A retiring minister whose next steps are anything but

by Kristin Holmes
Posted 9/28/23

During the worrying days of a pandemic, the Rev. Ethelyn Taylor leaned into the uncertain space between the here and the not yet.

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A retiring minister whose next steps are anything but


During the worrying days of a pandemic, the Rev. Ethelyn Taylor leaned into the uncertain space between the here and the not yet.

The anxiety and depression intertwined with months of sickness and death that might have crippled others didn’t stunt Taylor and her mission. She continued to teach and minister, and organize online activities and services. Her church hosted an in-person protest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

It is that kind of indefatigable spirit that Philadelphia Presbytery leader the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace expects will sustain Taylor as she steps into retirement at age 90 – 30 years after being called to pastor Oxford Presbyterian Church in Mt. Airy.

“Even as she is retiring, (Taylor) is thinking about what’s next, said Santana-Grace, who is also moderator of the national denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA. “She is comfortable leaning into new spaces and continues to be inspired. If you’re going to lead people, you need to find that spirit.”

Over the course of her ministry, Taylor has led gracefully, using her gifts – and persuasively harnessing those of others – to create a community in and around a church that she took from struggling to thriving, while eventually rising to help lead the local denomination as moderator. 

“I always loved the church,” said Taylor, who lives in Cheltenham Township. “I can say with certainty that God (for decades) was priming me for what I have been doing for these 30 years.”

As a youngster, Taylor’s family life was centered around St. Matthew’s A.M.E Church in West Philadelphia. Taylor assisted Sunday School teachers with classes. She took piano lessons and played music for the younger children at church.  

Even as a teenager, she argued for the role of women in leadership in a discussion when her father promoted traditional roles for women. “That was the first time I ever talked back,” Taylor said. “I said ‘Women can do more than get married and have children.’” 

After graduating from Philadelphia High School for Girls, Taylor had hoped to enroll in Temple University to study education, but her family couldn’t afford it. So she studied music at a conservatory and worked at Gimbels department store. Then she met her future husband, a seminary student, at a Lincoln University football game and got married. 

During the earlier years of their marriage, the couple traveled as Taylor’s husband Herbert began his career in ministry, and Taylor earned her bachelor’s degree along the way.

When Taylor’s husband was called to lead Reeve Memorial Church in West Philadelphia, Taylor began directing the choir. She taught Sunday school at church and elementary school in the city. The couple were the parents of four children.

Her religious calling became clearer when Taylor began thinking about a future after teaching. 

“God didn’t call me on the telephone or blind me on the road to Damascus,” Taylor said, but, in her prayers, she felt directed to continue teaching and to be “theologically prepared.” She interpreted that as a call to pastoral ministry, something she never considered.

Nevertheless, she leaned into something new in her 50s, while coping with the loss of a son who had been killed in a car accident. Taylor enrolled in the former Eastern Baptist Seminary. Increasingly engrossed in coursework, she became committed to ministry, and she decided to retire from the classroom.

“I never looked back,” Taylor said. She was ordained at 60. 

Taylor’s assignment to Oxford came at the suggestion of the local Presbytery’s leadership. 

At the time, Oxford was an aging, predominantly white congregation with about 50 members that included about six Black families. When Taylor came on board as the first woman and African American to pastor the church, her assignment wasn’t greeted warmly by everyone. She was turned away from home visits by some white families; others left the church. During her early years as a student pastor, she also coped with a second son’s death.

“For the first two years, I walked every day – this block one day, another block another,” Taylor said. “I would knock on doors, introduce myself as a new pastor… and I would say come visit us some Sunday.”

Gradually, people in the neighborhood came to visit – and join. Taylor began meeting the school bus at the corner of Gowen and Mansfield, introducing herself to the children and then began an after-school program at the church. An annual flea market, crab feast, vacation Bible school sessions, line-dance ministry, and other expanded programming raised the church’s community profile. Taylor worked some 12-hour days. The membership grew to more than 200.

“The church has a presence on the corner because (of its striking and pristine design). It looks like it belongs on a postcard,” said A. Bruce Frazier, a community activist and church neighbor. “But Rev. Taylor took this place from being an ornament on Stenton and Gowen Avenues to being a living congregation.”

Church member Robin Hammond agreed.

“When you see a female coming into a position dominated by men in the past and you see her growing the home base, playing with children on the church lawn, it made you feel like you really wanted to be part of the church,” Hammond said.

But eventually the forces troubling houses of worship hit Oxford. It became an aging congregation, hungry for young people and families with a pandemic forcing closure and resulting in a weakened commitment to attending in-person services.

“The church is still recovering,” Taylor said. 

Her decision to retire came as she began to consider her age and the future of the church. She believes it is indeed her time to rest – intermittently. And, she wants to enjoy retirement while still in good health.

“I believe I have brought Oxford to a point where it needs new and different leadership. I want Oxford to move upward, outward and in new directions which will be all-inclusive of people from every race, nation.”

Taylor says she plans to “learn how to relax,” travel, visit other churches and write a book. 

She will miss “the people” most of all. 

“The love, support and respect they gave me…,” Taylor said. “It was truly an extended family.”