Historian recalls challenges of her call to professional lay ministry

By Sharon Sheridan
Posted Apr 4, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] This is one of a series of articles by ENS examining women’s history in the church.

Alda Marsh Morgan says women's ordination has been a mixed blessing for the role of women in the Episcopal Church. Photo/Alda Marsh Morgan

In the church, discussions of “call” often center on ordination. But Alda Marsh Morgan of Berkeley, California, followed a call to professional lay ministry – a call that, ironically, was disrupted when women’s ordination became possible in the Episcopal Church.

Born in 1939 in Dayton, Ohio, Morgan grew up in a Baptist parsonage but became an Episcopalian while attending Oberlin College (http://new.oberlin.edu/). After graduating, she entered the Episcopal Church’s Apprenticeship Program, “which provided women a year of internship in various ministries to test a vocation as a lay woman church worker,” Morgan said in an ENS interview conducted via e-mail. “Although my internship was in a social-work agency, I already knew that I wanted to be a campus minister.”

She next entered St. Margaret’s House in Berkeley, one of a handful of schools that trained Episcopal deaconesses. Deaconesses were officially recognized as an order of women in the Episcopal Church “set apart” for servant ministry but not as ordained deacons, Morgan explained, adding that she was uninterested in becoming a deaconess. She earned a master’s degree in Christian education and accepted a position at what now is West Chester State University, southwest of Philadelphia, to begin a ministry based at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. “My supervisor was the diocesan director of campus ministry, but I was considered part of the parish staff.”

At her supervisor’s encouragement, she organized an ecumenical ministry sponsored by six local congregations – Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, two Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ. “Those six years were immensely satisfying, as I got there just as the college was beginning to broaden its formerly educational programs to liberal arts. The ’60s were a time of great change and stir, and Bishop [Robert] DeWitt’s leadership on the diocesan level was exhilarating. I was part of his ‘cadre’ of supporters and colleagues, and it seemed as if a new sun was rising and everything was a possibility.”

But that same leadership helped precipitate a “severe shortfall of diocesan funding” that led her to leave. “His strong support for civil rights and other liberal causes raised a lot of opposition in what was then a conservative diocese,” she said.

“I had left because my work with the local churches in a small county seat raised questions for me about the relationship between American Protestantism and higher education, so I went back to Berkeley for a doctorate in history. … I looked upon my graduate work as professional continuing education.”

She entered the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, becoming involved both in campus ministries and at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, and seriously considered the possibility of ordination. “We talk about ‘discernment’ now, and my decision was that I wasn’t called to the ordained ministry, but … did have a calling to ministry as a lay woman.”

While she was a college student and afterward, she said, “there was a robust community of professional women church workers, supported by the church, although not widely understood at the grassroot levels.”

“Most of us were in Christian education, but many of us were in social work (for church related agencies) and campus ministry. Many women, like myself, had begun campus ministries, later relinquishing them to clergy. My thinking then was that it was a tossup as to which was the bigger obstacle for me and other women workers – being a woman or being a lay person. After the ordination of women was passed [by the General Convention in 1976], I learned the answer: It was being a lay professional in a clerical church.

“What happened, with startling speed, was that most of us lost our jobs. Much of the work that women workers had done depended on the need for ministries in areas that male clergy either wouldn’t touch or where they cost more than the women. My supervisor had told me up front that he looked for a woman for West Chester because he couldn’t afford to pay a clergyman. … But the bottom line for me after 1976 was that the vocation to which I was passionately committed – campus ministry – was no longer available to me. The last position I applied to was at Northwestern and, notwithstanding my education and experience, I was told I was out of the running because I wasn’t a priest. Ironically, the job went to a woman priest, a friend and a damned good minister.”

