Editor’s note: This is the second of a series of articles on
women in The United Methodist Church in celebration of Women’s History
Month during March.
11:00 A.M. EST March 16, 2010
Garlinda Burton (left) and Kim Coffing lead a worship service at the
2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.
photo by John C. Goodwin.
View in Photo Gallery
Women have made major inroads in The United Methodist Church, but
many of the issues the first Commission on the Status and Role of Women
tackled in the 1970s remain on the radar today.
“It is very easy to take for granted that women are pastors and that
women of all colors are bishops, district superintendents and top agency
executives,” said Garlinda Burton, an African-American laywoman who
heads the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women.
“But it was less than 40 years ago that we had no women bishops.”
And few students in seminaries.
“When I first went to seminary at Vanderbilt in 1955, there were only
four women in the student body. When I transferred to Claremont in
1960, there were four women students, no women faculty or
administrators,” said the Rev. Nancy Grissom Self, one of the first two
commission executives. “Now both seminaries have student bodies
that are 50 percent-plus women.”
Virginia Bishop Charlene P. Kammerer was ordained an elder in 1977.
“The period reflected intensely the reality of the first wave of
clergywomen in the United States, women who were graduating from
seminaries, completing candidacy and entering annual (regional)
conferences for appointments and the journey toward full ordination,”
Not every woman made it. “It was a time of heavy casualties of women
getting into conferences but many not staying,” Kammerer added, “or
entering extension ministries because of the discrimination.
“It was absolutely a time for all clergywomen to bond
together—for survival, support, affirmation and empowerment—and for
strategizing how to offer our best gifts to the church we loved (which)
at the same time . . . was rejecting us.”
Those were the early years of the Commission on the Status and Role
of Women, which began as a study commission in 1968 and became a
full-fledged agency eight years later.
A nurturing family
Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed was one of the commission’s first executives.
“The greatest gift I received from COSROW was living within an
organization that transmitted education for social change through the
lens of transformative leadership,” said Reed, now president of
Bishop Charlene Kammerer presides at the 2008 General Conference. A UMNS
photo by Maile Bradfield.
Serving on the commission in the early
l980s was Kammerer, who was elected to the episcopacy in 1996. She, too,
credits the commission with nurturing her.
“The very connectional nature of our United Methodist Church has made
a big difference in supporting and encouraging me along the way,” she
said. “The commitment to inclusiveness . . . has been a strong thread of
passion for me.”
Barbara Ricks Thompson, who served as the commission’s first
“I know that who I am today in large measure is due to my life in The
United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies. From childhood,
most of my developmental experiences stemmed from some facet of the
church,” she said. “As an African-American, the church was the primary
avenue for the wide range of experiences and contacts not readily
available in the general society.”
A bumpy road
The road has not been without potholes, Burton said.
“I'm very clear that my position as an agency exec was made possible
by the risk-taking advocacy of groups like COSROW, Black Methodists for
Church Renewal, the Commission on Religion and Race and United Methodist
“Those groups spoke truth about the destructive, counter-Christian
impact of gender and racial discrimination on the cause of Christ in our
church, and opened the doors for creative, committed women and people
of color to take our rightful place at the leadership tables around the
world,” she added.
“Justice for women in church leadership is still a relatively new
concept in our denomination.”
In the early days, Kiyoko Kasai Fujiu said, “we worked a great deal
on individual advocacy related to sexual and gender discrimination.” It
was usually on a case-by-case basis, the former commission executive
said. Now, she noted, the commission is training leaders and groups in
advocacy related to sexual harassment and other hot-button issues.
Main issues remain
Much has changed, but much remains the same, women leaders said.
“The issues have shifted. But even though we have high-profile women,
there is still discrimination in the local churches,” Self said. “As
the (membership) declines, women often receive less consideration for
appointment because churches still seem to feel that men—especially
young men with families—are preferred.”
Women also still experience sexual harassment, Reed said.
“The church needs to identify and cultivate younger women into
leadership,” she said. “We are locked into old paradigms without seeing
the needs of a new generation. Some young women at my institution are
brainwashed by lyrics and fashion. What is the church doing to help them
become critical thinkers? Today, many young women are abused and
exploited, but unaware.”
In the broad scheme of things, however four decades is a relatively
Retired Pastor Lana Thompson Sutton, Naperville, Ill., likened the
church to a ship.
“The church was—and still is—like a huge ocean liner,” she said,
“whose captain and navigator are trying to turn the ship to follow a new
path on a new map, but it takes a long time to change direction.”
*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist
News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615)
742-5489 or firstname.lastname@example.org.