For Our Sisters . . . An Apology and A Salute
As do many schools in one regard or another, we of Gettysburg Seminary pride ourselves on a number of “firsts” in our history. The Seminary Ridge Museum features the illustrious history of first African American student, Daniel Alexander Payne, about whom a wonderful biography was written by Professor Emeritus Nelson Strobert. We believe that Dr. Bertha Paulssen was the first woman tenured in a North American Lutheran seminary, and point with pride to the Rev. Elizabeth Platz, an alumna, first woman ordained by a Lutheran church in this country. Another pioneer was emerita professor Dr. Norma Wood, first female Dean of the Seminary as well as the first non-ordained person to hold that office. This Seminary’s board elected a woman, Ms. Leslie Hobbs, as its chair far earlier than many governing groups crossed that threshold.
While we may appropriately point with pride to our progressiveness in embracing these “firsts,” a more balanced assessment of our institutional history must acknowledge some less hospitable eras as well. Some of those rise to the level that in this Women’s History month, and while I remain the incumbent in the President’s Office for a few more weeks, I want to offer an institutional apology to sisters who experienced poor treatment or even outright rejection in our midst. Before Gettysburg Seminary concludes its nineteen-decade history to become with Philadelphia the United Lutheran Seminary, I want to say to sisters who were wounded or unwelcomed at any point along the way, “You should not have been treated as you were. While we can’t undo what has happened, we are sorry and hope you’ll help us move forward as a place of hospitality for all.”
One alumna tells the story of having smoke blown in her face by a (now long-deceased) professor who, looking straight at her and the other female students, started his lecture saying, “Gentlemen, let us begin . . .” Now a retired and revered pastor, this brave sister kept coming to class! Another among those joining Pastor Platz in the first generation of women ordinands reports how her first day on campus a male fellow student wearing clerics got in her face and fairly shouted, “You don’t belong here. You should just go back home.” She didn’t, and today is also among those who pastored faithfully and honorably for decades. Among the saddest tales told me years ago shortly after becoming president was one by a faculty member at another seminary. While visiting Gettysburg as a prospective student, she was told by a Seminary official that while he would warmly welcome her, others would place obstacles in her way due to her gender. Rather than go on to say, “But we’ll do everything to make this as good an experience for you as possible,” the apparent response was, “I think you’d be happier at another seminary.” While not without its own challenges, her days at the other school were satisfying enough that years later she returned there to teach! Their gain was surely our loss.
On March 8th, International Women’s Day, we were delighted in chapel by the appearance of a goodly number of our women students in clerical garb—not typical attire for seminarians at a weekday service! It was a powerful visual reminder of the gifts our church embraced, now almost fifty years ago, when the doors to public ministry were opened to our sisters. As I look back on my own four decades of ordained service, so many of my most treasured colleagues in ministry have been those hailed in our worship book’s hymn 419, “For all the Faithful Women.”
In parish, synodical and churchwide ministries I have been blessed by a long list of male and female colleagues, both rostered and lay leaders. In my years at the Seminary, all three deans have been women of extraordinary gifts and competence, as have a significant portion of the faculty, and a majority of our staff. It has been an incredible privilege working alongside all those who have lived out their vocational callings here on our watch.
Undoubtedly, there are ways in which we have yet to achieve full inclusion devoid of systemic sexism and institutional racism. With God’s help, we’ll continue along the journey toward that more perfect Christian community envisioned by St. Paul in Galatians, “where all are one in Christ.”