“Subsequently, I made work for myself in campus ministry—as the volunteer provincial coordinator of ministry in higher education for Province VIII and then, in a program I designed … LEAVEN, a three-year ministry development program with faculty and staff at [the University of California]. While working in LEAVEN, I was asked to consult nationwide by colleagues who wanted help with their faculty/staff ministries. But it wasn’t until I was hired as the interim director of continuing education at [Church Divinity School of the Pacific] in 1989 that I again held a paid position working for the church. I worked in that department under three deans until 2003, when I took early retirement. Theological education became my new ‘vocation,’ but I never lost my yearning for and commitment to campus ministry. It took years to recover from the anger and resentment I felt once I realized that I was, in effect, barred from that work.”

Morgan married Donn Morgan, who became CDSP’s dean and president, in 1975 and received her doctoral degree in 1984. “My own field is American religious and intellectual history with a specialty in higher education and its relationships with the churches,” she said. Her work has included research and writing about women church workers. “I think it’s a great story, and I am so pleased that in recent years the women seminarians at CDSP and women elsewhere are beginning to broaden their interest in their past to include the women missionaries, the sisters, deaconesses and church workers as their foremothers.”

She sees the advances women have made in leadership roles in the church – from governance to ordination – as “positive for the church’s mission in many ways and way, way overdue.”

“On the other hand,” she said, “the possibility of ordination has closed the ranks for lay women who wish to serve the church professionally.”

“Finally, oddly, when women had to work through segregated organizations – the Women’s Auxiliary, the Order of Deaconesses, the Division of Women’s Work – we had a spirit and a sense of mutual community and support that we seem to lack now.” While not looking to return to the past, she said, “I grow a little wistful about the loss of esprit that we once had.”

Through the years, she has served the church at all levels, including as a member of the Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations and as a representative to the National Council of Churches General Assembly. “In all these various forms of service and ministry,” she concluded, “I suspect that my advocacy of the importance of education is the connecting link – even when it isn’t obvious.”

Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.


Comments (12)

  1. Martha Kreamer says:

    Dear Alda Morgan,

    Thank you, thank you. As an ordained woman who served most of her life as a laywoman, I am so aware of the challenges that faced you in following your calling. There are no words to express the gratitude I feel to you and the other pioneers and sustainers of the church.

    My heart breaks to hear of the loss of your job following women’s ordination. It is my hope and prayer that, ultimately, the ordination of women will result in the elevation of respect and honor awarded the work of those who choose lay service, as a calling, since it is no longer what is left-over that the men won’t do. It especially grieves me to see the contrast between the recognition given male artisans and female ones. Silver, stained glass, and carved wood all are dearly priced and purchased, and the artists named and acclaimed. But the lost art of stitchery, the embroidery and fine handwork done to enhance the altar, with prayers woven into every stitch, were, for the most part, donated to the glory of God by the women who did them. No dedication was held, and their names were not recorded. They remain anonymous. Sadly, their work, being deemed “free” is simply discarded when it becomes worn, or which the colors go out of fashion.

    Soon, if it is not already gone, that practice will have faded into oblivion, with no one being taught to carry on the craft.

    Long life and blessings to you!

    1. Jeffrey Knox says:

      What a wonderful story for us to read for Holy Week. Without the laity steadfast determination, and dedication to keep the Ministry going, even when resources are cut, and the game plan gets changed. In Christ we are neither male or female…but all are ONE! A 70 year old cradle Episcopalian still discovering this ONENESS!

  2. Solange De Santis says:

    Excellent points, Martha Kreamer. Fascinating story, Sharon about a most worthy subject, Alda Marsh Morgan, who had and has much to say to the church. I have great respect for clergy, male and female, but would like to think that laypeople’s gifts are on an equal footing.

  3. Margaret Irwin says:

    Dear Alda,
    What a treat to read your story, most of which I was unaware of while at CDSP madly pursuing my MDiv and commuting from home where husband and three kids awaited me. I am sorry I didn’t have or make the time to get to know you better then. The unintended consequence of women’s ordination you experienced was both unfair and painful, yet I knew you only as gracious and caring. Thank you for all the gifts you have given the church, and especially for your determination to find a way to offer them when doors closed in your face. Blessings to you.

