Thank You Joan: How We Found Our Voices

Talitha Arnold

In the high desert of northern New Mexico, piñon trees are icons of endurance. The sturdy, compact trees can live for centuries in a land of little rain, desert heat, bone-chilling cold, storms, and wind. Piñons grow in the unlikeliest places, clinging to the side of a canyon wall or atop a mesa, unprotected from the elements. 

How do piñons survive and even thrive? Their roots go deep and wrap around the biggest rocks they can find to hold them against the harsh desert landscape. 

The Rev. Joan Bates Forsberg ’53 B.D. knows what it takes to live and serve in unlikely places of ministry. Born in New Jersey, now living in retirement in California, she came to YDS in 1950 as one of ten women admitted under the school’s quota for female students. By policy, none received financial aid. They couldn’t live on campus. The second day of school, Joan and her classmates were welcomed by the dean, who also reminded them they were taking the place of a qualified man, so they should be there to study, not seek a husband. 

Rooted in the Rock of Ages 

As a place of role models for women in ministry, YDS in the 1950s was barren as a desert mesa – no women professors or worship leaders until 1971, when Joan herself joined the staff and ethics professor Margaret Farley became a faculty member. 

Yet Joan says the women students were not alone. “We may not have had role models, but we had the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit helped us live into the new reality of being women called to seminary and into ministry.”1 Joan and her classmates dug deep and wrapped their roots around the rock of their love for God and God’s love for them. 

Those roots also embraced the other ageless rock of our faith – the love of neighbor. Joan started YDS with plans to become a campus minister. But after graduation, she and her husband Bob Forsberg ’52 B.D. moved from Prospect Street into the housing projects of New Haven to help start an interracial group ministry focused on social and racial justice. Over the next 20 years, they raised three children, advocated for better schools and health for their neighbors, and experienced first-hand the transformation of the civil rights movement into Black Power. 

They shared a covenant of economic equality (their income was the same as their neighbors’) and daily prayer. There were times, Joan acknowledges, when it was overwhelming to be both a mother raising children and a minister dealing with rent control and rat control. Often, “the only thing that got me through the day was knowing that five other people had prayed for me that morning.” As she discovered, love required a faith rooted in God’s love and held in the prayers of others. 

Later, at YDS, she would teach generations of students, both women and men, that same wisdom. 

Job Posting: Women’s Advocate 

In 1971, the 28 women students of YDS told Dean Colin Williams, “We don’t even know what a woman minister looks like. YDS needs women on the faculty.” Out of the blue, the dean called Joan at her New Haven ministry and asked her to fill a new YDS position: Advocate for Women. 

Over the next two decades, Joan helped guide the school through an enrollment surge of women. “Those were the years,” she recalled, “when the Holy Spirit blew open the doors of seminaries and denominations across the country. Women who had heard God’s call – and had been waiting for the church to hear it, too – came pouring in.” Some male faculty accused Joan of “recruiting” female students. “I’m not recruiting,” she answered. “The Holy Spirit is sending them! I just welcome them.”

By the mid-70s, along with professors Margaret Farley and Letty Russell, Joan formed a holy trinity of advocacy for women seminarians, offering moral support and mentoring as women blazed trails in the male-dominated worlds of YDS and the church.

Unexpected Destinations

For many of us, Joan was the first woman we’d ever heard preach or seen celebrate the Eucharist. As a white minister who lived two decades in an African-American neighborhood, she brought a perspective to her teaching and Common Room conversations that linked the Christian faith with both racial justice and feminism. As a wife and mother, she knew the challenges older women face in returning to school while raising their families.

Yet Joan’s influence wasn’t limited to women or to students. She provided all of us – no matter our gender, generation, race, or setting – the essentials of ministry.

She taught us to honor God’s call to ministry in places we didn’t expect. Eugene Petersen translates the opening of John’s Gospel as “the Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” Joan did that when she followed God’s call to move into New Haven’s inner city in the early 1950s. It wasn’t the life or ministry Joan had anticipated, but it was the place that called her.

Dean Williams’s phone call 20 years later called Joan into yet another unexpected place – a university divinity school with growing numbers of strong-willed, sometimes radical and generally younger women. By her own admission, Joan hadn’t paid much attention to the women’s movement when she was busy raising children and doing urban ministry. Now she was in the middle of it.

