Patricia E. Clawson
Three years after the Orthodox Presbyterian Church began in 1936, Marie Kuiper, wife of Westminster Seminary professor R. B. Kuiper, presided over more than 125 women who gathered for the organizational meeting of the Presbyterial Auxiliary of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. The gavel she used to adopt the constitution was constructed from the wood of a Chinese idol. After a violin solo, the Rev. Henry W. Coray spoke about his five years as a missionary in Harbin, Manchuria.
A June 1939 article in The Presbyterian Guardian encouraged women in other presbyteries to follow their example and organize a women's presbyterial to promote missionary interest in the churches.
The Philadelphia presbyterial lasted about fifty-eight years, until interest waned and busy schedules kept many away. While at least twelve presbyteries once had women's presbyterials, today only five still do.
The decline of women's presbyterial was slow, but steady, over the years. In 1950, seventy-three women, including thirty-three who traveled by chartered bus, gathered for the Philadelphia presbyterial, to hear Professor Kuiper speak. In 1996, former Eritrean missionary Jeanette Taws wrote an article for New Horizons, asking whether women's presbyterials could be saved.
The women's presbyterial of Philadelphia folded the next year, even after trying to keep it going with retreats and joining a PCA women's group. "We had difficulty bringing in newer congregations," said Linda Foh, of Pocono OPC in Reeders, Pennsylvania. "These congregations didn't have a sense of denomination and didn't see a need for fellowship of this sort."
In the early 1970s, the Presbyterial of the South was strong. "Life was less busy, and people knew each other and planned ahead for those getaways," said Gail Mininger of Lake Sherwood OPC in Orlando, Florida. "Then there were women working outside their homes and women with little children, which made it more difficult to travel for a few days because everyone had to stay over several nights in our presbytery." The presbyterial soon disbanded.
A similar thing happened in the Presbytery of the Dakotas. Women gathered for fellowship and missionary projects at women's presbyterial in the 1960s and 1970s, but lack of attendance finally prompted it to close. JoAnn Vandenburg of Bethel OPC in Carson, North Dakota, missed the fellowship. "We found often that the problems were the same in the city as in the rural areas," said Mrs. Vandenburg. "The sharing was a blessing."
A few presbyterials are still active. The Women's Presbyterial Auxiliary of the Presbytery of Southern California meets twice yearly in conjunction with their presbytery meeting. Typically twenty women attend. Their hands-on projects have included writing cards to OP military families, packing boxes of Sunday school materials for Mexican missionaries, and making quilting kits for the Czech mission's English camp. Some working women still come. "I think some working ladies come because it is worthwhile spiritually, physically, and mentally to get away for the day to be blessed by the Lord," said Anne Buchanan of Calvary OPC in La Mirada, California, who hopes the presbyterial will continue. "The blessings are for this generation and the next."
Marian Stevenson of Calvary OPC in Wildwood, New Jersey, agrees. "It's nice to hear the women's side of missions," she said. "I enjoy the fellowship. You hear about others' children who need prayer and find we're not the only ones who struggle with this. We're not isolated."
About thirty women attend the Women's Presbyterial of New Jersey, down from the past. Jo Schreiner of Faith OPC in Elmer, New Jersey, believes the drop is due in part to churches no longer having missionary societies. "Women don't see a need to go to presbyterial anymore because we do not have missionary societies as our foundation of interest," said Schreiner.
Vickie Dawson, of Stratford OPC in Stratford, New Jersey, commented, "I wonder if the heart of the reason isn't in our hearts. In order to ‘make a way' to set aside a Saturday, we really need to desire to learn more about missions and spend time with other like-minded women.… As modern Americans, we are much tempted to put our children's needs, activities, and desires ahead of things important to us. But, our children need to know that missions are important to us—so important that they, as children, need to sacrifice occasionally for us."
Despite the fact that Saturdays are usually "catch-up days," Maggie Scott of Grace OPC in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, thinks presbyterials are worth the effort to see the bigger picture in missions and to get to know women from other churches. "We believe it is important to look beyond our own church fellowship to get to know our sisters and to be connected to the church at a broader level."