  4. Richard Rader says:

    I’d be extraordinarily interested in, and grateful for, anyone’s explanation of what they mean, what they believe, how they know, what they think are the measures of their being “..called..” It is used so very often by someone who is, in most instances, simply moving to another parish, another profession, another….

  5. Jo Wright says:

    Dear Alda,
    Thank you so much for all you’ve done to promote women’s ministries in the church. I remember with great fondness working with you at UC Canterbury in 1986. Coming from an academic background (my ex husband was a professor) I always had thought of campus ministry as focusing on students period, but you broadened my view point and I really enjoyed the meetings you shared with faculty, and your real understanding of faculty concerns. You taught me a lot – as much as any priest I encountered on my journey.

  6. robert maury hundley says:

    Alda, You might have know Dick Cheatham, who was a Dean at Pacific. He resigned as an Army Chaplain when the Chief of Chaplains on behalf of his wife demanded that Dick’s working wife be the hostess for a Chaplain’s wives event. I always thought he was courageous. BTW I rejoice that my seminary classmates at UTS are now ordained, but it appears that some women are now ordained because they are woman (which is Soviet style in which loyal membership in the communist party took the place of seminary preparation, leaving the church w/ no one to challenge the absence of values in the state). Warmest Best Wishes, Under the Lamb, Rev Robert M Hundley

  7. Alda Morgan says:

    To Susan Kreamer….Many thanks for your reminder about the discrepancy of recognition in the church arts! In the Sixties and early Seventies, there was a burst of interest in ecclesiastical stitchery and the design of eucharistic and altar vestments and I knew and rejoiced in the work of a number of women artists. Their work was both aesthetically and theologically exciting. But you’re right…stitchery hasn’t begun to receive the recognition it deserves. And I’m thinking about the work of members of my parish Altar Guild which hasn’t been raised to the level of the art donated by male members! That’s something I can perhaps rectify at least in my own parish. Interesting, how we relegate so much skillful and devoted work to the realm of “women’s work, God bless ’em.”

  8. Lynn W. Hubewr says:

    I am very interested in this!

    First, as a spiritual director, it has been my experience that often when people get really excited about their faith, others become uncomfortable, and ask them, “Have you thought about going to seminary/becoming clergy?” If our baptism is a call to 24/7/365 ministry, then whether we are paid by the church or not, we are all “called.”

    I’ve been a paid, full-time diocesan staff person, a licensed preacher in three dioceses, a secularly-employed social worker and professor of social work, a volunteer spiritual director, a paid teacher of spiritual direction (part time), a volunteer prison minister, a paid retreat leader, a gardener, a friend, a hiker, a wife … all are part of my living out my ‘call.’

    Sometimes when folks ask me if I ever thought of ordination, I say that I feel called to be an ‘iconic lay person’, helping others to see that their baptism IS a call to full-time ministry.

    I have a bunch of friends who are priests, almost all of whom I knew well before their ordinations. They tell me that ordination often makes them lose friends. And clericalism surely survives well in spite of the “new” prayer book’s listing of the ministers as “lay persons, (note this is first), bishops, priests and deacons). It’s very hard to move large systems. But Alda’s contribution to the conversation is welcome and very helpful, and perhaps may help us to be more aware and to move a bit. I am grateful to have ‘met’ her in this story.

    Blessings on all of us, and on this hurting world, as we live out Holy Week together,

    Lynn W. Huber

    1. Alda Morgan says:

      Martha, My face is red for having mistaken your first name! I’m so sorry.


  9. Freda Marie says:

    @ Alda: Thank you for your SERVICE…you have obviously been doing this work in the name of Our Lord!
    @Lynn: Thank you for your insight…Amen to your words.

  10. Jon Davidson says:

    Thanks for your story, Alda. I was pleased to see it on ENS post today, and send cheers and blessings to both you and Donn. – Jon Davidson, Lake Tahoe

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