Her experience of such faithful surprises and dislocations held many lessons. Those of us in ministry in the early 21st century also know about being dislocated, whether by cultural change or the diminishment of the church. God has certainly led us to some unfamiliar places. But wherever we found ourselves, Joan taught us to honor the Christ that was already at work there. As a young, seminary-educated white woman, Joan could have moved into an impoverished African-American neighborhood with her own agenda for her new neighbors. She didn’t. Instead she got to know them. She took time to understand the issues that were important to the women and families on the block.

A good example was the issue of family planning and birth control. Until the Griswold v. Connecticut US Supreme Court decision in 1965 (in which Joan played a major role), the use of contraception was illegal even for married women in Connecticut. Consequently as a young married woman, Joan drove once a month to Port Arthur, NY, to get her contraceptive contraband. When her neighbors saw that she wasn’t pregnant every year, they asked how she did it. “Do you make Bob sleep on the roof?” one woman joked.

After Joan told them about her monthly trips to New York, neighborhood women organized their own pilgrimages to Port Arthur. Joan had no idea her ministry would include driving the parish van full of women on a mission for birth control. “But if you listen to your neighbors,” she said, “if you honor their wisdom and trust that Christ has been at work long before you ever showed up, then you never know where the Spirit will lead you or how your ministry will unfold.”

“That’s for You to Define”

She took the same approach with the YDS job. When she asked Dean Williams, “What does an advocate for women do?” he replied, “I don’t know! That’s for you and the women to define.” Joan listened to the ideas, concerns, and excitement of the new women students. She supported us as we strategized with women faculty to institute change, whether opening a women’s restroom or getting inclusive language hymnals for chapel. Joan also built bridges with those who resisted such change. She listened to the women students who didn’t see a need for a Women’s Advocate or a Women’s Center. She listened deeply to the concerns and sometimes confusion of the men, whether students or faculty.

Joan knew that going the extra mile with someone who differs from us can help us find common ground and discover how God’s Spirit is at work in ways we may not see. Whether my classmates and I served established congregations in the suburbs or created communities on the cutting edge of feminism, womanism, or LGBTQ rights, we needed to seek that same Christ. Faced with today’s deep national divisions, we still do.

The Christ Within

Joan also taught us to honor the Christ within us. She and her YDS classmates knew only too well the questions that have dogged women in ministry for generations: Are we legitimate? Do we have a right to claim our own authority? The 1950s template for church leadership was decidedly male. “I never felt legitimate as a preacher,” Joan said, “not when the only model was that of the black-robed handsome man with a voice that sounded like God and the authority to back it up.”

Joan didn’t have the same doubts about celebrating the Eucharist. “Standing at the communion table wasn’t about me or my wisdom and insights,” she said. “It was about breaking the bread, sharing the cup, praying for the Spirit, and inviting everyone to the feast. That I could do.” And so generations of YDS students and faculty had their first experience of a woman’s hands holding the bread and lifting the cup, and a woman’s voice calling them to the table of the Lord. Generations of women students saw they had a right to hear Christ’s call and stand in that same place.

As a student, I didn’t always understand Joan’s fear of preaching. I was used to public speaking from years of 4-H demonstration contests and speech competitions. I’d also had women professors in college, and my mother had been a research scientist and teacher, so I had role models and felt reasonably confident in leading worship.

But one Friday afternoon in my last year at YDS, I was working on a Women’s Re-Union project in an empty office, when a senior male professor came in expecting to find someone to type a letter for him. To this day, I don’t know what set him off other than the fact I wasn’t a secretary but a coordinator for the Women’s Center. A foot taller and a lot heavier than I, the professor stood in the doorway so I couldn’t leave until he’d vented his anger at women, feminism, and a host of social justice issues. His rage sowed seeds of self-doubt. Maybe he was right. Maybe I and other women students were ruining the school by our presence and leadership. The next time I helped lead worship in Marquand Chapel, my right arm trembled throughout the service. I began to understand why Joan and others had difficulty finding the voice of their own authority.

Such doubts were reinforced over the years as I and other YDS women grads hit the proverbial glass ceiling and heard the refrain that “churches weren’t ready for a female senior minister.”

