Leaders of Faith and Community

Posted on December 23, 2021 by Dana Poleski

Some students come to Sweet Briar knowing exactly what they want out of college. Some discover it once they arrive and some find it long after graduation. Five alumnae—Fleming Rutledge ’59, Makanah Morriss ’66, Keenan Kelsey ’66, Beth Preston ’78 and Laura Glover ’86—fall into the latter category. All five are now working as religious leaders—just a few of the many spiritual leaders among Sweet Briar alumnae. For many, this was not a path that was open to them at the time they graduated from Sweet Briar.

Though the paths of these women have been quite different, their lives clearly share Sweet Briar and spiritual elements. Each of them also has had a strong desire to help others and make the world a better place. Each points to the broad liberal arts curriculum, the openness and authenticity of the community and the freedom of self-discovery as the strong foundation upon which she stood tall and confident in whichever direction her life took her, often at the calling of God.

As priests, ministers, pastors, directors and educators, these women always knew they wanted to serve the community and help people, they just didn’t know how it would manifest in their life. Here, they share their journey from college student to a leader of faith and community.

Fleming Parker Rutledge ’59

Rev. Fleming Rutledge ’59 is an internationally known preacher and teacher and one of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church. She is the author of ten books, and her most celebrated one, “The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ”—which took her 20 years to write—is being described as a new classic on the subject. She served for more than 20 years in parish ministry, first at Christ’s Church in Rye, New York, then Grace Church in New York City. After that, she began an international preaching and teaching ministry as well as writing and publishing.

Her reflections on Sweet Briar are largely in terms of her intellectual formation. “I had a pretty rigorous education. Some of our professors were very demanding and had high standards,” shares Fleming. “It was very important to my formation. I think about that a lot.” She also points out that several of her professors were Christian, and she felt supported in her theological interests. A native of Franklin, Va., every woman in her family attended Sweet Briar, and there was no question that she would attend, as well. “That’s the joke, nobody in my family ever went anywhere else. I never even applied anywhere else,” she laughed. Fleming remains an active alumna. Fleming clearly recognizes the many societal changes that have happened since her graduation. “The change in women and their role in the world has been revolutionary since I graduated in 1959,” Fleming reflects. “The book ‘The Feminine Mystique,’ by Betty Friedan, which came out in 1963, gave me permission to start to think big about my future. I had always assumed I’d be a housewife like my mother.”

Indeed, that’s how her life after Sweet Briar began. But after 11 years of family life and running the household, she entered Union Theological Seminary in New York—a thought that had been percolating for a while. “The academic standards were very high, and I was in great shape because I had such wonderful training at Sweet Briar,” she says. “I didn’t have any trouble entering into the life of graduate school. I’ve continued to be grateful for the education I received at Sweet Briar. I’m very proud; it was peerless, really.”

For Fleming, she knew it was always her calling to do something for Christianity, the faith and the church. But she had no idea what that might be. “I was floundering, in that respect,” she recalls. “But then the possibility of women’s ordination came about, and I realized that was the direction to go in.” After graduating from Union, she was ordained as a deacon and had already been hired as a member of the clergy staff at Christ’s Church in Rye, New York. At that time in 1975, women could be deacons but not priests. However, one year later during their General Convention, the Episcopal Church’s national governing body changed the rules and allowed the ordination of women as priests, effective Jan. 1, 1977.

After this shattering of the stained glass ceiling and eighteen months into her work at Christ’s Church, Fleming was ordained a priest.

“Being in ministry is a multifaceted endeavor,” she shares. “I love being with people, trying to help them grow and develop in faith. But largely, I’m a preacher. That is my sustaining passion, my calling. Preaching isn’t just getting up and giving a speech; it’s a channel for what God is saying, and that’s an awesome responsibility.”

Makanah Dunham Morriss ’66

The path Rev. Makanah Morriss ’66 took was somewhat different. Her interest in social justice and counseling led her across the country and down the path to becoming a minister and educator in the Unitarian Universalist Church. For an equestrian from suburban Connecticut, coming to central Virginia in 1962 was a life-changing experience—from being able to ride across the vast countryside to experiencing the community and culture. Originally a political science major and psychology minor, she switched the two once she felt the pull of serving others.

