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United Methodist project develops clergywomen

A UMNS Report
By Vicki Brown*

April 16, 2008

The Rev. HiRho Park

A new United Methodist project aims to support clergywomen who lead churches with more than 1,000 members, research their leadership styles, and establish a mentoring program for women who have the potential to serve such churches.

"After having a great celebration of 50 years of full clergy rights of women in Methodism in 2006, I believe that now is the time to reflect on something new and creative," said the Rev. HiRho Park, director of continuing formation for ministry at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

"Many clergywomen have been thriving in a context where the congregation and the surrounding community are accustomed to male lead pastors, while others have experienced difficulties as the first female lead pastor in their church," she said.

Of the 44,091 clergy in The United Methodist Church, 9,749 are women, and 64 have been identified as serving churches with membership of more than 1,000. A retreat for lead women pastors of large churches will be held Sept. 14-16 in Nashville, Tenn.

Effective leadership

The Lead Women Pastors' Project has tremendous potential to increase understanding of the growing edge leadership for the church, thereby benefiting the whole denomination, said the Rev. Susan Willhauck, associate professor of Christian Formation at United Methodist-related Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington D.C.

The Rev. Patricia Farris aaaaaaaaa

"I think we are approaching a time when rather than focusing solely on how female clergy are different, we can move the discussion to how clergywomen are effective and what they are contributing to the denomination in terms of leadership," Willhauck said.

The project will ask: How is the increasing presence of female pastors changing the church? How are clergywomen redefining leadership expectations?

The Rev. Patricia Farris, 56, who has been senior pastor of the 1,500-member First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica, Calif., for 10 years, says like many women leaders, she is accessible, collegial in style, and relational in approach. She highly values partnership with laity.

"This can sometimes be misinterpreted as lack of clear leadership for those more used to a more hierarchical approach," Farris said. "I find greatest support from the oldest members of our congregation and our new, younger singles and families.

"Many of our children and youth now assume the senior minister will be a woman!" Farris said. "I think people my own age are often still wrestling with their own life choices, traditions of marriage and family roles, and a desire for a male in leadership––though time together has helped mitigate that a great deal."

Developing new research

There has not been much research on clergywomen’s leadership styles, Park said.

"Is there a certain vocational path for United Methodist clergywomen within The United Methodist Church structure? What is the uniqueness of women's leadership in large churches and how can this information benefit the church at large?" Park said.

“We hope to promote the appointments of more clergywomen to lead pastor positions in larger membership churches and to establish ways that less experienced clergywomen can be mentored ….”
–The Rev. Susan Willhauck

Willhauck is convinced that lead women pastors are an untapped resource for the formation of leadership for denomination. "We are trying to get at what they do, ways they lead. Rather than measuring pastoral effectiveness against already established criterion, usually male-defined, we are looking at ways lead women pastors are re-defining pastoral effectiveness on their own terms," she said.

Ten years ago, a study done by the Hartford Institute reported in The Christian Century revealed perceived differences in leadership styles between male and female clergy in various denominations. The United Methodist project will study the leadership styles of the church's 64 clergywomen of large congregations to see if the differences identified in the Hartford study and other studies are still valid.

"We want to learn if and how gender matters in pastoring a large-membership church in The United Methodist Church today," Willhauck said.

The Rev. Susan Willhauck  aaaaaa

A recent report from Michelle Fugate, director of research and data management for the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, points out that although the number of female clergy in the denomination 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.

"We hope to promote the appointments of more clergywomen to lead pastor positions in larger membership churches and to establish ways that less experienced clergywomen can be mentored in order to accept the challenges of pastoring a large-membership church," Willhauck said. 

Forum for ideas

Farris is excited that the Lead Women Pastors' Project will provide a place to exchange insights and information, as well as "a platform from which to share our gifts more widely with the larger church."

She found great support in her ministry from lay women and clergywomen across The United Methodist Church, other faith communities, and other professional women, as well as from her family. "My bishops and superintendents have always been unfailingly supportive as well," Farris said.

“I think it's hard for women to find the kinds of leadership positions that demonstrate our gifts and skills.”
–The Rev. Patricia Farris
Like many women leaders, Farris said she is intentional about building communities of support and friendship. But she does see barriers for women clergy who aspire to lead large churches.

"I think it's hard for women to find the kinds of leadership positions that demonstrate our gifts and skills. Some of us have not had specific experience in administering large budgets and leading large staffs," Farris said. "And I think there is a peculiar balance in combining a collegial/team style with the kinds of leadership required in a large church.

"A large membership church is not just a bigger small or medium-sized church. It's its own peculiar animal, and few women have the opportunity to learn or experience those dynamics."

To read the study of clergywomen’s local church appointments, click here.  

*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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