Sep 24, 2014

Emma Sommers Richards, 1927 - 2014

Emma Sommers Richards, the first female pastor of a Mennonite church in the United States, has died at the age of 87.

Richards' first took the pulpit at Lombard Mennonite Church, in the western suburbs of Chicago, in 1970. She wasn't the minister but the minister's wife, though. Her sermon wasn't called a sermon, but a meditation.

According to the Mennonite World Review, Richards' husband Joe was the pastor of church and had just started that year after 12 years of mission work in Japan. On Easter Sunday, 1970, he woke up with laryngitis, unable to speak. Rather than cancel Easter or have the service without a sermon, Emma Richards offered "say a few words."

The local congregation recognized Richards was a gifted preacher immediately. She was asked to speak regularly and members of the congregation began to talk about having her as a co-pastor.

An official request from the congregation was made two years later. Her ordination was approved by the Illinois Conference of the Mennonite Church USA in April 1973, and on June 17 of that year, Richards was ordained a Mennonite minister.

"She wanted to use her gives that people recognised she had," said Earl Sutter, who was a member of the local church at that time. "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 the fact."

Ordination was not open to all Mennonite women in Illinois until 1982. Richards ordination was considered an exception, at the time. By the end of the 1980s, though, the General Conference of the Mennonite Church had ordained more than 60 women.

Though Richards did not pursue ordination to make a point about the validity of women in ministry or to change the theology of the church, her ordination was a turning point. Her ministry "marked a breakthrough in North American Mennonite's understanding that the Holy Spirit calls both women and men to pastor ministry," according to an edited collection of essays on Richards' ministry, published in 2013. The editors of the collection wrote through the story of Richards' call to ministry, they hoped "all brothers and sisters in the church will see that Holy Spirit gifts given to women need to be encouraged for the well-being of the whole body of Christ."

Mennonite ministers encouraged by Richards noted her role in the Goshen, Indiana funeral home's online guestbook.

"As a Mennonite pastor," wrote Sandy Drescher-Lehman, "I also grieve Emma's death and celebrate her life and the path she laid for my ministry today."

A memorial was held earlier this month at College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana, where Richards was an active lay member in retirement. Richards is survived by her husband, two daughters, a son, nine grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.