A classmate of Makanah’s who was majoring in religion said that the best way to do something in the church was to marry a minister. “Women ministers weren’t on anybody’s radar. It just didn’t happen,” she says. “Of course, it had started to happen; we just hadn’t noticed it yet. I had seen maybe one woman minister, and it never occurred to me as a career path while at Sweet Briar. I loved church and its community but had no concept of a woman’s role within the church.”

With her strong interest in serving others, Makanah recalls several Sweet Briar experiences that opened her up to how she could fulfill that desire. “During my first year, we partnered with the YWCA to help in a small two-room school in Madison Heights. Then, Mrs. Wailes, my sociology professor, took students to visit a Bedford County nursing home, where we sang carols,” she remembers. “It was a very eye-opening experience. I felt like Sweet Briar invited me to go beyond the common edges of volunteer work, to places I didn’t even know about. It showed me what was needed in the world.”

Makanah’s family was very conscious politically and believed that the world always needs to be changed for the better. Politics in her family revolved around ethics and compassion. “Maybe I’ll be a secretary or administrative assistant in Washington and work for some noble leader doing noble things,” she says with a chuckle. “That was my game plan coming out of college.”

When she got a car her senior year, Makanah went to Amherst to listen to one of the religion professors who was a Methodist minister. “I found it all very interesting. But I proceeded down my path of being a medical secretary for ten years,” she says. During that time, she received her master’s in counseling, building on the strong psychology background she gained at Sweet Briar. “I tried an internship in medical social work, then in family counseling, but it wasn’t quite right; I was just bouncing along as a young adult.”

Then, she became very involved in a young adult church group, and was asked to teach a class of all boys. “You can teach them anything you want,’’ she was told by the assistant minister. That turned out to be a life-changing experience. Through the church, she could work in social justice and counseling. Next, Makanah pursued her second master’s degree, which led her to a job in a church that set her path in motion to be ordained as a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church.

She served a church in Richmond for ten years, then moved to a large church in Delaware where she focused on program development. After that, she joined the denominational headquarters in Boston where she was dean of the graduate program and director of the religious education department. “It was wonderful working with congregations across the country. We traveled all over the country training religious professionals. Everyone felt like part of my congregation,” she says lovingly.

Her most important project during that time was creating a comprehensive sexuality education program that could be used in the church as well as in community groups. “This wasn’t what I expected I would do, since I’m not a sexual health professional, but it’s what was needed,” she states. “I really put my psychology degree to good use in creating that program.”

After her work with the Unitarian Universalist Association, she and her husband went to Wyoming to lead a small church for several years. “I missed being part of a small parish. Sweet Briar had really developed within me a sense of belonging, responsibility and accountability to a community. To a first-year student, I would say listen to the nudgings of your heart,” Makanah shares. “Gather those nudgings as seeds of possibilities to follow after graduation or later in life. Collect them and don’t judge them. Watch what you like to do and what makes your heart sing.”

Keenan Colton Kelsey ’66

Like Fleming Rutledge, Keenan Kelsey ’66 wasn’t the first Sweet Briar alumna in her family. Her mother, Howell Lykes Colton, was a member of the Class of 1938, and if you visit campus today, you’ll see that Sweet Briar’s recent.ly renovated stables are now named in Howell’s honor.

And, also like Fleming and Makanah, Keenan’s path to becoming a religious leader was a winding one. It took her across the country and through highs and lows as the phases of her life unfolded. “I knew how happy it would make my mother to go to Sweet Briar, and looking back, I wish I had understood a little more what college could mean and the opportunities it provided. But, I made lifelong friends and learned how to think and be in this world. And that’s a gift.”

A few years into married life in Washington, D.C., Keenan decided she wanted to work. “As an English major, everyone assumed I’d be a teacher,” she says through a smirk. “But I was already enough of a rebel to say no—I would be a good teacher, but no thank you.” Instead, she took a job on the editorial board of the Journal of Forestry. At the same time, she began to feel her own calling and values. “I had started out working for Barry Goldwater and ended up writing for Bobby Kennedy and working for Head Start. My biggest claim to fame was being part of the original group that organized Earth Day in 1970.”

