By Woody Woodrick
Ruth Wood was never really concerned with what people thought about her desire to be an ordained pastor. She only knew that God had called her and she intended to answer.
Never mind that the Methodist Church had granted full clergy rights to women just two years earlier. Never mind that many clergymen in Mississippi weren’t even aware the denomination had accepted women clergy. Wood simply wanted to do what God had called her to do.
So with that resolve, Ruth Wood in 1958 became the first woman ordained by the Methodist Church in Mississippi. She became an elder in full connection in 1967, 11 years after the General Conference gave full clergy rights to women.
The United Methodist Church is celebrating the 50th anniversary of that vote during 2006, and women clergy will be honored during the Mississippi Annual Conference June 11-14 at Christ UMC in Jackson.
Now retired and living in Booneville, Wood said her experience becoming a pastor was a blessing. “I had to know this was God’s will for me beyond any doubt,” she said. “I had to please him whether it pleased anyone else or not. These kinds of experiences aren’t easy, but if you know the Lord’s with you, if you know it’s his will, what others do is between them and God.”
Wood was married and had two children when she heard God call her. She tells about it in an essay:
“One Sunday evening in the early fall, while the pastor, the Rev. Verl Collier, was preaching, the picture of Christ behind him began to speak to me louder than the words. The message was, ‘The eyes of Jesus are upon you, what are you going to do about it?’ The meaning was uncertain to me and very distracting. As the sermon ended Rev. Collier gave an invitation thus, ‘If there is one here who needs to commit his/her life to Christ you’re invited to come to the altar.’ Though no such feeling had ever been mine before and I couldn’t understand it, my feelings were that of intense peace, and my thoughts were ‘That’s not for me, I gave my life to Christ years ago. He has healed my hands when doctors knew no cure. No, that’s not for me.’
“Then the pastor gave a second invitation. ‘If God is calling anyone to full time Christian service you’re invited to come.’
“If the roof had caved in it wouldn’t have hit me much harder. I felt a spirit of rebellion as never before and said in my mind, ‘I will not go.’ I could no longer sing and my knees went weak, and I held to the back of the pew in front of me to keep from falling to my seat. By the time the song ended and the closing prayer given, tears were rolling down my cheeks. Making my way to Bro. Collier, I asked, ‘Why did you give that last invitation.’ His answer was, ‘I don’t know. The Lord just told me to.’ I said, ‘That was for me. Pray for me.’”
Wood spent the next few days conflicted over what she should do. She sought advice from a relative who had answered the call to preach. He told her she had to do what God had called her to do, but Wood said her plans for her life were different. Eventually, Wood found peace:
“The next four days were filled with activities but not contentment nor peace. There was a disturbance, confusion, restlessness, a pondering of why, how and where. By Thursday evening while lying in bed before sleep came, my prayer became one of surrender, ‘Lord, I don’t know how you’re going to do it, but you’ll have to, I can’t, but here I am.’
“At that moment I felt a physical thrill. It was as if my heart leaped and there was peace, exceedingly great peace. The torrents had subsided and all was calm. Then I was waiting for God to direct. Before the week ended God’s message to me was to tell the church of my experience.”
Starting down the path
From that moment, Wood began following the path to ordination. While she wasn’t welcomed with open arms, she said she experienced little direct opposition to becoming ordained.
On the night she went before her charge conference to begin the process, District Superintendent the Rev. George Williams and his wife ate supper with Wood and her husband, the Rev. Huey Wood.
“Brother Williams said, ‘Being a wife and mother is a full-time job. Being a pastor is a full-time job. Why would God call anyone to two full-time jobs?’” Wood recalled. “I told him I didn’t now.”
When asked to speak to the charge conference, Wood said:
“I want you to know that preaching had no part in my plans for my life. But if you will not agree for me to do what God has called me to do, will you go in my place?”
She was approved unanimously.
Wood said she knew some folks didn’t want a woman preacher, but she marched right on.
“I had things happen that made me wish in a way I had never gotten involved, but I never could stop,” Wood said. “I knew I had to go on. It was the Lord’s business, and I had to go on no matter what anyone said or did.”
Has much changed?
Today women clergy are much more common. The Mississippi Conference today has 123 women among some 830 active clergy. In 2004, the conference received its first woman bishop, Hope Morgan Ward.
As the first woman to lead a major denomination in Mississippi, Ward, a North Carolina native, said she appreciates what Wood must have felt nearly 50 years ago.
“I had the same hope that Ruth had 50 years ago, that every person in ministry has, the hope of serving Jesus Christ faithfully,” Ward said. “Clergywomen know that some are reluctant in regard to women in ministry, and we continue to carry the sense that it is up to us to be effective, not only for ourselves but to help ease the way for other women in ministry.”
Current clergywomen appreciate the path Wood cleared.
“It is hard to imagine the struggle that Ruth faced in her day and time in ministry,” said the Rev. Rose Mary Williams, pastor of Mount Zion UMC in DeLisle. Williams will be ordained an elder at the 2006 Annual Conference. “I think that as a female clergy, I am blessed to have the opportunity to stand on Ruth’s shoulders. She sure has been the wind beneath each of our wings in the Mississippi Conference. We are fortunate to have someone like her to brave the storm.”
The Rev. Becky Youngblood, executive director of the Center for Ministry, said the Mississippi Conference and the denomination have benefited from women clergy.
“Congregations that experience the ministry of women have a fuller vision of the image of God in which we are all created, female and male,” Youngblood said. “When women and men serve together in pastoral leadership, particularly in worship, congregations experience the natural complementarity and mutuality of male and female that I believe God intends. While this enriched vision is important for everyone, it is especially significant for children and youth.”
Wood says she’s not sure she would do anything differently if given the chance. “I don’t know of a lot of things I would change. It would be more pleasant to be more accepted. I just always acted as if I was accepted,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to change anything, just trying to do what God wanted me to do.”