In 1965, women’s skirts became shorter and men’s hair grew longer.
Malcolm X was shot in New York, the Vietnam War continued to worsen and U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “war on poverty.”
It was a historic year, and Lutherans in North America also laid claim to being part of that history with their own breaking news: Elizabeth Platz was set to become the first woman ordained in the Lutheran church.
The former Lutheran Church in America, an ELCA predecessor church body, changed its constitution to allow for the ordination of women — the word “men” changed to “persons.”
A year later, television crews and newspaper reporters from across the country flocked to the University of Maryland’s Memorial Chapel for Elizabeth’s ordination.
“But most of them came with their story already in hand,” she recalls. “It was that ‘I had to fight my way through’ and that ‘men were the enemy.’”
It was far from the truth.
Elizabeth says her path to ordination was “an act of the Holy Spirit” supported by professors and seminary presidents, most of who happened to be men, who helped to pave the way.
“There were people who opened doors for me every step of the way,” she says. And those doors continued to open for the next 47 years.
Now at the eve of her retirement, Elizabeth admits that she did not set out to be a pastor.
A university life
For her entire 47-year career, Elizabeth has served as the Lutheran chaplain for the University of Maryland. She attributes her passion for “the sacramental life” as a primary reason for remaining at the university all these years.
“I am called to do word and sacrament. Others can do the counseling and programming, but if I was only permitted to do one thing, it would be to serve as a steward of the Holy Mysteries,” the Eucharist or Holy Communion.
“But it’s not at all about me. There is no ‘I’ here but more about the gift of being an instrument in which God speaks of God’s grace and love through the sacraments. There is a sense of awesomeness, and this is where the church speaks of the mystery of God,” she says.
In the beginning, Elizabeth wanted to study systematic theology. It was her academic interest that brought her to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.
And after her first quarter there, Elizabeth visited the seminary’s president, the Rev. Donald Heiges, who had also just started at the seminary.
“I told him I wanted to study systematic theology but that I did not want to become a pastor. Back then, systematic theology was part of earning a Bachelor of Divinity degree — or a Master of Divinity as it is known today,” she says.
His response was that “women are not part of the program, which involved three years of coursework plus an internship. So he said to me, ‘If you enroll in this program, you must take every course.’ Again making it clear that I did not want to become a pastor, I enrolled,” Elizabeth says.
When her internship year came, Elizabeth knew it would be difficult for her to get placement. And it was.
“I was told, in the nicest way, that women who had majored in systematics were not wanted. It wasn’t mean, but pastors made it very clear. This was, of course, back in the 1960s.”
But the University of Maryland offered Elizabeth an opportunity. She took it and served for five years as assistant Lutheran chaplain there. After her ordination, she became the university’s full-time Lutheran chaplain.
“I was the only woman. I’ve lived in a male world much of my life, although in recent years, there have been more women,” she says.
Love for the students
Elizabeth will retire at the end of May 2012. She says the greatest sense of pride in her 47-year career as a university chaplain is her work with students.
“They are remarkable people. One young woman now is a public defender, and others I’ve known are now teachers, engineers or in the ministry themselves. It’s such a gift to be part of people’s lives and walk with them in many ways,” she says.
Over the years students are different but questions at this time of transitional life for students remain steady, Elizabeth says. “Who am I? Where am I going? What is the meaning of life? When education is more than a vocational preparation, we’re just trying to figure what life is like and how do we fit. This has remained the same.”
So, what’s next for Elizabeth?
“I plan to sleep for hours,” she says. “But in my life, doors have always opened. We’ll see now what new doors open, what new adventures will be had.”