Reflection By: The Rev. Deacon Mary Beth Emerson
My childhood exposure to women and leadership roles in the church was a mixed bag: many of the Roman Catholic nuns who were my teachers were kind, faithful, intelligent and strong. Some were not; and the only women and girls participating in any kind of worship leadership were choir members and junior members of the Altar Guild. Church leadership was fairly male-dominant, with admission to parochial “societies” open to women. While I appreciate the spiritual and catechetical grounding of my childhood church, it became clear that other structures might feed a budding religious feminism.
Well into my 20’s, I realized that I’d been away from church for some time. The slings and arrows of young adulthood had contributed to my feeling quite rejected by God, but I somehow missed church. I began to find community and healing in the Al Anon meetings I attended at the suggestion of family therapists. Held in church basements, they felt more like church than anything I’d been a part of before. So, I began church shopping in earnest in my early 30’s.
St. Clement’s in Alexandria was a good distance from my home at the time, but I’d heard that a woman priest was the rector. Episcopal liturgy was soothingly familiar, but I was shocked into intense interest as a woman priest processed to the altar with the rest of her party. Her sermon was eloquent, inspiring, and as I received Communion from her hand, something in me changed. That something continues to change. Our church continues to change.
Very interested in learning more about a church that valued women’s leadership, I sought and found a church home for myself and my family near our home in Arlington, and began serving in multiple lay leadership positions alongside strong and faithful lay, and eventually ordained women (our parish was late in coming to that party, calling our first woman priest in 2003). A surprise detour on my journey, fully facilitated by the Holy Spirit came when I left secular employment to work as my parish’s Youth Minister. Further immersion into the Episcopal Church revealed deep wells of women’s leadership, friendship, support, courage and faithfulness. While we all have more work to do in leveling our playing fields and obliterating our glass ceilings, I’ve always felt upheld and celebrated for exactly who I am in our church.
With encouragement from female and male colleagues, I entered a decade-long (yes) discernment process. Ordained to the Vocational Diaconate in 2011, I aspire, with God’s help, to help raise up more female and male leaders, greatly enjoying the company of so many sisters in church leadership. With an intent to practice and model servant leadership, I find myself immersed in helping equip the saints for their ministry, in opening doors and in encouraging what could be. Quite the adventure, and it continues.