Women and the Ministries of Christ Conference: Introduction
The 1978 Evangelical Women’s Caucus (EWC) national conference, the organization’s second, was held June 14-16, 1978, on the Fuller Theological Seminary campus in Pasadena, California.
Conference coordinators were Phyllis Hart, Roberta Hestenes, Elizabeth Nordquist, Libbie Patterson, and Al Jepson. Attendance was approximately 1000.
At that time the organization was finalizing the steps to become a federally recognized religious nonprofit corporation. Many local EWC chapters had sprung up around the United States since the first conference (1975 in Washington, D.C.). These groups had been meeting regularly and offering educational and spiritual programs for members and the public. A need was felt to solidify a national presence to support the chapters and more broadly advocate for biblical feminism. This was especially important as the 1979 ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) ratification deadline was fast approaching. Ratification had stalled out three states short of the 38 needed.
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Behind the Scenes at EWC’s 1978 Conference
by Anne Linstatter
There are some interesting back stories to the second national conference of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (EWC), the group that became today’s Christian Feminism Today. Co-sponsored by EWC and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, the 1978 convention attracted 900 attendees and was a turning point in many women’s lives.
Coordinating the event were Roberta Hestenes, an instructor and administrator at Fuller; Elizabeth Nordquist, president of EWC’s Southwest Chapter; Phyllis Hart, assistant professor of psychology at Fuller, and Elizabeth Patterson, coordinator of the new Office of Women’s Concerns at Fuller. Each could tell her own very different story of the planning and the conference’s unexpected moments.
“Women and the Ministries of Christ” was the theme addressed in plenary speeches, twelve study groups, and 95 workshops at a time when most Christians thought that only men could be pastors.
Roberta Hestenes went on to become the first tenured woman faculty member in theology at Fuller and pastored a church of 2,000 members. Elizabeth Nordquist became a pastor, spiritual director, and professor of Christian spirituality. Elizabeth Patterson became a professor of higher education and an accreditation reviewer for various seminaries.
Phyllis Hart left Fuller a few years after the conference “in part because she doesn’t consider homosexuality abnormal,” reported the LA Times in 1993 in a profile of her friend Mel White, written when he came out as gay. For several years, they had both been faculty members at Fuller. She moved to Lake Elsinore, California, where she continued to provide psychological counseling and co-pastored a church with her husband.
An odd coincidence added an electric undercurrent to the 1978 conference. Several years earlier, Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott had begun to write a book on social issues of concern to Christians. Discovering that abortion, euthanasia, pornography, and other issues couldn’t all fit in one book, they had decided to narrow their focus to just one issue: Christian attitudes toward homosexuality.
By the time they had researched and written the book, and found a publisher, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? Another Christian View came out in May of 1978—just a month before EWC’s 1978 national gathering.
The conference planners, however, were already taking a risk by hosting a feminist event for evangelical Christians. To many conservative Christians, it seemed that feminism was a secular movement now invading the church.
In the 1970s, right-wing radio hosts were claiming that all feminists were lesbians and that all lesbians were man-haters. Some Christians listened to them rather than studying church history to find ordained women among the earliest Jesus followers and other Christian women claiming equality in the church for centuries. For examples, look at Hildegard von Bingen, Susannah Wesley, and Katharine Bushnell.
In fact, Christian feminists preceded and led the nineteenth-century women’s movement for equality. Consider the Grimke sisters of South Carolina, who worked for racial and gender equality, or Frances Willard, a suffragist, college president, and president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
But still the twentieth-century myth persisted that Bible-believing Christians should not allow women to preach or teach, much less accept gay and lesbian people as full human beings with civil rights.
It was not good timing for two leaders of EWC, to come out with a pro-gay book. Some in Pasadena suspected they had planned for their book’s release to coincide with the conference, but, in reality, Harper & Row was following its own calendar.
Virginia and Letha had a high profile at the conference even before those attending learned about their new book. Each of them had already written several books, and each had been a major speaker at EWC’s first conference in 1975. Virginia’s Women, Men, and the Bible (1977) had proven that Scripture supports full equality for women. Letha had co-authored with Nancy Hardesty the book that started second-wave feminism among evangelical Christians, All We’re Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation (1974).
In 1978, they gave two of the five major speeches at the conference. Virginia’s was on “Christian Women and Discipleship.” On the last day of the gathering, Letha addressed those interested in EWC’s future with a talk titled “Marching On.”
Together, they presented a workshop for dialogue and discussion of their book, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? Needless to say, the room was packed. Virginia gave another workshop titled “Total Humanity or Total Womanhood?” about transcending male-female societal stereotypes. Letha’s second workshop was to help mothers guide their children’s understanding of the physiological and moral dimensions of sex.
