An extended review of a 2022 novel by Donna Mann
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Book by Donna Mann. Word Alive Press, 2022. 282 pages. $29 (e-book $9)
This novel relates the story of Emma Taylor, a frustrated minister’s wife, to help readers understand what goes on inside the mind and heart of a woman who feels she’s wasting the gifts God has given her.
Emma's Call is set in a fictional rural community in Southern Ontario in 1935. Although 49-year-old Emma and her husband Bill have previously served together in ministry, leading revival meetings in Ontario and as missionaries in Africa, the leadership of their current church called Bill as their minister and expect Emma to simply be the minister’s wife. As a result, Emma set aside her leadership gifts and dutifully fulfilled her expected role. In fact, no one in the town knows that she is just as qualified and experienced in leadership as her husband.
When her two daughters were at home, Emma managed to keep to the role she’d been given, but by the end of ten years, with her daughters grown, Emma has time on her hands. She starts a Mission Circle group for young girls, occasionally leads worship for a few women who don’t live in the area of the church, bakes, and tries to visit the sick or homebound and do other tasks suited to the pastor’s wife, but she finds it hard going because any change she makes results in her being put in “her place” by some of the men in church leadership and even other women.
While Bill tries to be supportive, he worries Emma might do something that will anger the church leaders and cost him his job. So she tries to spare him, knowing he doesn’t really understand how she feels, knowing she has gifts of leadership and teaching, but being talked down to and marginalized by people who believe that a woman’s role in the church can only be that of a helper. She wonders if she’s doing all that God wants her to do. And, if she is, why she has such a longing to do more.
And then an unexpected tragedy strikes, and Emma’s and Bill’s lives are changed forever. Emma is forced to ask herself hard questions, and to make a choice between continuing to let other people's expectations limit her call or showing everyone who she really is and expecting them to treat her differently.
While Emma’s Call isn’t autobiographical, it’s clear the author understands the issues many women have faced and continue to face. Even today, while some denominations accept women in pastoral leadership, others continue to struggle with the issue.
I’m sure many women can relate, as I do, to the reality of asking God why we have leadership gifts we’re apparently not supposed to use. While I never wanted to be a pastor, I remember when I was struggling with this issue. I searched for books to enlighten me and found only two or three that were remotely helpful.
As I read Emma’s story, I felt some of my old frustration coming back. But I also realized that if you look closely, you’ll see that the author managed to weave into Emma's story golden threads that illustrate what the church is meant to be – a community in which every person regardless of gender or age is accepted, encouraged, cared for, and equipped for ministry. I think most women and many men would benefit from reading about Emma’s journey.
Author Rev. Dr. Donna Mann is a retired minister from the United Church of Canada. She has a Doctorate of Ministry in local pastoral ministry and women’s studies, a Master of Divinity in theology, and a BA in sociology and social work.
A wife, mother and grandmother, Mann returned to school in midlife and served full-time in three pastoral charges before earning her doctorate. She wrote her thesis on the roots of positive and negative attitudes towards clergywomen.
She has been an adjunct professor for women's studies at Trinity College and Theological Seminary from 2000–present.
In 2012 she received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for longtime advocacy to heighten the awareness of Agnes Macphail, the first woman elected to the Canadian House of Commons, 1921–1940.
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