Home > Our World > News > News Archives by Date > News Archive 2008 > October 2008 > News - October 2008
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 pastor."

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 congregations.

“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 through April.

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." 

Leadership expectations

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.

A clergywoman leading a congregation of more than 1,000 members is fairly rare, says the Rev. Susan Willhauck.


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 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 Ministry.

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," says the Rev.
Martha Ward of Ankeny, Iowa.

"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 naturally perhaps."

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 members.

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 leadership.

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 say.

"The church has traditionally been slower to accept women in those roles where the perception and long expectation has been for a male," said Willhauck.

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.

"God calls whatever person to lead out of who they are," says the Rev. Connie Shelton of Jackson, Miss.

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.

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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

Video Interviews

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.”

Related Articles

United Methodist project develops clergywomen

Clergywomen celebrate advances, reflect on call


United Methodist Clergywomen

Clergywomen’s local church appointments

The Web of Women's Leadership: Recasting Congregational Ministry

Wesley Theological Seminary

Board of Higher Education and Ministry

Ask Now

This will not reach a local church, district or conference office. InfoServ* staff will answer your question, or direct it to someone who can provide information and/or resources.


*InfoServ ( about ) is a ministry of United Methodist Communications located in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. 1-800-251-8140

Not receiving a reply?
Your Spam Blocker might not recognize our email address. Add this address to your list of approved senders.

Would you like to ask any questions about this story?ASK US NOW

Original text