One week into my mid-term appointment in December 2018 to the Liberty-Pleasant Grove charge in rural Chillicothe, the evangelism chairperson of Liberty UMC picked me up at the church to visit homebound parishioners. When I slid into his red Chevy pickup, he handed me a blue book—a history of the Liberty Methodist Church published in 1957. Church history fascinates me, and I read through the material that very afternoon.
In that history, I saw pictures of Dr. Frank Curtis Fay and his wife, Olive. Frank pastored at Liberty Methodist Church from 1925 until his death in January 1933, and the history recorded that Olive assumed his pastorate and served at Liberty Church until 1944. At the time, I did not know as much about Methodist history as I thought I did. “She must have been from a different denomination,” I mused, “because the Methodist Church did not ordain women until 1956.” I was confusing ordination with full clergy rights. At Pleasant Grove UMC, Olive’s name appeared on a list of pastors found in an old directory and indicated she had pastored there from 1945-to 47. Knowing that women pastors were rare at the time, I could not get Olive out of my mind and was curious about her story.
Olive Reger Rusk was born on October 21, 1880, in Joplin to James and Mary Rusk. The family was prosperous enough to send Olive to college, and she graduated from Emerson College of Oratory in Boston with undergraduate and master’s degrees in speech. Olive taught speech in colleges in Arkansas, Georgia, and North Carolina prior to moving back to Missouri, where she was a popular speaker on lyceum and chataqua circuits. While on these circuits, Olive met another popular speaker. Frank Fay was a Methodist minister and widower with three sons living. Olive and Frank married on October 19, 1917, in Webb City and on March 12, 1919, Curtis Rusk Fay was born.
Frank retired from full-time ministry in 1925 but continued pastoring two rural churches on the Chillicothe circuit — Liberty Church and Reese Chapel. Frank became ill in late 1932, contracted pneumonia, and died on January 12, 1933. Not quite a month later, on February 10, Olive was installed to succeed her husband. “Mrs. Frank C. Fay Thursday was notified of her appointment to continue her husband’s work on the Chillicothe Circuit of the Methodist Episcopal Church.”1
Olive was a remarkable woman, involved in the community and politics, and the local newspaper recorded her accomplishments even if it only briefly mentioned her role as pastor.
The request of the editors of the Biographical Quarterly in London, England, to include a biographical sketch of Mrs. Frank C. Fay of this city in the next Quarterly publication is another honor that has come to Mrs. Fay. Notice of the selection of her name to appear in the publication and a request for her biography were only recently received by Mrs. Fay. She has been engaged in education work in Arkansas, North Carolina, and Georgia and was well known in lyceum and Chautauqua circles. For some time, she traveled with Dr. Fay assisting him in his speaking tours, war drives and political campaigns. Her work in Chillicothe is recognized for its importance to clubs, churches, political circles and Chillicothe itself…Since her husband’s death only a few years ago, she has taken over his pastorates at the Liberty and Reece Chapel churches near Chillicothe and has won her congregations to lasting friendships and complete cooperation.2
Mrs. Frank C. Fay of this city has been named as eligible for the International Blue Book published in Washington, D.C., and her biography will be included in the forthcoming edition…Mrs. Fay’s biography already appears in Who’s Who in American Women and also in a volume giving biographical sketches of distinguished PEO members. Mrs. Fay as a minister, is probably one of only three Methodist women pastors in the state. Although women are not yet admitted officially to the Missouri Conference, they have the duties conference pastors have.3
While the local newspaper did not report on the history-making aspect of Olive’s role as a female pastor, it did report on three of her major accomplishments as a pastor:
Mrs. F. C. Fay of this city was ordained by Bishop J. C. Broomfield of St. Louis as a deacon at an ordination service at the Missouri Conference
of Methodism at Cameron Sunday afternoon. Mrs. Fay was the only woman among several men to receive the honor in this ordination service. Mrs. Fay, pastor at Liberty, Reese, and Chula Methodist Churches, has been what is known as a local preacher. Her next step, and the highest she can reach since women cannot be admitted to the conference as ministers, will be as an elder. 4
Mrs. F. C. Fay returned Friday night from Fayette, where she has been since June 3 in an undergraduate training school for Methodist pastors. This year completed Mrs. Fay’s fourth and final year, and her examinations were taken Friday. Mrs. Fay already has been given her deacon’s orders; sometime this summer, she will receive her elder’s orders, and in September, she will be ordained.5
The impressions Olive made on her congregations were also recorded in the local newspaper. “Following the death of Dr. Frank C. Fay, one of the honored and retired members of the Missouri Annual Conference, Mrs. Fay was appointed to serve the Liberty-Reese Chapel charge. She has served with splendid success, and her continuation has been unanimously requested.”6 And “Since her husband’s death only a few years ago, she has taken over his pastorates at the Liberty and Reece Chapel churches near Chillicothe and has won her congregations to lasting friendships and complete cooperation.
