United Methodist Clergywomen Retention Study II in the U.S. Context

Answering the Call

UMC clergywomen, in large numbers, are serving churches because of a distinct call to ministry.  Our current survey reveals that 72% (previously 68%) of the respondents said their primary reason for seeking ordination was a “nonspecific call to ministry.”  This leading reason for seeking ordination has not changed after twenty years from our last research.  Seventy-nine percent (previously 82%) of the respondents primarily wanted their appointment after receiving elder’s orders to be in a local church. The current study also confirms that the majority of clergywomen still entered the ministry to serve a local church and had a desire to stay in congregational ministry, as they did twenty years ago. Second to nonspecific call to ministry was “a call to preach” at 7.5% (previously 8%), followed closely by “natural/logical progression” at 6% (previously 10%) (see Tbl 1).  When the same question (primary reason for seeking ordination) was asked according to ethnicity, 57% (previously 66%) racial ethnic clergywomen responded in the same manner (nonspecific call to ministry). The leading reason for seeking ordination, “nonspecific call to ministry” is the same across all ethnicities.  However, for this question, the current survey percentage of racial ethnic clergywomen (57%) is 9% lower than the percentage in our previous research (66%). Furthermore, if we compare our previous research for this specific question, the gap between white clergywomen and racial ethnic clergywomen showed only a 2% difference to this same question. However, in our current research, the gap between white clergywomen (74%) and racial ethnic clergywomen (57%) shows a 17% difference to respond to this question. How should we need to understand these differences? These remarkable differences lead to several possible interpretations. One possible interpretation is that racial ethnic clergywomen have a better sense of what they want to do in their ministry or what they can do when they seek their ordination over the last twenty years compared to white clergywomen. It is possible that they have already expected some specific vocations and prepared their minds for these vocations. Maybe when we see the second and third reason, it confirms this interpretation somewhat.

The second reason for racial ethnic clergywomen seeking ordination after a “nonspecific call to ministry” was “call to preach” at 15% (previously 14%), again followed closely by “natural/logical progression” at 8% (previously 10%) (see Tbl 2). UMC clergywomen have not shown any big changes to the reason to seek ordination in terms of “call to preach.” They confirm that “call to preach” is still their strong desire for their calling. When we compare this answer between white women (7%) and racial ethnic women (15%), it is consistent with the previous result. Twenty years ago, 14% of racial ethnic clergywomen responded, “call to preach,” and 8% of white clergywomen responded with this answer. Racial ethnic clergywomen have shown interest in preaching at a much higher percentage than white clergy have shown. It has been a persistent vocational call that racial ethnic clergywomen have felt for the last twenty years. Another interesting comparison needs to be discussed here. In our current research, racial ethnic clergywomen (6.8%) showed their intention for seeking ordination was service in the local church in higher percentages compared to white clergywomen (4%). Twenty years ago, only 2% of racial ethnic ministry clergywomen showed an interest in “call to the local church” while 6% of white clergywomen showed an interest in our previous research. This is more than three times of growth. However, we are not sure this growth demonstrates a significant difference. It is not certain that racial ethnic clergywomen’s desire to work in a local church has actually grown. Twenty years ago, only two racial ethnic clergywomen answered this question. In this current research, eleven answered this question. The numbers of clergywomen were quite small. It is hard to make a definite conclusion about their growth even though it is quite a significant increase in terms of percentage.

In the case of racial ethnic clergywomen, there are two reasons noted for seeking ordination: “required for ministry other than the local church” and “talked into it.” In our previous research, primary reason for seeking ordination for racial ethnic clergywomen did not include these options for a response. However, in our current research, 2.5% stated they sought ordination because it was required for ministry other than the local church and 1.24% responded they were talked into it.

Even though it is too early to make a conclusion that the interests of racial ethnic clergywomen for a local church have grown over the last twenty years, and even though it may not be enough numbers to make any significant conclusions for their great interests in a local church and preaching, at least we can say that racial ethnic clergywomen have developed somewhat different attitudes toward “primary reason for seeking ordination” over the past twenty years. Responding to God’s call, they have developed their vocational discernment more perceptively now.

