From the first, our denomination has seen a place for women in leadership. We followed John Wesley. However, his encouragement of women workers did not permit ordination. And Free Methodists ordained women, only as deacons until June of 1974 when the General Conference made the highest ordination — elder — possible. M. Jean Parry was the first woman ordained elder.
Marti Ensign, former missionary with her doctor husband to Africa, applied for ordination. She had served as assistant pastor at Eastside church, Seattle. Well-known as a retreat speaker and encourager, her ordination as elder made possible still further ministries, such as administering the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. She put it this way: “I want to build a base for my own baseless ministry as a layperson.”
But the going was not easy. At a clergy conference in the East for example, she encountered “some pretty negative feelings” from men who saw her as a threat. “I felt like I had to explain myself quite a lot,” she said. “But I see ordination as a base to do ministry to women and families.”
Mrs. Ensign worked toward ordination. When the big day came, in November of 1975, the event made nationwide news. More importantly, her specialized ministries now have the full authority of the church. More, she helped pave the way for other women to undergo elders orders.****
The women’s movement in the church, nationwide, grows. The high level activity of the Women’s Missionary Fellowship International documents the increasing role of women as leaders. Annual conferences, college trustees, committees, church boards — all see women in significant numbers and benefit from a perspective not possible in male-dominated groups. The story of women in the development of the Canadian church is told by R. Wayne Kleinsteuber, Coming of Age: The Making of a Canadian Free Methodist Church (Light and Life Press, Canada).
Canada: Jurisdictional Conference and a Bishop
As early as 1971 ferment, generated by Canadian nationalism, began to work for an independent church. Why couldn’t Canada have its own General Conference? Sel Belsher, lively Toronto businessman, and Alvin Hill, Ottawa Teacher’s College professor, spearheaded the idea.
****U.S. News and World Report (December 3, 1984, p. 76) says that across the U.S. about 5% of clergy are now women. In 1973 there were an estimated 6,000; today 16,000. From 1972-83 female seminarians grew from 3,558 to 13,451 (p. 77).
Demaray, D. E., (n.d.). The people called free Methodist: Snapshots. Winona Lake, IN: Light and Life Press.
Women Leaders and the 1974 General Conference