Looking ahead: Reflections on the 9th Decade of Women at YDS

By Brin Bon ’13 M.Div.

While women have been regular students at Yale Divinity School since the early 1930s, there was a strict cap on enrollment that prohibited more than 10 women from being admitted in any one year through the 1950s.

This set the tone for the Convocation and Reunions 2011 panel conversation introduced by Talitha Arnold ’80 M.Div. a United Church of Christ minister from Santa Fe, NM and chair of the Women’s Reunion Celebration that reached its apex at last year’s Convocation and Reunions. 

PanelThe Niebuhr Hall conversation featured a reflection on three questions that shaped the Women’s Celebration conversation at last year’s convocation, which focused on the eight decades of women at YDS. Panelists spoke candidly about their greatest challenges in ministry, the greatest gifts they have been given in the service of God’s call, and where they have found a home in ministry.  Joining Arnold on the panel were Joan Cooper Burnett ’04 M.Div., Protestant chaplain at Wesleyan University, and Jennie Ott ’06 M.Div., a UCC pastor in Portland, OR.

Arnold referenced a sermon given three decades ago by Margaret Farley, the Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics and a pioneer of women in the ministry at YDS.  In that sermon, Farley said women in ministry are in the puzzling position of both making their home in the church while simultaneously remaining homeless: “A large part of the experience of contemporary women in ministry is now characterized by a sense of homelessness, of alienation from so much in the culture and so much in the church and so much in the political life of the nation.”

Farley’s conclusion that it is this unique position of standing both inside and outside of the church that blesses the ministry of women was echoed three decades later by the panelists.  Acknowledging that women are still often marginalized or discriminated against within the church and its hierarchies, Arnold, Burnett and Ott celebrated the unique and still-growing voice of female leaders and women of faith.  What each of the women held in common was the experience of being blessed by the opportunities afforded them at Yale Divinity School.  From Peter Hawkins’s legendary “Dante” class, to the culture of hospitality and nurture that female students find on the Quad, each of the panelists shared personal experiences of being shaped in ministry-affirming ways by their time at YDS.

The panelists and attendees at this lunch-hour discussion on the second day of Convocation shared the express hope that women will not only continue to find a home at YDS as the seminary enters its 9th decade of training women for professional ministry, but that women’s unique and powerful voices will continue to make the church a more hospitable home for these women when they graduate.  One challenge in both seminary and church, a member of the audience suggested, is to overcome the monolithic view of “women’s ministry” that fails to take into account the broad range of experiences encountered by women in the ministry  

Posted: 11/06/2011