First woman ordained as a pastor dies at 87

Sep 22, 2014 by and

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Emma Sommers Richards, the first woman ordained as a pastor in a U.S. Mennonite congregation, died Sept. 6 in Goshen, Ind. She was 87.

Frances Ringenberg, a member of the pastoral team of Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind., greets Emma Sommers Richards in February 2013 at a celebration of a book about Richards, According to the Grace Given to Her. Ringenberg told Richards, “You were the first woman pastor I ever saw.” — Mary E. Klassen/AMBS

Frances Ringenberg, a member of the pastoral team of Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind., greets Emma Sommers Richards in February 2013 at a celebration of a book about Richards, According to the Grace Given to Her. Ringenberg told Richards, “You were the first woman pastor I ever saw.” — Mary E. Klassen/AMBS

Richards was ordained in 1973 by Illinois Mennonite Conference while serving as co-pastor of Lombard (Ill.) Mennonite Church with her husband, Joe.

Richards preached during the Sunday morning service at the Mennonite World Conference assembly in Strasbourg, France, in 1984. It was international recognition of a preaching ministry that had international roots.

After serving with Mennonite Board of Missions from 1954 to 1966 in Japan, Emma and Joe Richards pursued teaching careers in Illinois. In 1968, Lombard Mennonite hired Joe as a part-time pastor.

It quickly became apparent that Emma’s teaching gifts — cultivated as a student at Goshen College and as an instructor in Japan and at Bluff­ton (Ohio) University — could be used both in Sunday school and behind a pulpit.

“I think they were hiring Joe, and it just so happened that she had talents and that came with the package,” said Earl Sutter, a member at Lombard from 1970 to 1994 who contributed a chapter for the book According to the Grace Given to Her: The Ministry of Emma Sommers Richards.

Early in Joe’s ministry, he awoke unable to talk. Laryngitis complicated Easter Sunday in 1970, and Emma suggested the congregation could sing hymns instead. Worship committee chair Marie Hodel felt Easter deserved something more. Emma offered that she could say a few words, and Hodel enthusiastically accepted.

“She called it a meditation,” Sutter said. “I think she would have been reluctant to call it a sermon. Knowing Emma, she had been doing that kind of thing for a long time, so it wasn’t a task for her that it might have been for the rest of us.”

She became a recurring “guest” speaker, valued for her clear speaking, careful organization and straightforward theology.

Carol Bohnert worked with Richards in Sunday school classes and said her creativity and strength was in teaching ministries. An early sermon, “This We Believe,” grew into a recurring series on Mennonite thought and practice that came to define the congregation.

“I recall each of her sermons had a point — ‘OK, ponder this this week,’ ” Bohnert said. “I know preachers try to do that, but there was reasoning behind it and a kind of continuity. . . . She was very much involved in life and connected to her surroundings and trying to connect other people with reality, and at the same time she was very encouraging.”

Breaking new ground

Growing in size, Lombard Mennonite faced a decision when Joe Richards became principal of an elementary school in 1970. He considered resigning, but members convinced him to stay, and by late 1971 the congregation overwhelmingly voted for the couple to serve as a team.

In 1972 the church approached Illinois Conference about licensing and ordination. A committee addressed the matter, and Emma Richards was licensed and installed that fall.

Illinois Conference approved her ordination April 7, 1973. Sutter recalled it was a special situation for Lombard. Ordination would not be open to all women in the conference until 1982.

“There was reluctance there,” Sutter said. “She realized that this was new ground — that they had not over the years ordained a woman, and she didn’t want to cause a lot of consternation over that fact. . . . She wanted to use her gifts that people recognized she had.”

Faithful to God’s call

Richards was not the first Mennonite woman to be ordained. The General Conference Mennonite Church ordained Ann Allebach in 1911, but she was never installed as a pastor, working instead in speaking roles and in urban ministries.

Richards in 1972

Richards in 1972

Richards was more concerned with being faithful to God’s call than a title or position.

“I think she would also say it was important in that it paved the way for women in ministry,” Bohnert said. “As I look around, many women are in ministry and ordained, and that would have happened at some time, but Emma led the way in that.”

She was born March 17, 1927, in Plevna, Ind., to Monroe and Effie (Horner) Sommers.

A graduate of Goshen College and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, she married E. Joe Richards from Venedocia, Ohio, May 24, 1953.

After serving as co-pastor of Lombard Mennonite Church until 1991, she served with Joe Richards as conference pastor with Illinois Conference.

In 1996 she retired to Goshen, where she was active as a teacher and speaker at College Mennonite Church.

She is survived by her husband, along with daughters Kathryn Beckwith and Lois Woods, both of Hillsdale, Mich.; a son, Evan Richards of Villa Park, Ill.; nine grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; a sister, Elaine Sommers Rich of Bluff­ton, Ohio; and two brothers, Dan and Elvin Sommers, both of Kokomo, Ind.

She was preceded in death by a brother, Sam Sommers.

A memorial service was held Sept. 13 at College Mennonite Church.


Comments Policy

Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.

About Me

advertisement advertisement