For most people, retirement means relaxation, a chance to travel or an opportunity to pick up a hobby. But for many clergy members, retirement means continuing their ministry in a slightly different way.
The Rev. Charlotte Abram officially retired in 2012. However, she has still been active and serving Tri-Community in Omaha, Neb. But now, the time has come for Abram to actually retire.
“Momma went ‘part-time in 2012, but has still been acting like she is ‘full time,’” Abram’s daughter, Noni Cambridge, said in an email. “This time, it is for real … we all hope.”
On June 10, 1988, Abram became the first fully ordained black clergywoman in the former Nebraska Conference of The United Methodist Church.
“A lot of people said she couldn’t do it,” Cambridge said. “She is an overcomer. It just shows you what God can do in your life.”
Abram was born in Omaha in 1948. That is where she went to school and where she worshipped. Abram was always active in her churches and even held jobs at United Methodist Community Centers and daycares.
In her pastor’s profile, written in May of 2004, Abram described her call to ministry.
“I have been a child of God from my earliest recollections. As a young adult, I was a lay employee in my local church. It felt right and good. As I took on more roles and responsibility, people began to teasingly call me “pastor.” At the same time I felt God nudging me. God spoke again and again. I answered.”
In September of 1968, she married Terry Lee Abram. They had three children: Noni, Terra Lynn and Fredrick. In 1971, Abram received her bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Nebraska. But she didn’t go on to Saint Paul School of Theology until later.
As Abram wrote in her profile, she felt God nudging for a while before she acted on it. In the March/April 1999 edition of “Today’s Omaha Woman,” Abram said she resisted the call to ministry due to the baggage that would come with it. At the time, women had not been pastoring long and Abram said she ran from the call because she was scared.
“It’s not a call you answered [for women],” Abram said. “Usually, you’re going to be in for serious rejection and criticism.”
Until one day, she looked at the pulpit:
“[I heard] a voice – either external or internal, I couldn’t tell you – which said, ‘If you were a man you would be a minister by now,’” Abram said in her interview with “Today’s Omaha Woman.”
So Abram began attending Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo., with three young children at home.
According to Cambridge, Abram did everything she could to still be there for her children while attending seminary school. She would leave for Kansas early Tuesday morning and come back by Wednesday afternoon. Abram would stay for most of the day before leaving again on Thursday morning, but she would always be back in Omaha on Friday before her kids were out of school. Then, she had the weekend and Monday to spend with her family.
“Even through rain, thunderstorms, snow storms – she was always back on Friday,” Cambridge said. “She did more than her best. She wanted us to not miss out on her time. I appreciate her and love her for that.”
Cambridge added that her father and her grandmother – Abram’s mother – would take care of her and her sister and brother while Abram was away.
“I’m grateful to God for such a supportive family. I thank them for all their love and support. I especially thank my husband and three children who had to share so much of my time with others,” Abram said in an email.
In 1987, Abram was appointed to her first congregation – Union Memorial in Omaha. But even after becoming a full-fledged pastor, she was still met with resistance. In some places, she wasn’t allowed to preach at the pulpit.
“It doesn’t matter where I preach from,” Abram said. “I can preach in the streets.”
Union Memorial was Abram’s first cross-racial appointment – something she said she learned a lot from.
“It was a good time of growth,” Abram said. “They helped me grow [in inclusiveness] and I hope I helped them grow in that area.”
Abram added that she wanted to help Union Memorial realize their potential. At the time, the building they were worshipping in was more than 50 years old. Abram convinced the congregation to leave this building and follow her from location to location while the new church was being built.
She said she was thankful that she and the congregation could walk out of the old building together and that they trusted her.
“I don’t use the word ‘proud,’” Abram said. “It was amazing that God chose to work in and through me. I’m not confused about that.”
Since that first appointment, Abram has served at Union Memorial and Lefler; First Church; Pearl and Asbury; Pearl, Asbury and Trinity; and Tri-Community – all in Omaha. She has also served on the General Board of Church and Society, the Board of Christian Social Witness, the Board of Ordained Ministry, the Episcopacy Committee and on the Bishop’s Initiative on Children and Poverty.
Abram was also the head of the Nebraska Delegation to the General Conference, which, in 2003, passed petitions to delete portions of The Discipline that restricted full participation rights of homosexuals in the church.
She has also spoken and written columns in favor of equality – be it racial, gender or economic. She is also an advocate for children’s protection and rights.
“The assumptions we make based on how someone looks, dresses, talks, acts and walk shape how we treat each other,” Abram said.
She said that United Methodists do a lot to help those in need – especially children in poverty. But Abram added that people need to look at the issues, policies and systems in place and discuss changes that need to be made.
“Church is one place we should be able to talk about difficult problems,” Abram said. “We can leave still holding hands and not hating each other.”
In February of 2013, United Methodist Ministries held a breakfast fundraiser to alleviate poverty, hunger, violence and substance abuse. In her keynote speech, “Kick it up a notch,” Abram was quoted as saying:
“We kick it up a notch when we make conscious decisions to build a community in which people of all races, ages and various economic levels are treated as equals – a community that not only has compassion for the poor, but seeks to address the systemic issues which are root causes of that poverty – a community which moves beyond teaching tolerance to teaching cultural competency, practicing inclusiveness and respecting - and even embracing - each other’s differences.”
Through all the things Abram accomplished, she still remembers some of the women who inspired her to become a pastor.
“Seeing Carol Windrum, Nancy Phillips and Carol Roettmer-Brewer [preach] – I thought they were so brave to be a pastor,” Abram said. “They were the trailblazers for me and I was blessed to walk in their path.”
With her newfound free time, Abram said she wanted to spend time with her family but still wants to continue her ministry in other ways. Whether it’s helping a new pastor as a secretary or custodian, working with other clergywomen in their projects, working with the Autism Society or helping her family.
“I want to support my husband. He’s been such a support to me I want to support him,” Abram said.
In addition to traveling and learning her family’s genealogy, Abram added that she wants to write a cookbook with interwoven stories about her family, inspirational stories and stories on acceptance.
“She can’t ever stop – not ever,” Cambridge said. “It’s been a long road. Now it’s time for her to rest and relax.”
Photo: Charlotte Abram and family at the Omaha Tribute to Women in 2013.