As they led discussions and ate meals with women who wanted to meet them, Letha and Virginia noticed coolness on the part of some who were present. After all, many held jobs in evangelical schools, colleges, and organizations; for some, their travel expenses had been paid by their employer or their church. These women knew they might face blowback for attending a feminist convention that now looked tinged with lavender. They could even lose their jobs.
Those who were planning “EWC Action Day” on the final morning also were concerned. The Albany chapter of EWC had spent months writing legal documents for the group, including bylaws. Would the organization even get off the ground given the controversial positions two of its leaders were taking?
“You can imagine the feelings we had, knowing they were angry at us,” recalled Letha.
By the grace of God and the skillful gavel of Ruth Schmidt, moderator of the business meeting, a majority of those present voted to adopt the proposed bylaws, and EWC became a legally recognized 501c.3. Donations to the four-year-old organization were now tax-deductible!
Letha and Virginia’s tour of California was just beginning, however. Just three days later, the intrepid authors needed to be in San Francisco for a book-release luncheon planned by HarperSanFrancisco. The mayor and all members of the city’s Board of Supervisors had been invited, along with leaders of the gay community and of various churches.
Little did Letha and Virginia know that they would shake hands with Supervisor Harvey Milk and that, five months later, he would become a martyr for the cause of LGBTQ+ civil rights.
© 2023 by Anne Linstatter and Christian Feminism Today. Please request written permission before reprinting any part of this piece.
1978 Pasadena EWC Conference Reflection
by Nancy Hardesy
It has seemed a long three years since that historic Thanksgiving Evangelical Women’s Caucus in Washington, D.C. Yet the Spirit is still at work in our midst. This was evident in Pasadena, California in mid-June when about 900 women and a handful of men met for a conference on “Women and the Ministries of Christ.”
Representatives of the sponsoring organizations, Roberta Hestenes, faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Liz Nordquist, president of the Southwestern Chapter of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus, put together a diverse program utilizing a leadership team of nearly 90.
Those present studied 2 Corinthians 4-6 together, confronted the Lordship of Jesus, grappled with the church’s mission around the world and in our own urban ghettos, and explored several workshop subjects from among the 95 options from Wednesday night through Friday evening.
On Saturday morning, inspired by Letha Scanzoni’s recounting of the past history of EWC and a vision for its future, about 150 remaining participants passed a statement of faith, constitution, and by-laws for a national organization. The Spirit’s guidance and the presence of Lady Wisdom were especially evident as the group harmoniously revised and passed paragraph after paragraph to complete their work within two hours.
The new constitution provides for both chapter development—chapters are already active in Minneapolis, Boston, Washington, D.C., Albany, San Francisco, Detroit, Newark, and Los Angeles —and for individual national memberships. Those who submit dues of $10 for regular members or $5 for students and low income persons to the national office (P.O. Box 64582, Los Angeles 90064) by October 1 will be considered charter members. Copies of the documents will be sent to those already on the EWC mailing list; others may obtain a copy by sending a stamped, self-addressed, legal-sized envelope to the national office.
The impressively efficient organizing committee worked for more than a year to draw together such people as Becky Manley Pippert, InterVarsity evangelist who gave the keynote message; Eva Den Hartog, Dutch missionary and former Salvation Army Major who spoke during Thursday night’s “Liturgy of Liberation;” Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, who preached powerfully at Friday night’s Celebration; Rosalind Rinker, who gave a workshop on prayer; Marilyn Kunz and Catherine Schell, co-founders of Neighborhood Bible Studies; Martha Edens, general director of Church Women United, who spoke on Thursday night of the dangers of prepared formulas for infants marketed in the third world; and Sharon Gallagher, editor of Radix who gave a workshop on “Women and the Nuclear Arms Race.”
The culminating celebration included liturgical dance, distribution of daisies, guided and free meditation, poetry and Scripture, footwashing, and finally communion presided over by eight of the dozen or so ordained women present from such denominations as United Presbyterian, United Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Assemblies of God, and the Evangelical Church Alliance.
The issues of ministry for all women seeking to use their God-given gifts were raised most pointedly in Hestenes’ morning Bible studies. She spoke both of the obstacles raised by the evangelical church and also those we as women create for ourselves. She warned the church that it must not abandon mission to the 50% of women who now work outside the home. She decried the reactions of some church groups which, in response to the secular women’s movement, are even denying women ministries they have traditionally exercised such as older women teaching younger. She also spoke of the church’s demand for “super-women.”
For hundreds of women, the conference was an experience they will never forget. Both the leadership and the-participants represented much variety in some aspects. They came from dozens of denominations and more than 30 states.
Yet to those sensitized to oppression of class and race as well as sex, the absence of poor and minority women was obvious. The leadership team of 90 had mere token representation of minority groups. Only a smattering of black and third world sisters attended. Even those white women concerned about simple living felt out of place among the latest middle and upper-middle class fashions.
