From the Chair: I’m going to buy myself some red shoes! | faith and values


I was ordained an elder in The United Methodist Church on June 11, 2006 – 16 years ago. At my ordination, I received a red stole, representing the Holy Spirit of Pentecost – a stole that I still wear today. Red stoles are often worn by clergy for special “Holy Spirit” occasions.

But the color red—especially in relation to footwear—is especially meaningful to many clergywomen, especially United Methodist clergywomen. It goes back to the first female professional theologian in an American seminary: Georgia Harkness (who, by the way, was the first female professor at my alma mater: Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois).

Dr Harkness told this beautiful story about his great-grandmother, a Quaker woman named Abigail Harkness, who was expelled from her church in 1802 for shamelessly wearing the ‘worldly’ color red. Dr Georgia Harkness told this story with humor and pride, as her great-grandmother was a brave and pioneering woman, who eventually found her way into the Methodist Church and left her bold legacy to my tradition.

Georgia Harkness not only taught bold theology; she lived it as a hymn writer and a prolific author as well. She is famous for words of wisdom such as:

• “Religion is the most widely discussed and least agreed upon phenomenon in human history.”

• “One may be compelled to go to church, but not to worship.”

• “The great danger is that in the confession of any collective sin, we confess the sins of others and we forget our own.”

In honor of Dr. Georgia Harkness and other courageous leaders who opened the doors of church leadership to women, many Garrett-Evangelical graduates wear red shoes for their graduation and ordination. At first, there were only women, sporting chic red pumps under their dresses. But now, people of all genders are joining the celebration, wearing stilettos, flats and even high-top tennis shoes, to celebrate women’s leadership in The United Methodist Church. I heard there’s even a secular organization now called “The Red Shoe Movement: Supporting Women for Career Success”. (That’s okay; the Church is always willing to share its best ideas with the rest of the world!)

All of this leads me to reflect, on my own 16th birthday… how blessed I am to be part of a tradition that honors women’s leadership. How grateful I am to the women who came before me to pave the way for my own ministry. How important it is that I encourage the women who follow me in the line of female clergy and that I support their call.

And – where can I get a pair of red shoes?

Reverend Sara L. Isbell is senior pastor at Bloomington Wesley UMC. You can reach her at [email protected].


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