Following her D.C. years, her family moved to San Francisco, and she continued her environmental action work. Life took a turn and she, her husband and her sister (who had joined them out west) found themselves out of work. “So, we decided to buy a pet store,” she declared. That spontaneity and confidence had a lot to do with her time at Sweet Briar, she points out. Life took more twists and turns, including a drug and alcohol problem. She entered recovery and began another phase of life and rediscovery. “I found myself be.coming more attached to my college experiences than ever before. They became more important,” Keenan says.

“During recovery, my daughter led me back to church after she was invited to participate in a play at a friend’s church,” she remembers fondly. “And of course, the Presbyterian Church asked if I’d like to be on a committee, and that’s how I became involved again.”

One year into recovery, she knew she didn’t want to return to retail and thought about becoming a teacher, get.ting a law degree or being a social worker. “Then one day I was invited to lead a group in a church workshop on the church’s response to AIDS,” she says. “I watched speakers from street, homeless, youth and chaplaincy ministries and thought, ‘that’s what I want to do, and I can do it through the church.’”

Within six weeks, Keenan was in seminary. “I often felt imposter syndrome while in seminary. I wasn’t sure I could do it. But when I told my college room.mates, they said, ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense.’” Even though the Presbyterian Church was fairly advanced in ordaining women, there was still a big stained glass ceiling. She did some writing for the national church, had three interim calls and then joined a small church in San Francisco where she stayed for 14 years.

“It’s easy to trace my choices in life back to Sweet Briar, not so much in the specifics but in the intangibles,” reflects Keenan. “It’s not just buildings and learning. It’s knowing people from around the world and coming together in the campus experience that bonds us. The chaplain gave us an understanding of God and was an undercurrent of our community. Sweet Briar has a sense of sacredness in how its community works, in the people that come there, in the faculty. It gave me a sense of gratitude and grace.”

Beth Cone Preston ’78

Rev. Beth Preston ’78 was ordained an Episcopal priest in 2018, yet the majority of her life had already been dedicated to serving God and her community, especially children.

“I didn’t have a typical Sweet Briar experience,” she shares. “It was a bit of a difficult time, being in an all-women setting and far from home—we had moved from Missouri to the Netherlands, then to Massachusetts. College was my introduction to a service influenced by the Episcopal Church. I didn’t attend regularly, but I loved the liturgy. If I could do it over again I would have gone a lot more,” she laughs.

Even though she says her “academics were not stellar at Sweet Briar,” she pursued her master’s in journalism and went on to graduate from Nashotah House seminary. Perhaps this could encourage undergraduate students, she says: “Even if you aren’t at the top of your class or one of the leaders on campus, you can go on to do amazing things with God’s help.”

Beth, who always knew she wanted to help people, majored in psychology but by her senior year, she found herself spending most of her time in the art studio. “Turns out I was much more interested in art than psychology,” she recollects.“I remember in one art class there was a woman from the community who was an Episcopal priest. Interacting with her in studio art was very formative for me. The fact that Sweet Briar encouraged multidisciplinary studies and welcomed community members was a very enriching experience.”

After graduation, she became a social worker in child protective services, which was difficult but rewarding. “But I also continued with art over the years, teaching at a Christian school and using it in my outreach ministry, The Way Station.”

Originally, she thought the ministry would reach out to young Millennials or those who aren’t affiliated with a church or denomination, but they ended up pivoting when they learned that middle schoolers needed a place to go after school. “Often, they were staying at school until late in the evening without anything to eat. It wasn’t what I thought I would be doing, but I prayed about it and realized, yes, this is what I want to do.” And so, The Way Station became an outreach program to all youth, but specifically to middle school students who are often overshadowed by support for elementary and high school students.

Having been ordained a priest only three years ago, it is still a new path for Beth. “I was very traditional and didn’t believe in women in ministry,” she shares. “At the time, Nashota was a conservative seminary where women didn’t celebrate the Eucharist but did preach and made many other contributions. But as a traditionalist, that didn’t bother me, and I felt very welcomed. I know that for women who heard the calling to be ordained ministers long before I did, their path was probably much more difficult.”

Originally, Beth went to seminary with no intention of seeking ordination and thought that with a journalism degree, maybe she was supposed to write. “I continually said that I’m not seeking holy orders, but after a while, I began to ask myself, ‘Is that right?’ Then during one particular class where we were talking about the harvest and needing more workers, I felt that God was calling me to the ministry,” she says with a definitive air. “But I was terrified and thought ‘Oh no!’ I told my priest that I needed to go in discernment, which is what you do when you think you might be called to ordination. He said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you to say that.’”

