United Methodist Clergywomen Retention Study

Preface: The Oppressing Silence of the Promising, Bright Voices

Last year I had the opportunity to hear the stories of thirty women who were interviewed for this study.  When I accepted this assignment, which was in itself a call of sorts, I was not prepared for the emotional rollercoaster that lay waiting on those tapes which arrived in a box at my door.

The process of transcribing the interviews was similar in some respects to providing pastoral psychotherapy:  I did a lot of listening and empathizing with the storyteller.  The frustration, however, lay in being unable to respond, to provide support, to be present for these women, most of whom clearly had a great need for that. The consistent theme of isolation was almost overwhelming and was evidenced over and over by the stories which were waiting to spill forth.  Someone had asked the right question, and the answers came in torrents.

As I listened to the stories one by one, I felt as though I was journeying with each woman.  The experiences shared by each were touching, hopeful, funny, infuriating, incredible, and at times, unbelievably sad.  I must say that the depth of the pain many women expressed about their experiences in ordained ministry were at times unbearable and I would have to stop for a bit and do something else.  Some of the stories filled me with rage.  Sometimes, when someone told a story I found funny to the point where I laughed out loud, I would play it a few times just to keep laughing.  Some women were incredibly inspiring to listen to, as they described their understanding and practice of ministry.  It was impossible not to become attached to each one, and I felt a certain sadness at the end of each interview, in the same way that one feels sad when you finish a book you really like.

I was slow at transcribing, and the tapes took me a long time.  During this process, I lived with the stories I heard.  I heard them the loudest when I went to worship on Sundays. I was struck most by the oppressive silence of the promising, bright voices who had left local church ministry.  I thought of the gifts and graces the church was losing out on because of its fear of change.  One phrase kept coming to my mind when I would think of women leaving:  the gifts of God for the people of God are being rejected.  These gifted women were exiting for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which was that the people did not seem able or willing to hear the prophetic voices of women in ministry. 

So now I and the others who conducted, transcribed, and read these interviews are keepers of the stories, and the analysis of what was said is now passed on to the readers:  clergy, laity, and church authorities.  The tapes have been destroyed, those particular voices now silent.  It’s a pity, because the wealth found there was truly beautiful.  It was a privilege to walk, albeit silently, through the valleys and over the mountaintops with these women.  It was an experience I will always remember and one for which I am grateful.  I hope that the gifts and graces of those answering God’s call will be seen, heard, and cherished by the whole church.

 – A member of the transcription team