Ruth Naylor: Keeping the faith

Spiritual director; retired pastor
Bluffton '71
Major: English

For many years, Ruth Naylor admittedly "never dreamed" she would become a pastor. In fact, when she first came to Bluffton as Ruth Naylora home economics major in 1952, "all I wanted to be was a good wife and mother," she says.

But life had much more in store for the southeast Ohio native. After marrying Stan Naylor '54, joining him for two years of alternative service, having two children and living in Indiana for 11 more years, she and her family returned to Bluffton in 1967. She then earned a bachelor's degree in English and embarked on a teaching career, including 12 years at Bluffton High School.

During that time, Naylor was active in Bluffton's First Mennonite Church, eventually serving as its first female congregational chairperson. Feeling burned out at school, she decided she would quit teaching in the spring of 1984, and she shared that with her Bible study group. The group's members included Mark Weidner, then conference minister of the Central District Conference, of which First Mennonite is a member.

Filling the pulpit
Weidner wanted to see more women in pastoral leadership, Naylor recalls. "But when he recommended that I become associate pastor at First Mennonite, I told him he was crazy," she says with a smile. Undeterred, Weidner—now a Bluffton University trustee—talked to the lead pastor and the then-congregational chairperson. After some persuasion, Naylor met with the church's deacons, who "already knew me and of my commitment to God and the church." Ultimately, the congregation voted to approve her appointment as the church's first full-time associate pastor.

Naylor spent 11 years on the church staff, the last five as visitation pastor. Having dealt with difficulties in her own life, she preferred providing pastoral care to writing sermons, she says. "Some of my own life experiences helped me to see the doubts, the hurts, the hopes," she remembers, noting that "it's easy for me to have compassion for people who have struggles."

Branching out
While at First Mennonite, Naylor's involvement in the denomination spread to the conference level—she was the first female president of the Central District Conference, from 1990-92—and nationally. From 1989-95, for example, she was a member of the Joint Integration Exploration Committee formed by the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church, whose ultimate merger created Mennonite Church USA in 2002.

After 18 months as interim conference minister for the six-state Central District, the Bluffton resident retired in 1996. But she stayed active in the larger church. She was a member of Mennonite Church USA's executive board from 1999-2003 and, from 2001-03, chaired the national organization's Future Church Committee and served on its joint executive committee with Mennonite Church Canada.

Spiritual director
Naylor, who was raised in the Quaker faith, also remained active in an ecumenical peer group of northwest Ohio spiritual directors that she formed in 1990. A member of Spiritual Directors International, she continues to provide one-on-one direction to five pastors of northwest Ohio churches in three denominations—Mennonite, Lutheran and Methodist.

"They just want a listening ear," she explains. And, she adds, "It's a gift to me; it keeps me more attuned to God's presence and to praying without ceasing."