As the Spirit continues to bring liberation, future conferences hopefully will include a greater spectrum of the world’s women.
© 1978 by the Evangelical Women’s Caucus
Women and the Ministries of Christ: The 1978 Evangelical Women’s Caucus National Conference
By Diane R. Jepsen
“Welcome, daughters of Abigail, Sarah, Hannah, daughters of Huldah, Mary, Priscilla.”
So we began: Women and the Ministries of Christ, the conference cosponsored by the Evangelical Women’s Caucus and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, 14-16 June, 1978. The ballroom was 800 full. Song leader Betty Jo McPhee and Kathy Call, pianist, set the pace for dynamic, energized singing. “Shall We Learn to Be Friends,” a Ken Medema song was to become a conference hallmark.
Information-gathering was a valuable part of the conference, as was sharing in small groups, in conversations. Women talked of the relief of being with other women who are serving and trying to deliberately follow Jesus Christ. Many finally were able to share agonies that people in their lives at home did not understand—service denied, few opportunities to grow, trying to be Superwoman and still survive, husbands who laughed or left, loneliness after a divorce, getting old and less valued. Many women came from evangelical and/or fundamentalist homes and many were currently in evangelical churches where they were considered renegade and “liberal” at best. Often conversations were about the pain of being excluded from being fully human and being confined to boxes they didn’t fit. Others saw hope for their daughters and sons, nieces and nephews, that someday the church would not just permit but en-courage each, male and female, to develop as needed.
That was the tension, the high wire of the days—pain, defeat, a sense of death at the past and present, and hope and expectancy for the future. Realism fraught with hope, some call it.
Mornings, Roberta Hestenes, co-chair of conference program committee and head of Ministry Division of the School of Theology at Fuller, led the entire group in studying II Corinthians 4-6. In the passage Paul discusses how his ministry has not been well received and where he must defend his ministry. Hestenes was a refreshing teacher, noting the real barriers that keep women from fully answering the call God has given them.
Eleven study groups met three times during the conference focusing on a specific need—language, balancing priorities, family in changing world, the great commission, women as change agents. These were work sessions, with group members sharing insight, stories, exploring questions and dilemmas, brain-storming about solutions. Many study groups raised more questions in the search for wholeness. The study group on the great commission dealt specifically with problems women missionaries were experiencing in the field. The language and liturgy group signed a petition calling for a hymn-book publisher to remove from an up-coming edition, a page portraying the ideal man as strong, courageous, virile, but having no relationships in the home, no gentleness, no servanthood.
Choosing workshops was like deciding on an ice-cream flavor at Baskin-Robbins: three meeting times and only 90 workshops. The range covered most areas of struggle: relationships, sexuality, theology, social change, management of resources, decision making, emotions, living simply.
Evening sessions were long and packed with info and exhortation. Sometimes I began to experience sensory overload. They featured Becky Manley Pippert (IVCF Evangelism Consultant); a worship service about liberation with four witnesses, Arlene Matsuo (Asian-American Women’s Center), Margaret Wold (author, Shalom Woman, pastor of Lutheran pastors), VaCountess Johnson (pastor in Boston, involved with black evangelical movement), Martha Edens (director, Church Women United).
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, opening keynote speaker at Washington EWC Conference in 1975, closed the conference with her handling of the verse “We are not given a spirit of fear but of power, of love and of a sound mind.”
A celebration by Marilee Zdenek followed including violinists preceding women distributing daisies to the worshipers, special music, dancers, congregational singing and sharing the Lord’s Supper in groups of ten around the sanctuary. It was a worship service involving many senses through many media. Because we’d been going non-stop for days, seeking, hearing, praying, touching lives, we had little left to give. The special effects involved the performers more than the congregation.
As we shared the Lord’s death, in remembrance and in hope, we reflected on the preceding days of sharing God’s life within us.
Saturday morning was devoted to Evangelical Women’s Caucus organization. Letha Scanzoni spoke of the history of EWC—growing out the Evangelicals for Social Action meeting in 1974, the Washington conference, the start of chapters under the leadership and organizing of Evon Bachaus, EWC national staff person, the growth of the Southwest chapter and moving of national offices there. She urged those present, approximately 120, to press on, affirming the necessity for evangelical women to be active in changing the world and the church. Next on the agenda was the approval of the organization’s bylaws, the future structure of EWC National. Ruth Schmidt chaired the meeting with Evon Bachaus as parliamentarian.
Charter memberships in the national organization will be open until October at which time voting will take place for the five representatives-at-large to National Council. Chapters will each send one representative to the Council. Membership is $5.00.
