PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — A Lifelong Calling

I always wanted to be a pastor.

For as long as I can remember, I knew what God had called me to be. When I was 3, I crafted stoles out of toilet paper and presided over Communion of Wonder Bread and grape juice. By 4, I had advanced to burying dead birds and other animals I found with a full funeral.

For Christmas, when I was 5, all I wanted was a King James Bible, which I used to write my first sermon, on the Prodigal Son, when I was 6. My mother, for reasons that I feel can only be divine, saved a church bulletin on which I drew when I was in kindergarten, with me in the pulpit. It was on the back of the bulletin cover when I was ordained.

Yet, during these early formative years, my dream, my very certain sense of call, could not have been a reality. My church body didn’t ordain women. Fortunately, no one ever told me that, so I never really understood that girls couldn’t be pastors. Because I knew that couldn’t be true. I mean, I was a girl. And I KNEW God wanted me to be a pastor.

Oh, it expanded and changed at times — like when I wanted to be the team chaplain for the Minnesota Twins, or at one time a medical missionary. But all of the drawings I did of what I wanted to be included a Bible somewhere in it, and a thank-you note I wrote to my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Haugen, which she sent to me when I was ordained, was signed “The Future Rev. Paula V. Mehmel.”

Thankfully, 50 years ago today, June 29, 1970, at its biannual Convention, the Lutheran Church in America changed its bylaws from “man” to “person,” setting the stage for the ordination of women. Those people in attendance that day opened up the floodgate so that women who knew their true calling would not be stymied. They allowed call to be defined by the Holy Spirit, not by men. (And yes, I deliberately used that word.) Well, mostly. It tragically took another 40 years before ALL people were welcomed, regardless of their sexual orientation or identity.

Growing up, I only ever recall seeing one female pastor. Ironically, she was an Episcopalian priest, Jeanette Pickard, who was in Willmar, Minn., my home town. My parents took me to hear her speak. She was the first woman ordained, “irregularly,” by the Episcopal Church, and when the Episcopalians officially approved ordaining women, she served a call in St. Paul.  I recall that I wanted to stay after and talk to her, but my father was in a hurry and wanted to leave. My parents had their only argument I ever witnessed growing up, when my Mom became angry that Dad hadn’t waited to let me speak to her.

But the thing is, the lack of role models never impacted me. In addition to parents, who only nurtured my faith, I was fortunate to grow up in a congregation that fully embraced me, and my rather strong sense of call, from the get go. Sunday School teachers would send me to the pastors with questions they couldn’t answer. The pastors didn’t just humor me, they engaged and encouraged me. My role models for ministry at my church were not women, but Paul Dumke, Norm Berg and Tom Carlson, who never blanched at my enthusiasm and truly encouraged me every step of the way.

When I completed what was supposed to be a three-year, self-guided  confirmation curriculum that was all the rage in the mid-1970s in three months, they allowed me to do independent study while I waited for my classmates to finish. I did things like research whether John the Baptist was really Elijah, and they would take time to discuss that with me.

I  was allowed to preach, to serve on committees and to be a fully invested member of the congregation. They brought me to the Synod Assemblies to be a page, nominated me to attend conferences, like the life-changing one I attended on World Hunger in Omaha when I was 15, and actively engaged me in every aspect of the life of the church.

As I think back to that day, 50 years ago, I am so grateful that the ELCA’s predecessor body, the LCA, chose to be prophetic and bold in their embrace of the the Spirit of Pentecost, where it is written, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:17)

I never knew I couldn’t be a pastor because that is what I was. And today, I find myself thanking God for all of those women who fought for equality and dealt with the challenges in the early years, whose journey to ordination was not as universally supported as mine was.

I am especially grateful today for my first  role models in ministry, Phyllis Anderson and Nancy Hess, as well as my dear colleague, Elizabeth Krentz-Wee, with whom I currently serve. They were all among the first women to be ordained and paved the way to where we are today. Fifty years ago today, it would have been hard to imagine one female pastor in a congregation, let alone a team. I also rejoice in so many wonderful female friends and colleagues who have taught me so much along the way.

I won’t lie. It hasn’t always been easy. Even though I was in the second wave of female pastors —  I believe I was the 742nd woman ordained in the ELCA and predecessor bodies — I dealt with explicit and implicit bias over the years, especially when I became a senior pastor for the first time when I was 29. Young, strong and female is a tough combination.

But today, I don’t want to focus on that. Instead, I want to rejoice in a God who calls us to be who we are and equips us to do what we are called to do. And in a people, who don’t get so caught up in their agenda or having all the answers to the questions before forging ahead in faith, that they are willing to take action in the face of uncertainty. I am grateful for the people that day who were willing to step aside and let the Holy Spirit loose in the church.

As we face changing times in the church today, I think it is good to be reminded of the boldness of the attendees at the LCA Convention 50 years ago today. They didn’t know fully what it meant to ordain women or where that decision would lead. But they did it boldly and with faith in God. Today, we, too, are filled with uncertainties and questions for which we don’t have the answers, as our world transforms around us. But when we trust the Holy Spirit and are led by God, we truly will continue to see visions and dream dreams.

Prayer: O God who calls us to be who you created us to be, help us each embrace the fullness of your Spirit and walk by faith. Thank you for the bold trust the LCA Convention placed in you when it voted to allow women to be ordained. Help us also to place that same bold trust in you as we follow where you lead in a future full of uncertainty but surrounded by your grace. In the name of the Risen Lord we pray. Amen.

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