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by Rev. Lindsey Baynham

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that 2016 has been the year of realizing what might be inconceivable is not. The year where the impossible is attainable and made real. To describe this feeling, I’ll use the phrase “glass ceiling”. The origins of this phrase are credited to the mid 1980’s when women were referring to this imaginary barricade of glass that prevented them from advancing, particularly in the workplace:

“Women have reached a certain point—I call it the glass ceiling. They’re in the top of middle management and they’re stopping and getting stuck. There isn’t enough room for all those women at the top…”[1]

But what if there was enough room?

If what has been identified as a barricade is actually a motivational tool? You see, the thing about “glass ceilings” is the fact that they are not opaque, hiding from us what is happening on the other side. No, “glass ceilings” are just that—upper limits that we can see through and more importantly, beyond. We are able to see that there is plenty of room and no longer any need to become stuck by this socially constructed obstacle.

Rev. Meredith McNabb, Bishop Sharma Lewis, Rev. Lindsey Baynham

Rev. Meredith McNabb, Bishop Sharma Lewis, Rev. Lindsey Baynham

This summer I had the honor of seeing the glass ceiling cracked just a little bit more in the United Methodist denomination. As a means of providing the Lindsey Revised Standard Version on United Methodist Polity, here’s a quick rundown: every four years the UMC nominates persons to be Episcopal (bishop) candidates and at the Jurisdictional (regional) conferences of the UMC, the number of bishop’s needed for Annual Conferences are elected. In Virginia, we are a part of the Southeastern Jurisdiction and were needing five episcopal leaders to be elected this year.

The voting began and in the first ballot, we had an election! Rev. Sharma Lewis out of the North Georgia Annual Conference was elected. But most importantly, what was not lost on me, the people gathered around the room or around the country watching via livestream, was the fact that Lewis was the first African-American woman elected out of the Southeastern Jurisdiction.

Another fissure in the glass.

Let’s go back to the year 1984 when Rev. Leontine Kelly, out of the Virginia Conference was nominated as an episcopal candidate but was not going to get the votes needed from the Southeast. So, she was contacted by the Western Jurisdiction and caught a plane out to the West to then be elected as a bishop for the denomination.

A crack in the glass.

Come back a little bit further to the early Holiness Movement within the Methodist Church spearheaded by women like lifelong Methodist Phoebe Palmer, and Amanda Berry Smith, former slave. These two women were holiness evangelists that made a way for women to have voice and presence in the midst of the Methodist community. Palmer described her infamous Tuesday morning meetings as such:

“After the opening exercises, any one is at liberty to speak, sing, or propose united prayer… …In these meetings the utmost freedom prevails. The ministry does not wait for the laity, neither does the laity wait for the ministry…How small do all merely earthly distinctions appear, when brought under the equalizing influences of pure, perfect love! And it is the equalizing process that, to our mind, forms one of the most important characteristics of this meeting.”[2]

What a rich history of chipping away at the façade that holds back women, people of color and other minorities; to seek equalizing promise in the hope of the gospel. This year, across the jurisdictions, four African-American women were elected as bishops: Sharma Lewis, Tracy Smith Malone (North Central Jurisdiction), Cynthia Moore-Koikoi (Northeastern Jurisdiction), and LaTrelle Miller Easterling (Northeastern Jurisdiction).

I will never forget the moment the words were spoken: “We have an election…Sharma Lewis!”

IMG_2591Among her words addressed to the congregation, Bishop Lewis thanked the church for affirming God’s call on her life. Lewis took the time to name all the women who had come before her to make a way for her. She named the strength of her mother and family that had encouraged her to reach beyond to what seemed unattainable.

As tears streamed down my face, I gave thanks to God for the ways in which a pesky, societal-constructed obstacle is continually being broken so that the kingdom of God can be restored to fullness. So, I too would be thoughtless not to add words of thanks to the many female clergy and bishops who have come before as means of continuing to shatter the glass ceiling:

Marjorie Swank Matthews, Leontine Kelly, Sharon A. Brown Christopher, Amelia Ann B. Sherer, Sharon Zimmerman Rader, Mary Ann Swenson, Charlene P. Kammerer, Susan Wolfe Hassinger, Janice Riggle Huie, Beverly J. Shamana, Violet L. Fisher, Linda Lee, Hope Morgan Ward, Deborah Kiesey, Jane Allen Middleton, Mary Virginia Taylor, Sally Dyck, Minerva Carcaño, Rosemarie Wenner, Peggy Johnson, Elaine J. W. Stanovsky, Joaquina Filipe Nhanala, Sandra Steiner-Ball, Deborah Wallace-Padgett, Cynthia Fierro Harvey, Karen Oliveto, Tracey Smith Malone, Laurie Haller, Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, LaTrelle Easterling, Sue Haupert-Johnson, and Sharma Lewis.

Thanks be to our God.

[1] Nora Frenkiel, Adweek Special Report: Magazine World, March 1984.

[2] Jean Miller Schmidt, Grace Sufficient: A History of Women in American Methodist 1760-1939 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 137. [Italics by Lindsey Baynham]

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Rev. Lindsey Baynham is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. She is currently serving as the Associate Director for Call, Candidacy & Discernment in the Office of Clergy Excellent for the Virginia Conference.