For Beth, she now sees how Sweet Briar and every step in her life came together to prepare her for exactly what she’s doing. “I feel so honored and privileged to be a part of it.”

Laura Hand Glover ’86

Rev. Laura Hand Glover ’86 found her calling through a series of circumstances and connections that shifted her focus from civil rights work in Washington, D.C., to feeding the homeless, to serving small rural community churches in her home state of Oklahoma.

“My grandmother grew up in Amherst County, and I re.member visiting for family reunions and hearing all about Sweet Briar, May Day and other community events,” Laura reminisces. “So when it came time to look at schools, she made sure I visited and learned about their creative writing program, which was one of the best in the country.”

Since the Class of 1986 was one of the largest ever, not everyone could take English in the first semester. “My advisor recommended I take Intro to Logic. As I was planning on going into law school, I said ‘yeah, sure, logic sounds good,’” she says with a shrug. “But after that, I was off and running and never took a creative writing class.”

Laura did, however, take advantage of the broad education that the liberal arts offers.“Everything was interesting and eye-opening. I spent a lot of time in the theatre department, which was like a second home,” she remembers. “No matter how different it was from my childhood home, I had my place in its world. That is something I think is special about Sweet Briar: No matter how different people were, they always found their place and were a vital part of the community.”

Laura, like many Sweet Briar women, always wanted to make the world a better place, pursue justice and make an impact. Her heroes growing up were Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks. “I assumed I would go into law in Washington, but I quickly learned that D.C. was not for me, and I wanted to change the world from the rural midwest.” She went back to graduate and law school then accepted a federal courtship position in Houston.

And this is when her calling began to take shape. Her office overlooked a park where many of Houston’s homeless population gathered during the day. “Having grown up in a small community, I couldn’t understand how people could fall through the community net and how others could turn their back on those in need,” Laura remarks. So, what did she do? She’d bring them lunch a couple of times a week and chat. When it came time for her second term as a federal law clerk, she turned it down and spent the next 10 years pursuing this calling and raising a family.

She continued to work in missions and volunteered with feeding ministries particularly in a homeless network of 12 churches. “It was very fulfilling, and I thought how great it would feel to give myself over completely to the church and go to seminary.” But life changed course again, and she returned to Sweet Briar to work in the development office. During that time, she enjoyed working with the chaplain’s office, supporting their ministries and the young women in their spiritual life. After her time at Sweet Briar, Laura returned to Oklahoma and joined a feeding ministry as regional director of a food bank.

She enjoyed her work, but time and again through her life, the notion of attending seminary made its way into her thoughts. Then in 2014, she received a letter of acceptance to seminary, a scholarship, a church appointment and joined the program for local license ministry.

“I realized that nothing in my life was off my true path. It all came together. I found my place serving and advocating for the rural church,” she says. As if to further con.firm her path, the United Methodist Conference offered her a position in a new program of cooperative parish ministry, which connected four churches, enabling them to share staff and hold joint ministries and worship.

“I’m a very collaborative person, which I believe has a lot to do with a background in the liberal arts. It’s about seeing connections, the value of community and the importance of utilizing the many different gifts that people have,” Laura says with a smile.

“It’s important to bring many viewpoints to the table to address a situation, solve a problem and create something special. These are skills you acquire at Sweet Briar.”

For our future women leaders

Each of these alumnae experienced a journey that is both unique and similar. Grounded in a desire to help others, they clearly see how Sweet Briar took that foundation and helped shape them into confident, compassionate and curious women.

Beth perhaps sums it up best with these words of advice for current students: “How do you ask questions? Shift the narrative? Find a connection? Start a conversation? Build trust and respect? It is all based on understanding. Sweet Briar fosters such personal development. Everyone has a place to fit in here because there are as many ways to do that as there are people. Trust the experience. Be unafraid. Take courses you’ve never heard of and join activities you’ve never done. Experience new things and challenge yourself. Ask the hard questions and have the difficult conversations. What a wonderful place to do all of that. Treasure this environment of women’s wisdom.”

This article was originally printed in the spring 2021 issue of Sweet Briar Magazine.