Honoring our Foremothers

Address by Fran Burnford

March 10, 2010

President Anderson, PLTS family and friends and guests, I am deeply honored to be invited here today because as long as I can remember I have been aware that there have been many women and men of all ages, both in the church and in society, who accompanied and encouraged and helped me, as a woman, toward full participation in church and in society. It just never occurred to me that one day I might be identified as one to be honored as a foremother that paved the way for others.

The honor, of course is magnified in that I share it with three women who have been inspirations for me on my spiritual journey.

But then, I recalled that shortly after my 80th birthday, two years ago, my youngest grandson, Matthew, in introducing me to a friend of his, said, “This is my grandma Fran. She is an ancient—and she knows a whole bunch of stuff.”

So to begin my remarks I will share with you a little sample of the stuff that, as an ancient, I know and that I think relate to today’s theme.

I know that by God’s grace humankind was created to be in community. To love and respect, to hold accountable and support , to encourage and feel compassion for, to enjoy one another’s companionship and share times of pain and loss, doubt and fear, as well as joy and laughter and all that is part of our human condition.

I know that by God’s grace, in our baptism we are marked with the cross of Christ forever, we are claimed, gathered and sent as servant leaders into the world in Jesus Name.

I also know that by God’s grace in the gathering of God’s people around Word and Sacrament, we are nourished and blessed, prepared and equipped for service in the world. It was 57 years ago at age 25 that I first became a Lutheran, having until that time grown up in the Southern Baptist tradition. For me my first contact with a Lutheran Congregation was love at first sight, and through all these years the love affair never dimmed. Among the things which captured and held me were the Lutheran understanding of God’s amazing grace, Lutheran worship life and Lutheran Social Teachings.

In 1954 full participation of women in Church and Society in the Lutheran Church had a long, long ways to go. I recall that in that first Lutheran parish there were very clear rules regarding what women and girls could or could not do in service to the church. Women could teach in Sunday School but not be Superintendent of Sunday School. Women could sing in the choir but not be the choir director. We could serve on, but not chair a committee, and of course, we could not serve on the congregation council. We could hold office in the Women’s Organization, if approved for the position by the pastor. The idea of a woman pastor? It wasn’t even thinkable that a woman might go to seminary let alone be ordained and called to serve as a pastor in a congregation. Within a year though of my becoming a member of the congregation I was the first woman elected to serve on the congregation council. My first Lutheran Pastor, Adolph Kloth, told me that he believed I was destined to one day become a leader, perhaps in the church, perhaps in society, but that he felt it was important that I prepare myself in every way I could and be ready to walk through doors that would open before me. He said this must sound very strange to a young woman with four little children, two of whom were still infants.

At this same time in the larger society the Women’s liberation movement was gaining momentum and women were moving into more and more professional leadership roles. Society was well ahead of the church in terms of full participation of women, and the voices of many women and men in the church began calling for the breaking down of barriers that prevented women’s full participation. 40 years ago I had the privilege of being one of two women serving on the National Council of the American Lutheran Church when the Council, and then the Assembly, voted yes, to the ordination of women. It was an action of pure celebration. How na├»ve and inexperienced I was in thinking that an official approval of Women’s ordination would actually result in all ALC congregations considering calling a woman to fill a pastoral vacancy.

In our church in the 1960’s it wasn’t just ordained women who ran into a glass ceiling in terms of leadership positions. For example our colleges and seminaries were slow in offering opportunities for qualified women to serve in top leadership roles in administration and on faculties. Marge Wold and I were repeatedly invited to interview for positions that opened in ALC colleges and seminaries. At this time I was directing the Institute for Changing Ministries at the University of Southern California and Marge was involved in a variety of important ministries, but we agreed to participate in interviews just to help seed the ground for consideration of women in top leadership roles in our ALC Educational Institutions. These interviews resulted in invitations to serve as volunteers on various boards or committees of these Lutheran institutions, which we felt was an important opportunity to help chip away at the glass ceiling. It may be hard to imagine how it was in those early days. Frequently I found I was the only woman on a committee or board. Inclusive language was not even a working concept. I often felt invisible as the men on the committee would talk over, around, through me. This was so different from what I experienced in faculty meetings at the university. I felt I had stepped back in time. So many times I sat in a church related meeting wondering, “What the heck am I doing here?” But over the months and years more and more women were elected or appointed to leadership roles until women began to be a critical mass.

In the early 1970s I was the second woman in the American Lutheran Church to be called as an Assistant to a Synod Bishop. Accepting this position meant leaving the position at USC as Director of the Institute for Changing Ministries, but the door had opened and I strongly felt I was being called to a new area of service.

Several years later, at the time of the creation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I was called to serve as the Associate Executive Director of the Commission, later reorganized as the Division for Church in Society. I served in that position for a decade. In that division all of our waking moments were immersed in addressing a whole range of social issues, through development of Social Statements and Messages, Lutheran Social Services, Lutheran World Hunger, State and National Public Policy Advocacy.

Two years ago, on my 80th birthday, my own baptismal journey took an unexpected new path when I was called to serve as a Co-Director of the Immaculate Heart Community, which I had joined 22 years earlier because of my strong interest and involvement in ecumenical and interfaith projects. The Immaculate Heart Community is an ecumenical community of women and men. Some of our ministries include the Blythe Street Project, which helps to keep neighborhood children from becoming involved with gangs by offering a range of alternative programs and opportunities and by working with the parents through educational classes; the Alexandria House, which offers shelter, support and job training to mothers and their children in abusive domestic situations; Housing Works, which provides housing, employment opportunities and counseling to very low-income families; and a Retreat Center and Center for Spiritual Renewal in the Santa Barbara area, and several other ministries.

I seldom think about these past experiences I have shared today, but sometimes when I do I am very grateful for how far this church has come — even though there is still a long way to go. For example, I mentioned my first call as an Assistant to the Bishop in the early 1970’s. I was the only woman on the senior staff and all of my colleagues were white male pastors. Today at the Southwest California Synod Bishop Dean Nelson and the Synod Council have carefully assembled a senior staff that is equally divided between women and men, a staff that is very ethnically diverse and diverse in terms of lay and clergy. Won’t it be wonderful when at a future meeting like this we will be able to say, our church has met and surpassed all of our hopes for opening the way so that all of God’s people experience full access and full inclusion wherever they are called to serve.

In addition to several friends and colleagues who I appreciate so much being here to share this day, I want to acknowledge my two daughters who are present . They have loved, supported, and encouraged me throughout their entire lives, as have my two sons and my six grandsons. I quoted my grandson Matthew at the beginning of my comments. Another grandson, Eric, when he was a little boy, said to me one day, “Grandma, you are always working on a GOOD cause. But since you always want to be fair, won’t you have to work on a BAD cause some day?” Well, good for you, Eric. You have the equal opportunity issue well under your belt. Yes, Eric, in fact many of the justice issues Christians are called to address will be considered bad causes by plenty of folks and sometimes it will not be easy to stay the course.

Each day when I open my computer the first thing I read is this beautiful prayer from Matins.

“O God, you have called your servant to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Thanks be to God,
Thanks be to you.

Fran Burnford