ECW
  • Difficulty raising the money you once raised through bake sales, church bazaars, and dinners
  • Difficulty keeping your chin up and your energy and enthusiasm to keep on going on

And here is the bad news: continuing to do the same thing the same way year after year after year when the context is no longer the same will only result in more of the same difficulties, frustrations, and disappointments. But there is good news as well. That good news can be found in the words of the Mission Statement for 2006 – 2009: “Centered in congregations, the Episcopal Church Women (ECW) empowers women to do Christ’s ministry in the world.” Your mission has not changed – but the context has. Women and girls today have so many opportunities, so many choices and so few Christian role models to guide them.

Our baptismal covenant calls us to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” How does your local ECW live out this call? Do you incorporate Bible study and prayer into your regular meetings or does it easily get pushed aside so that you can have a shorter meeting focused on the important matters of the next fund raising event? Do you invite a clergy person to your meetings occasionally to celebrate the Eucharist with you? Have you shared your spiritual journeys with one another – either formally or informally?

Our baptismal covenant calls us to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” Does your local ECW actively seek out the “others” in your congregation – let alone in your neighborhood? When you are planning your next event, do you have a phone list of church women that you divide among your members to ensure that all women are personally invited to participate or do you just assume that they’ll read the announcement in the church bulletin or newsletter or hear your announcement in church and know that you actually mean them?

Our baptismal covenant calls us to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” What injustices do you see in your local community or county? What can your ECW do to get involved? How can you be a voice of justice and peace?

Women and girls today desperately need role models. Having a female presiding bishop is an amazing thing and for those girls who even know what that means, it may be inspirational. But, for the most part, you are the women that people know. You are the women that other girls and women see in the supermarkets, in the workplace, at school board meetings, at the library, at coffee shops, and in the pews at church. You have an incredible and an amazing opportunity to be the hope in some young girl or woman’s future. You have the ability to be an inspiration, to make a difference . . . because you are empowered to do Christ’s ministry in the world. The Episcopal Church Women “centered in congregations. . . empowers women – each and every one of us – to do Christ’s ministry in the world.”

There are ECWs that are thriving, that are growing, and that continue to make a tremendous difference in the lives of women and girls. They are groups of women who realize that the next church dinner can be a parish-wide event because they can no longer run it alone – nor do they need to run it alone. They are groups of women who realize that with so many options available to young girls and young women, that unless the ECW is doing and offering something that is very different and very powerful in their lives, these girls and women will seek opportunities elsewhere. ECWs are thriving when they are connected to the emotional hurts and hopes of their communities and are working together to find new ways to heal the hurts and celebrate and encourage the hopes. There are, for example, ECWs that actively lobby their representatives at the local, state and national level to ensure that gun control laws keep guns out of the hands of school age children; there are ECWs that become actively engaged in community drug resistance and education campaigns; there are ECWs that sponsor local food pantries not only with monetary donations, but with their time and energy. There are as many ways for ECWs to be thriving and relevant communities of faith for young girls and women today as there are needs in our local communities.

You are those ECWs, you are those women, and I am confident that with God’s help you can continue to be the strong, thriving organization you have been since 1871 when the Emery sisters formed the first Women’s Auxiliary. The Episcopal Church Women are “centered in congregations and are empowered to do Christ’s ministry in the world.”


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