Presbyterials have their ups and downs. The Presbyterial of the Midwest, before its presbytery divided into two, met for what many thought would be the last time in the early 1990s. "But at the supposed last meeting, we had an enthusiastic team of women volunteer to be officers," said Mary Miller of Grace OPC in Hanover Park, Illinois. "The next year we had a terrific presbyterial with ninety women." Now, years after the presbytery divided, attendance has again declined at the Presbyterial of the Midwest, and the Presbyterial of Michigan and Ontario has folded.
Presbyterials have tried various ideas to improve attendance. Before their presbytery split, the Presbyterial of the Midwest held meetings in individual states for two years and then met together for the third year, thus cutting down on travel. Other ideas include meeting on the same designated Saturdays each fall and spring and clearing the church and presbytery calendars of competing events. The Women's Presbyterial of New Jersey also shortened their meeting by an hour, so that women could get back home sooner.
The Women's Presbyterial of Northern California and Nevada recently featured a fashion show of historic garments. Three years ago some ladies of First OPC in Sunnyvale, California, focused on the theme of spring gardening and herbs. "It's the hook," explained Julie Ann Lemen. "Once the women get there, they find that the fellowship, prayer, and singing are ‘worth' their time."
Several presbyteries with presbyterials also have women's retreats. The Presbytery of Northern Californian and Nevada celebrated their thirtieth year of holding a retreat for about forty to fifty women. About twenty-five women drive up to eight hours twice a year for the Women's Presbyterial of Ohio. Nearly three times that number attended a women's retreat last year. "I think women are becoming disconnected from each other because of work and family commitments," said Jody Benefiel of Redeemer OPC in Dayton, Ohio. "We have had women's retreats in our church for a few years now, and it does help get some who tend to be on the edge involved."
Presbyterials and retreats often cater to different audiences. Presbyterials typically have a foreign missionary speak, while retreats often have women speak on broader topics. Presbyterials often meet for a day twice a year, while retreats usually are annual events involving overnight stays. Both encourage fellowship, although retreats offer more free time to get to know one another. Presbyterials are often funded by a host church and presbyterial offerings, while retreats are usually financed by those who attend.
Although the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic doesn't have a presbyterial, it does have an annual ladies' retreat. "Elders who attend presbyteries enjoy this connectedness; the women of the church need to be enjoying it too," said Karen Jones of Staunton OPC in Staunton, Virginia. "We pray that more ladies will venture out of their ‘box' and come to the retreat to meet, listen to, talk with, and pray with other sisters in Christ who attend other OP churches."
Encouraging women to come to either event is a challenge. "It is difficult for many to have the time to be involved in women's activities on a local level, much less on a presbytery level," said Mrs. Lemen. "Many of the younger women do not understand the benefit of the greater church family within the presbytery." The women's retreats in the Presbytery of New York and New England offer extended fellowship, worship, biblical instruction, and a missions workshop. Last year, World Magazine writer Andrée Seu spoke to 150 women from eleven states. "It's important that we continue to uphold our heritage by passing on our faith to those who come behind us," said Cindy Gregson of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Amsterdam, New York. "We must disciple the younger women. We must teach them to be workers at home, and to consider being wives and mothers as a ministry of the highest calling."
Whether women meet at a presbyterial or a retreat, the encouragement is to see beyond local fellowship. A pastor asked Sandra Ter Haar of Harvest OPC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to find out about presbyterials. Harvest offered a women's retreat last fall, with seventy-five attending. "It is too easy for us to think only of the local congregation as the church and we miss the broader perspective of the worldwide visible church," said Mrs. Ter Haar.
One thing is clear: "I'd like to see women growing in their service to the church as a whole," said Mrs. Miller. "Strengthening ties with, and knowledge of, our missionaries is invaluable, and strengthening ties with the other churches in the presbytery helps all of us."
The author is the editorial assistant for New Horizons. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2008.