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The title of this lecture is taken from a poem entitled “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver. For most of the poem she meanders through open fields on that gorgeous day, observing details of grasses, bugs, and birds. At the end she muses:

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

The poet here poses the question of vocation. You have only one life, and it is a treasure. It is also finite: some day you will die. How will you spend your hours and your energies? What will you do “with your one wild and precious life?”

I chose this title to highlight the astonishing fact that in our day women in remarkable numbers are answering this question by choosing to engage in ministry. Let us be clear that women have always been ministering in the church, in unofficial and undervalued, though irreplaceable, ways. Think of the millions of women named “anonymous” through the centuries who have handed on the faith and enacted God’s love in the world. The better-known story of the ministries of women’s religious orders is another magnificent case in point. But now a surging wave of lay women are becoming educated with theological and pastoral skills in order to take initiatives and serve in ministerial positions. The women students and alumnae of the Graduate Program in Pastoral Ministry here at Santa Clara are a good case in point; your ranks are swelled around this country and around the world. What makes this phenomenon so striking is that it is a free choice. No woman has to do this; our culture applies no social pressure on a woman to become active in ministry; women today have multiple career options, and this surely is a path that will make no one rich! What is behind this? It is a matter of vocation. You may know the lovely line by Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Women with deep gladness are responding to a call from the Holy Spirit of God, heard deep in their hearts, to take the giftedness of their “one wild and precious life” and meet the world’s deep hunger for meaning and healing, liberation and redemption.

I hasten to add that laymen, too, are responding to this call and giving their lives in service to the world through pastoral ministry, and not one of these dedicated lives should be overlooked. But given the history of women’s subordination in the church and exclusion from many ministries, a situation that continues even as we speak, the phenomenon of growing numbers of women in pastoral ministry deserves a special look. There are now more qualified women in ministry than ever before in the history of the church. Something new is afoot.

In this lecture I invite you to consider this subject in three points [the proverbial 3] roughly organized in terms of past, present, and future. First, we will place this development in an historical framework. Second, we will move .to the spiritual heart of the matter, the vocational call to ministry rooted in women’s baptism. And third, in view of the conflicts and ambiguities that continue to plague much of women’s experience in the field, we will draw encouragement from the dangerous memory of biblical women to accompany us into the future.


Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ launched the inaugural Rev. Francis l. Markey ‘Women in Ministry’ speaker series lecture on November 6, 2018 in the Mission Church at Santa Clara University with “Your One Wild and Precious Life: Women on the Road of Ministry.”

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