UMC’s Women Clergy: Sisterhood and Survival

by Jean Caffey Lyles

Ms. Lyles is Protestant editor for the Religious News Service in New York City.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 7-14, 1979, p. 117. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The United Methodists have granted full ordination rights to females since 1956, but only in this decade have women entered the ministry in appreciable numbers. With seminary enrollments now totaling from 25 to 50 per cent women, the next four years could be crucial as the numbers of females seeking ordination and appointment double.


Just as shivering football fans were leaving Dallas and its paralyzing ice storm after the Cotton Bowl last month, some 650 United Methodist women ministers and seminarians were arriving for what Indiana pastor Susan Ruach called “the largest gathering of clergywomen in the history of the world.” No one had handy a copy of The Guinness Book of World Records to confirm or dispute that claim, and in fact one may surmise that a Holiness body like the Salvation Army -- ordaining women since the 1880s -- has possibly assembled a larger crowd of ordained women on some occasion. But at any rate, it was the largest such “mainline” meeting anyone could recall.

The United Methodists have granted full ordination rights to females since 1956, but only in this decade have women entered the ministry in appreciable numbers. Presently 766 women are serving under appointment, and several hundred more are enrolled in seminaries. The program planners for the four-day meeting on the Southern Methodist University campus had designed a crowded agenda for the participants -- including 50 or so male invitees.

Both the formal program and the informal corridor chatter offered ample evidence that women clergy see themselves as bringing special gifts and graces to the practice of ministry, but they believe that the church has not yet allowed them to make the fullest use of those gifts both for their own professional development and for the enrichment of the whole church.


One of those gifts is preaching. Clearly, anyone who bemoans the decline of the pulpit craft has not been hanging out in the right sanctuaries. The styles of the white and ethnic minority women who preached for the week’s services varied widely, but some generalizations are possible. First of all, the best sermons were firmly grounded in Scripture, applying the biblical word to the nitty-gritty of daily life. The themes were often unapologetically autobiographical, using the preacher’s own life experience as the starting point for theology. At their best, these preachers were freed up from a dependence on a manuscript, and style was as important as content in conveying the message. That style was often warm, informal and colloquial, laced with humor. The preacher was sure of herself and of her faith. There was a dramatic flair, an unselfconscious exuberance in sharing the word. Women have assumed firm, strong, assertive voices that carry to the back row of a sanctuary.

Hearing a woman preacher for the first time is a mind-blowing experience not yet encountered by many Protestant congregations nor even by some female clergy. One of the great values of meetings such as the Dallas gathering is in giving clergy an opportunity to hear preaching by their peers. Some of those present were black women who spread the idea that worship is not a spectator sport and that preaching at its most effective is a participatory enterprise in which the congregation plays a vital and vocal role. Serving as leaven in the loaf, black women transformed the whole assembly. As the preacher shared with her colleagues the joys and trials of being a clergywoman, there were not only nods of assent but verbal responses signaling recognition of those experiences common to all their lives: “Yes, that’s how it is for me too.”

Liturgies for the preaching services tended toward the traditional. Scriptural choices often focused on women of the Bible -- Miriam, Deborah, Mary and Martha. Litanies recalled the names of such revered women forebears as Mary McLeod Bethune and Georgia Harkness. For the most part, ephemeral and folky guitar-songs ,were eschewed in favor of solid fare from the Methodist hymnal. Hymns and liturgies were determinedly nonsexist (“Substitute ‘Creator’ for ‘great Father’ in verse 4,” said the rubrics for one hymn in the order of worship). Occasionally God was referred to, a bit self-consciously, as “she” -- but for the most part, pronouns were carefully avoided.

At this point in their history, many women clergy are preoccupied with career issues -- with survival or success -- in the United Methodist itinerant system. The dilemma often involves the choice between ambition for upward mobility in a hierarchical system and efforts to change that very system. Whereas most other Protestant denominations operate under a “call” organization, with each congregation hiring and firing pastors on its own, in United Methodism’s itinerant plan, ministers are appointed to pastoral charges by the bishop. The unemployment problems suffered by clergy in other denominations are minimized, for under current United Methodist policy, every fully credentialed pastor is guaranteed an appointment. But signing on with the itinerant arrangement means accepting the bishop’s authority to determine where one will serve, and being willing to go where one is sent.

The ultimate in “upward mobility” is the episcopacy, and inevitably the possibility of electing the first woman bishop arose. Most-mentioned candidates Jeanne Audrey Powers, one of the denomination’s ecumenical officers, and Barbara Troxell, a district superintendent in California, have both served notice that they don’t want the job in 1980, feeling they can be more effective in their present posts. But a surprise candidate emerged when Michigan women urged District Superintendent Marjorie Matthews to stand for election. Matthews, a petite gray-haired establishmentarian and staunch defender of the itineracy, has a reputation for being supportive of women who are more radical than she.

“Open itineracy,” an ideal often voiced, is seldom a reality: few women pastors are appointed to churches of more than 300 members except in “associate” slots; almost never has a woman served as senior pastor in a multiple-staff situation; as for minority pastors, white churches of any size are seldom open to them. Is “upward mobility” an aim worth striving for? Marjorie Matthews told the women in her workshop: “There’s nothing wrong with ambition. Where do you see yourself in the ministry ten years from now?”