As more women became pastors, more firsts occurred:
Mrs. Frank C. Fay, the popular pastor of Liberty and Chula Methodist Churches, who has just returned to these churches for the tenth year, had an interesting experience at the recent Methodist conference. Among those being ordained into the ministry was a lady, Mrs. Ruby McLeod of Edinburg, Mo. At Mrs. McLeod’s request, Mrs. Fay and two other lady ministers of the conference had a part in her ordination service. So far as is known, this is the first time that women have participated in the ordination service of a Methodist minister. This honor of assisting the bishop is usually reserved for the district superintendents.8
When I first read part of Olive’s story in 2018, I thought she might have been one of the first women pastors in Methodist history. Remember, I didn’t know as much about Methodist history as I thought I did! Upon reading American Methodism: A Compact History9 during Course of Study, I discovered a much longer history regarding women clergy and the limited rights they had in the Methodist Church that extended back before Olive’s birth. As early as the 1872 Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) General Conference, “resolutions advocated licensing and ordaining women as preachers and striking male language and inserting the word persons in the Discipline.”10 The response of the General Conference was “in regard to woman’s preaching, we must wait for further developments of Providence.”11
The fight for full clergy rights for women continued. Following the Civil War, Methodism established theological education and the Course of Study, and women were among those earning degrees, certifications, and licenses. Some people supported full clergy rights for women; others opposed it. Bishop Stephen Merrill once ruled that “lower judiciaries had no right to grant women licenses to preach.”12 Still in 1880 (the year Olive was born), “General Conference was in no mood to change the Discipline ‘as it regards the status of women in our church.’”13
For the first half of the twentieth century, the fight for full clergy rights for women continued, and Olive was part of that struggle. For example, in 1924:
The committee, considering the matter, embraced ‘ordination of women as local preachers,’ providing women sacramental authority in the often marginal, rural, and missional situations to which they had been appointed. It could not recommend full clergy rights, explaining that admitting women to the annual conference would introduce the ‘peculiar and embarrassing difficulties’ of having to guarantee ‘to every effective minister a church and to every self-supporting church a minister.’ The legislation, passed after heated debate, permitted women partial ministerial status. They could be ordained but not made members of the annual conference, nor be guaranteed appointment and minimum salary, nor enjoy pension benefits.14
The struggle for full clergy rights continued.
The Methodist union of 1939…represented clergy-rights setbacks for women…The Methodist Uniting Conference defeated full conference membership for female clergy…For successive General Conferences — 1944, 1948, and 1952 — the Methodist Woman’s Division of Christian Service petitioned conference delegates to grant full clergy rights to women…The MC General Conference, meeting in 1956 in Minneapolis, received more than two thousand petitions asking for full clergy rights for women. The Committee on the Ministry brought in a compromise recommendation…granting full clergy rights to women but stipulating that “only unmarried women and widows may apply.” The conference removed the majority-report provision that married women could not apply. “Then, by an overwhelming show of hands,” the delegates passed the historic motion putting into the Methodist Discipline the following simple but momentous words: “Women are included in all the provisions of the Discipline referring to the ministry.”15
Full clergy rights for women passed in 1956—four years after Olive retired and one year before she died. The only mention of this victory for women in ministry in the local paper was from an article written by George W. Cornell, which simply said the General Conference had “extended full clergy rights to women.”16
Olive’s story paralleled that of women clergy in Methodist history in general. She was appointed but was never a member of the Conference. All her appointments were to rural churches. With the help of conference archivist John Finley, I discovered that Olive was paid less than her male counterparts —even if she had more experience. Elton Fay, Olive’s grandson, told me that his four uncles each gave Olive $5.00 a month to “ride her circuit .”She also used her training in speech, tutoring students to earn extra money. I recently “rode” Olive’s circuits, and some of them are not easy on today’s modern roads! What must it have been like to ride the circuit while driving many miles on gravel roads? To become a pastor while grieving her husband’s death? To pastor up to five churches at a time while attending a Course of Study and raising a teen-aged son during the Great Depression? To be the mother of a soldier, pastoring with a World War raging?
Many women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries probably felt the call to ministry but could not follow it due to the restrictions, setbacks, and limitations of partial clergy rights. Despite those restrictions, setbacks, and limitations, other women — and men as well — continued to fight for full clergy rights in the Methodist Church. Thanks to people like Olive Fay, women clergy today can embrace their call to ministry.