She Belongs Up There

Yet 10 years after graduation, at a national gathering of my denomination, I watched the young woman moderator lead the meeting. A recent YDS graduate, she was the first ordained woman in that denominational role. I thought to myself, “She knows she belongs there. On stage, up front, she has no doubts that she doesn’t have a right to lead. No one has told her otherwise.” I finally realized what Joan had felt about my generation of women preachers: We had the voice of authority, even when the voices in our heads told us otherwise.

Women’s right to preach and lead remains an issue, given that many denominations and also non-denominational megachurches continue to base ordination on one’s chromosomes. A 2017 Barna study showed that only one in 11 Protestant congregations is led by a woman, and overall those congregations tend to be smaller than those led by men. With such barriers persisting, Joan’s affirmation to “honor the Christ within oneself” is as important now as it was for her generation.

Finally, even as we found our own voices of authority and leadership, Joan also taught us to honor the silence. Not the mandated silence imposed by church authorities or doctrine, but the silence that comes from within. It’s the silence that comes to each of us, male or female, old or young, at some time in our ministries.

In 1980, when Letty Russell organized a group of women students to plan the first Women’s Re-Union to commemorate 50 years of women at YDS, we all agreed that Joan should be the closing-service preacher, even though we all knew she hated to preach. The organizers also agreed that I should be the one to talk her into it. “She’ll listen to you,” Letty said. “Don’t let us down.”

As it turned out, I was the one who needed to listen. Over dinner one cold January night, I presented Joan with all the reasons we needed her to preach. She was a role model. She spanned generations of YDS women. She had first-hand experience of balancing ministry and family life. She had witnessed the connection between racism and sexism. We all supported her and wanted her to do it. Personally, I needed not to fail in this most important task.

Silent Truths

Joan listened. She suggested other women as possibilities. She asked why we needed a preacher at all. She recommended Quaker silence. After I’d answered her questions, she was silent for some time. She turned her wine glass around and around on the table. Finally she spoke and I listened.

“I don’t have any more words to offer, Talitha,” she said. “The last 10 years have been filled with so many challenges and so much change, I don’t have anything to say.”

“I feel silenced,” she continued, “not by church doctrine as so many women have been and continue to be, but silenced by my own life. I have no words to offer, no courage or insight. Only silence – and you can’t preach that.”

Joan and I sat in that silence for a long time. What do you say when the person who has been your role model tells you she has no more words? You honor the silence.

Finally I said, “Joan, I think that is what all of us need to hear. We need to know the truth about the silence. We need to hear you name what can happen in ministry. We need to hear that truth from you.”

And that’s what she preached. In her sermon for the closing service, Joan recalled the story of Zechariah who was silenced by Archangel Gabriel at the annunciation of John the Baptist. Like Zechariah, Joan observed, we too can be silenced by the events in our lives, struck mute when changes come too quickly and our images of God or ourselves no longer hold true. Ironically, she continued, it is often at those times when we have nothing to say to others or ourselves, that another will appear at our door to ask for a word – to counsel, preach, or advise.

When faced with such silence, Joan asked that we not speak empty words or deride ourselves for our lack of eloquence. She urged that we listen to the silence and hear the Word from others – through Scripture or music, prayer or meditation, the sharing of bread and cup around the table. She asked us to trust that God’s spirit was still with us, as it had been for Zechariah, and that it would still bring new life.

As a woman in ministry for almost 40 years, I have known such silences. You probably have, too. They’ve come after national tragedies like 9/11, Sandy Hook, Emmanuel A.M.E., and El Paso. They’ve come, too, after the death of a parent, the ending of a relationship, the loss of a friend. Sometimes the silence has come more slowly, when the church that a student prepared for no longer exists or the language of the faith is no longer spoken by the culture.

In such times, may we remember Joan’s wisdom to honor the silence and wait for the Spirit. May we, like she, also nurture a faith that puts down roots deep enough to wrap around the ageless rocks of love for God and love for neighbor.

Talitha Arnold ’80 M.Div. has been the pastor of United Church of Santa Fe, NM, since 1987. A past winner of the United Church of Christ’s Antoinette Brown Award for Outstanding Clergywoman, she is the author of Worship for Vital Congregations (Pilgrim Press, 2007).


1 Quotations from Joan Forsberg in this article are based on remarks she made to the author during a series of conversations that stretch back across nearly 40 years of friendship, and as recently as this summer.