1. Tapes of plenary sessions: order from Dept. H, Fuller Theological Seminary, 135 N. Oakland Ave, Pasadena, CA 91101.
2. Book of workshop and study group reviews: $6.45 postpaid, order from above address.
3. Ken Medema, Through the Eyes of Love, Word, 1977 c, Waco, TX $6.98.
4. Evangelical Women’s Caucus, P.O. Box 64582, Los Angeles, CA 90064.
5. Women and the Needy World: one woman show depicting through multi¬media presentation, the situations and needs of third world women. World Vision, Monrovia, CA.
6. Fuller Theological Seminary, 135 N. Oakland, Pasadena, CA 91101.
Diane R. Jepsen is fond of Yahtzee tournaments. She lists Nehemiah as her favorite book to study and has discovered she likes arithmetic.
Originally published on page 39 of Free Indeed magazine. Reprinted by permission.
[This is all the information we have, just the page number and the name of the magazine. Please contact us if you have information about the magazine, especially volume and issue number in which this piece was published.]
Following is a ‘letter to the editor’ published in the Summer 1978 issue of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus newsletter, sent in by Marsha Goetz, Sandy Gold, and Sandra Phelps following the 1978 Pasadena EWC conference. The Summer 1978 issue of the newsletter was sent to people on the EWC mailing just a little while after the conference. It gives a little glimpse into how the budding organization’s members felt after the second national conference.
Stage Three — Beyond Pasadena
Rejoice! We were there…and that is miracle enough. We sang… celebrating ourselves as a body and celebrating God as Creator, Lord and Savior. We appreciated the leadership of women who demonstrated creativity, strength, knowledge, comfort and vision.
With appreciation for our history, for Washington [1975, first EWC conference], for Pasadena [1978, second EWC conference] and for the years of growth the conferences represent to Christian feminists, we want to share with you a little of where we see our “growing edge” to be in the summer of 1978.
We see ourselves as —
- We have to be OK first before we can deal with the problems/change in the church/world. We know ourselves and we want to move beyond ourselves.
- one part of the church, responsible for the initiation of our gifts.
- breaking out of an hierarchical paradigm. We want to be fair in our relationships with others: people who work for us, people with different lifestyles, our children.
- entering an era where Christian feminism can be a natural state, a necessary part of discipleship. Our concerns, our growth, our strength as agents of change can reflect an expansion of ministry.
- in but not of the surrounding secular culture. Moving past the culture but still functioning within it is our struggle.
- wary of equality because of the other groups who historically have used equality as license to continue bad models. We see equality as opportunity to assimilate the discovery of our gifts and to move on in ministry.
- ..reaching for the Now in Christian life…awakening to the future for ourselves and others.
- making concrete decisions. We have seen the work and results of many who dared to dream…and put in the hard labor and risk. We see the opportunity for conscious choices, for moving past workshops and learning to act.
- Our current gifts are what we want to exercise knowing new gifts and ministries are coming.
- excited!! We hope to report to you the enactment of our decisions, not as plans but as realities. Sharing this letter with you is part of our way.
Important Documents Were Approved at the 1978 Business Meeting
A business meeting was held directly following the 1978 Pasadena conference, on Saturday, June 17. During the meeting some important documents were approved by the attending members. Read a bit more in Nancy Hardesty’s recap of the conference (here, paragraph four and five).
The original draft of the EWC bylaws had been created by a committee, and then sent to all members as an inclusion in a newsletter mailing. Members were encouraged to weigh in on the document and the bylaws were then edited to best represent the views expressed. The resulting document, the provisional bylaws, was presented and subsequently approved unanimously by the 100 people who attended the business meeting.
At the meeting there was much discussion about the associated organizational “Statement of Faith” and significant changes were made to that document during the meeting before the statement was adopted. Below you can read this first approved version of the EWC Statement of Faith. We include it here to illustrate how closely the original membership aligned themselves with the prevailing evangelical theology of the time.
Statement of Faith
We believe that God, the Creator and Ruler of all, has been self-revealed as the Trinity. We believe that God created humankind, female and male, in the divine image, for fellowship with God and one another. We further believe that because of human sinful disobedience, the right relationship with God was shattered, with a consequent disruption of all other relationships. We believe that God in love has made possible a new beginning through the Incarnation, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who was, and is, truly divine and truly human. We affirm a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. We believe that under Christ’s headship and through the work of the Holy Spirit we are freed to exercise our gifts responsibly in our churches, homes and society. We believe that the Bible which bears witness of Christ is the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit and is the infallible guide and final authority for Christian faith and life. We believe the church is the community of women and men who have been divinely called to fellowship with God and one another to seek and do God’s will, looking forward-to God’s coming glorious kingdom.
© 1978 by the Evangelical Women’s Caucus