|Clergywomen break new ground in large churches|
The Rev. Joan Carter-Rimbach, pastor of First United Methodist Church in
Hyattsville, Md., addresses fellow clergywomen attending the Lead Women
Pastors Project in Nashville, Tenn. UMNS photos by Ronny Perry.
A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*
Oct. 3, 2008
On her first Sunday as lead pastor of a 1,300-member United Methodist
congregation in Hyattsville, Md., the Rev. Joan Carter-Rimbach stood
before a packed congregation where "everyone had come to see the woman
Carter-Rimbach told the congregation that she realized it "never had
somebody in the pulpit who dresses like me or looks like me."
Four years later, she acknowledged that, between staffing issues and
team challenges, "it has been hard serving the church where the norm has
been a male as the senior pastor." However, she has earned the respect
of the staff and congregation through her nurturing leadership style.
More than 50 years after receiving full clergy rights in The United
Methodist Church, more and more women like Carter-Rimbach are breaking
through the stained glass ceiling that, for the most part, has kept
clergywomen in small-membership churches or as assistants in larger
“We have the passion. We have the love. Why has it taken so long?”
–The Rev. Joan Carter-Rimbach
Today, there are 85 United Methodist clergywomen serving as lead
pastors in one of the denomination's 1,172 U.S. churches with 1,000 or
more members. In all, there are 7,073 active clergywomen serving one of
the 34,398 United Methodist churches in the United States and another
1,819 clergywomen serving in other settings across the country.
Forty clergywomen leading large-membership churches gathered in
September in Nashville, Tenn., as part of the Lead Women Pastors
Project, initiated by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and
Ministry to begin a conversation and study about how clergywomen are
redefining leadership expectations.
The research project seeks data about women serving large-membership
churches, their career paths, if there is a distinct call to larger
churches and what gifts and leadership qualities are needed. Clergywomen
who lead churches of 1,000 or more members are engaged in the study
The difficulties of leading a large church vary from day to day, said
the Rev. Julia Price, pastor of the 1,020-member Wenatchee (Wash.) First
United Methodist Church.
"I think it brings with it many of the same struggles that any size
church does," she said. "There are days when the woundedness and
brokenness of the people that I deal with leaves a very heavy mark on my
heart, but there are other days that I go home filled with great joy
because I’ve been able to offer some grace and peace to someone."
A clergywoman leading a 1,000-plus member congregation in any
denomination is "fairly rare," said the Rev. Susan Willhauck, a faculty
member of United Methodist-related Wesley Theological Seminary,
Washington, D.C., and leader of the study project.
Women lead only 6 percent of churches with 1,000 members or more, she
said, adding that The United Methodist Church is "ahead of the game in
some ways compared to other denominations."
A clergywoman leading a congregation of more than 1,000 members is fairly rare, says the Rev. Susan Willhauck.
A recent report points out that, although the number of female clergy
has increased significantly in recent years, they are less likely than
their male counterparts to be appointed as senior pastor of a
large-membership congregation, according to Michelle Fugate, director of
research and data management for the Board of Higher Education and
Twenty-eight percent of male clergy lead large-membership churches,
compared with 1.5 percent of female clergy. Twenty-four percent of male
clergy serve in small-membership churches, compared with 27-30 percent
of female clergy.
Carter-Rimbach says the disparity is disturbing, even though strides are
being made. "We have the skills. We have the knowledge. We have the
dedication. We have the commitment. We have the passion. We have the
love. Why has it taken so long?" she asked.
One explanation is that "people are afraid of change because the power
will shift and those who have the power now are afraid," she said.
A different approach
The Rev. Martha Ward, co-pastor of 2,500-member Ankeny (Iowa) United
Methodist Church, said many churches have traditionally had a chief
executive officer approach to leadership and a top-down direction.
Nevertheless, women pastors offer something different.
"I think women offer a more grassroots style of leadership," she said.
"We’re used to helping people make connections, helping people use their
own strengths, building up the laity in how they can be in ministry—not
to say that men don’t do that. But I think women do that a little more
"I think women offer a more grassroots style of leadership," says the Rev.
Martha Ward of Ankeny, Iowa.
Collectively, the clergywomen noted that the most important part of
their job is to love, guide and help people move toward transforming
themselves and the world.
Throughout the Nashville gathering, the clergywomen discussed isolation,
administration, the challenges of balancing their personal and pastoral
lives, gender issues and gender perceptions, and the role they play in
ministry. The gathering also addressed the low racial and ethnic female
clergy representation among them and in churches of 1,000 or more
Barbara Isaccs, a staff member from the churchwide Commission on
Religion and Race in Washington D.C., questioned if "white" statistics
are defining women of color who are lead pastors. "How do we ensure that
our white congregations have open hearts, open minds and open doors?"
she asked, referring to the United Methodist tagline.
From politics to the pulpit
The Lead Women's Pastor Project is timely because women are
increasingly major players in politics, the military and other sectors,
setting the stage for more conversation in society about female
The 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, with its high-profile attention to
Sen. Hillary Clinton and Gov. Sarah Palin, has helped to break through
the glass ceiling for women in politics, and the time is right to look
at the stained glass ceiling in the church as well, the study's leaders
"The church has traditionally been slower to accept women in those roles
where the perception and long expectation has been for a male," said
A Sept. 18 story in USA Today questioned women's readiness for
politics and highlighted that America is divided on the issue. The
article noted that 44 percent of evangelical Protestants say men are
better suited emotionally to lead than most women.
Among people of faith, part of the conversation about clergy leadership
should include a sound biblical understanding of women as leaders in the
church, said the Rev. Barbara Galloway-Edgar, noting that some
scriptural references challenge the authority of women in the church.
"God calls whatever person to lead out of who they are," says the Rev. Connie Shelton of Jackson, Miss.
While The United Methodist Church and other denominations hold that
women have equal rights, people who reject a clergywoman's leadership
"revert not to the denominational boundaries or dictums … but they go
back to what they perceive to be the right interpretation of the Bible …
(to) prohibit or at least limit a woman’s leadership," said
Galloway-Edgar, pastor of the 3,000-member Coker United Methodist Church
in San Antonio.
Willhauck said "misguided interpretation of Scripture or Scripture taken
out of the historical context" hinders the pastoral leadership of
clergywomen. "God calls whom God needs to call to minister in the
cultural situation at hand," she said.
The clergywomen hope that future leaders of the church would learn from
them examples of tolerance, acceptance, inclusion and nurturing.
"I hope that I give them permission to do well out of their
authenticity," said the Rev. Connie Shelton, pastor of 2,000-member
Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church, Jackson, Miss. "Don't do it
like I do. Don't lead as anybody else has done. God calls whatever
person to lead out of who they are."
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nas hville, Tenn.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
The Rev. Joan Carter-Rimbach: “Where have we been all these years as a church with women?”
The Rev. Martha Ward: “People are hungry for that kind of leadership.”
The Rev. Barbara Galloway-Edgar: “I think the challenges are great.”
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