As a Quaker applying for a Mennonite pastorate, I was unaware of Lombard Mennonite Church’s unique legacy in the Mennonite world. During interviews in 2021, the story of Emma Richards came up frequently.
“We proudly support women pastors,” members told me. “We were the first Mennonite congregation in North America with an ordained woman pastor.” Their celebration of women in ministry drew me to the job even more.
Ordained in 1973 by Illinois Mennonite Conference, Emma Richards did not set out to become an important person in Mennonite history. Her only concern was teaching the gospel. Her first ministry experiences were in Japan with her husband, Joe Richards, whom she helped to teach and lead services. They started to raise a family there: son Evan and daughters Kathy and Lois. They relocated to the United States to give a more secure upbringing for the family.
When called to Lombard Mennonite Church in 1968, they were working in Fort Wayne, Ind., and studying at St. Francis College to become elementary teachers. Joe was providing pulpit supply for a Presbyterian church in Middle Point, Ohio. Due to the stress of the 90-minute commute and other circumstances, Joe had told the Presbyterian church he would work for them only if Emma was also allowed to preach. The congregation agreed.
Joe initially declined the call to Lombard. He wanted to finish his education. But Emma and Joe could not shake the call to the Anabaptist way. Though raised a Presbyterian, Joe missed the Mennonites and their culture.
They accepted the call to a part-time position for Joe, who also found work as a school superintendent. They moved to the Chicagoland suburb and started their next chapter.
The years were kind to Joe as a pastor, but he felt overwhelmed being bivocational. One Sunday, Joe couldn’t preach, so Emma did. Her first sermon, prophetically, was on Easter Sunday in 1970, announcing the resurrection. A woman in the pulpit! Everyone paid attention, even the children. From that point forward, she was a regular “guest” preacher.
Soon the church recognized Emma’s gifts for ministry. They also saw the only way to keep Joe was to hire Emma to work alongside him, as she had done in Japan and Ohio. What followed was typical when theological shifts happen: Emma became a lightning rod for controversy.
At first, she didn’t want to be ordained. She didn’t want the messenger to distract from the message. The congregation disagreed and advocated for her gifts to be recognized. They expected an uphill battle but believed it was a cause worth striving for. After two years of debate in Illinois Conference and the national Mennonite Church, Emma was ordained in 1973.
Fifty years later, on June 11, Lombard Mennonite Church celebrated the occasion. The first speaker, son Evan, had started college when the ordination process began. Despite the controversy, things seemed normal. “Mom was just being mom,” he said. He felt proud to be Emma’s son and to celebrate her.
The next speaker, Anne Munley, came to Lombard Mennonite Church through Wheaton College, drawn in through Sharon and Norm Ewert, Wheaton professors and devout Anabaptists who hosted students at their house for free meals. She remembered Emma’s patience with people who opposed her. “Emma viewed the world, and others, through a lens of love,” she said.
Munley also recalled both Emma’s and Joe’s optimism and Emma’s joy, compassion and empathy. She compared what happened with Emma to what is happening in Mennonite Church USA around issues of sexuality and gender. “May we learn from her example of patiently waiting on the Spirit for the way forward,” she said.
Because of Emma’s influence, Munley now serves as a pastor in North Suburban Mennonite Church in Libertyville and Community Mennonite Church in Schaumburg and on the credentialing team for Illinois Mennonite Conference.
Glen Guyton, executive director of MC USA, preached from the text Emma used in her ordination ceremony: Ephesians 4:4-16. He gave thanks for Emma and for the Christian women who have ministered to him. He also mentioned the first ordained Mennonite woman pastor, Ann Allebach, ordained by the General Conference Mennonite Church in Philadelphia in 1911 but never installed as a pastor of a Mennonite congregation. He noted the 60-year span between Ann’s and Emma’s ordinations, reflecting the slow progress of recognizing the gifts of women.
Guyton noted the irony that women have not been celebrated for ministry, though the first proclaimer of Jesus’ resurrection was a woman: “Men have wanted the announcement of the resurrection without giving a title to the announcer.”
As the first Black executive director of MC USA, he is grateful for Emma’s and Ann’s barrier-breaking legacies.
Emma handled controversy with prophetic patience and mercy that is rare in our culture. She showed positive change doesn’t come through fights on social media but by listening to the Spirit.
Emma trusted that when people wait upon the Lord, the way forward will reveal itself. In this tumultuous time, when women’s voices still aren’t fully heard, Emma’s example should be remembered. She displayed a quiet confidence that God was with her and that no one could take away her calling. She died in 2014 at age 87.
Radical strength doesn’t always look like a storming of the gates. Sometimes it looks like a gentle woman, confident in her faith, who knows all will be well in the end. Emma Richards’ spirit has shaped MC USA as a denomination and opened spaces for women to serve.
Nathan Perrin is pastor of Christian formation at Lombard Mennonite Church in Illinois. He holds a master’s degree in Quaker studies and is a doctoral student studying Christian community development at Northern Seminary. He is also a screenwriter for an unannounced indie comedy series. See nathanperrinwriter.com.