Perhaps the best advertisement for women pastors is the satisfaction of congregations who have enjoyed their leadership. When bishops have had the courage to appoint women to pastoral slots, congregations have typically accepted them warmly. Most women say that their chief problem is not lack of acceptance by laity, but the hostility of male pastors who feel threatened by competition in a job market with little room at the top.


Some 50 workshops were offered during the convocation, including “life style” sharing sessions for single, divorced, widowed, gay and “clergy couple” women; political strategy sessions to write legislation for the UMC’s 1980 General Conference; biblical hermeneutics; and liturgical dance. Some of the most popular workshops dealt with such practical matters as financial planning and pension benefits, management and administration, “power relationships” and “influencing the system.”

Many workshops arrived at one of the crucial questions troubling United Methodism today: can the itineracy system become more flexible, adapting to new strains, and yet remain a viable system? “Appointability” is a key word, and whether single, married to another minister or to a nonclergy professional, women are regarded in the church hierarchy as “difficult to place.” Cabinets are becoming more sensitive to the special needs of all clergy, and that fact may limit the latitude in appointment-making. A divorced pastor whose spouse has custody of the children desires an appointment nearby to facilitate weekend visits; the “guy who has an allergy to walnut trees” must be sent to a church in a part of the state where walnut trees do not grow. The pastor with a retarded child who needs special schooling must not be moved to an area where such schooling is not available.

“Clergy couples” -- with both husband and wife being ordained -- “are beginning to find their label oppressive,” said one workshop participant. It causes them to be regarded as an entity rather than as two pastors, and to be stereotyped as a placement problem. Coordinating the career moves of a couple -- whether they desire to serve a joint pastorate or separate parishes -- can be difficult. But cabinets have been slow to acknowledge the seriousness of the two-career couple problem when one of the members is clergy and one is nonclergy. When both are ministers, the church bears responsibility for placing them both in jobs -- generally within driving distance of their shared parsonage. But when only one partner is ordained, the church has no control over the other partner’s career, and often fails to take it into consideration. The assumption has been that when the minister must move, the spouse must follow. The system worked well for many years with men who had nonworking wives, or wives whose careers as nurses or schoolteachers were regarded as transportable from one town to another. The two-career-couple crunch often forces a wrenching decision: “Which career is more important?” The assumption that the male’s ambitions always take precedence is being questioned, and couples are wrestling with the sacrifices required when career goals conflict.

The issue generating the most anger against “the system’ seems to be the difficulties faced by a woman raising children while serving full-time as pastor. Are motherhood and ministry incompatible? Under present rules, clergy must take appointments to full-time work. Women are pushing for part-time options to enable them to devote time to child-rearing. And more enlightened couples are seeing that part-time ministries could also allow male clergy to devote a major block of time to parenting. Some women in their 30s have postponed pregnancy until after the denomination’s 1980 General Conference in anticipation of new legislation that will allow them to combine motherhood and ministry. A church that has traditionally placed great emphasis on the family and on the nurturing of children ought, say many women, to set an example by offering flexible options for clergy parents.


Some of the week’s keynote speakers cautioned women not to work out their individual ambitions at the expense of other women. Annette Hutchins-Felder noted the tendency demonstrated by members of the white male structure to promote blacks who identify with the white community, and to advance women who don’t identify with the women’s movement. United Presbyterian Beverly Wildung Harrison of Union Theological Seminary said: “Those of us who are middle-strata white women will be invited in and rewarded precisely to the extent that we are willing to become ‘one of the boys,’ sensitive to minimizing any rocking of the boat.”

Jeanne Audrey Powers, addressing issues of power, focused on the manner in which “dualistic ways of thinking” have “run rampant in the church’s thought and action.” The spirit/flesh, spiritual/material, sacred/secular, church/world dualisms by implication lift one element up as superior, and denominate the other as inferior. “As women,” she said, “we have allowed that kind of dualism to mark our relationships to men in the church.”

Rejecting competitive win/lose models of power in which achievement is won at the expense of others, Powers called for a new vision of power. One direction to follow in shaping a cooperative model is to recognize that more power comes to us as we help our sisters express more of theirs.” Women must “affirm their support for one another in public ways,” she emphasized. For example, “If you’re invited to do something publicly and cannot, have you a list in your head of other women who could be invited instead?” Women should make use of “affirm signals” to give support to one another and to other minorities. “Do you give ‘listening support’ by the expression on your face? . . . If you’re often in the position of being a ‘token,’ are you able to bring in other sisters and brothers who never have your opportunities?” Such practice of “sisterhood” works to empower other women.

The task of getting beyond individual survival or success to the kind of sisterhood Powers described will not be easy. With seminary enrollments now totaling from 25 to 50 per cent women, the next four years could be crucial as the numbers of females seeking ordination and appointment double. The United Methodists, like other Protestant bodies, face the challenge of broadening the image of clergy leadership in order to welcome the special gifts and graces brought by the growing company of women who seek their profession serving the faith.