When marital status is taken into consideration when asked the question about the primary reason for seeking ordination, “Nonspecific Call to Ministry” is the leading reason in both our current and previous research. One interesting recognition is that in our previous research, this is the leading reason within four different categories (“Never Married (NM)”, “ Ever Separated/Divorced/Widowed (SDW)”, “Currently Married (CM)”, “In Committed Relationship (CR)”) showed similar percentages between 63% and 70%. (Table 7a). However, in our current research, the group of “never married (82.1%, previously 63%)” and “in committed relationship (92.3%, previously 67%)” showed much higher percentages for this answer. In case of “Participants with a Clergy Partner,” and in case of “Denominational Background of Participants,” both our previous and current researches find “Nonspecific Call to Ministry” as the leading reason to seek ordination in similar percentages.

Delving further into the reasons the women were serving, we asked about appointments.   Specifically, the question asked “What primary appointment did they intend after receiving Elder orders?”  79% responded an appointment as “local church pastor” (previously 82%), secondly, “Chaplain” at 4.3% (previously 5%), and thirdly, “teaching” at 3.7% (previously “other” ranked third at 3%) (see Tbl 3). According to ethnicity 70% (previously 81%), of racial ethnic clergywomen responded “local church pastor” with a second response of “teaching” at 7.8% (previous second rank response was “other” at 7%) and thirdly “other” at 4.7% (“chaplain” and “campus ministry” tied for third with 4% in the previous research) (see Tbl 4). In the case of “Marital Status of Participants,” four groups have not changed their answer (local church pastor) as the primary appointment in both research projects, and stayed in similar percentages, except the CR group. The CR group has a higher percentage (88%) for “local church pastor” (previously 71%). In case of “Participants with a Clergy Partner,” “local church pastor” is still the leading reason, but for the group with a clergy partner, this answer is 11% lower than from our previous research (74%, previously 85%), while the group with no clergy partner stayed in similar percentages. This is a significant change over the past twenty years. It would be interesting to find the reason of this change. In case of “Denominational Background of Participants,” local church pastor is the leading reason and demonstrated in similar percentage in both research projects.

Overall, preference to be a local pastor for clergywomen is still the leading indicator for primary appointment expectations. However, twenty years ago, there was almost no gap between racial ethnic clergywomen (81%) and white clergywomen (82%) for the primary appointment intended after elders’ orders. (see Tbl 4) Both group of clergywomen intended to serve as local church pastors in similar percentages. However, in our current research, there is a 10.3% differences between racial ethnic clergywomen (70%) and white clergywomen (80.3%) (see Tbl 4). 81% percent of racial ethnic clergywomen expected to serve as local church pastors like white clergywomen twenty years ago, but twenty years later, they appear to have less interest in being local church pastors after receiving elder’s orders. Nevertheless, there are no significant changes of second (teaching) and third (chaplain and campus ministry) responses. The lower percentage does not mean that racial ethnic clergywomen do not want to serve as local pastors. Actually the result is almost opposite, as we will see below. Therefore, it is a question of how racial ethnic clergywomen perceive their calling after receiving elder’s orders.

We present the following three hypotheses for exploration. First, our research data did not survey the exact same pool of clergywomen. It is possible to disregard this difference. It means that either a similar or the same populations of racial ethnic clergywomen intended serve the local church after they receive elder’s orders just as clergywomen in general do. There is no difference then. This is a convincing hypothesis because the result of participation of racial ethnic clergywomen in the local church has significantly increased, as we will explore in the next section. Second, it is also very possible to interpret that racial ethnic clergywoman and other clergywomen witnessed difficulties in local church ministry over the last twenty years. Therefore, it is expected that they would have less desire to serve, as a local pastor after receiving elder’s orders. They wanted to explore other possibilities beside local church ministry after they received elder’s orders. The third hypothesis is that racial ethnic clergywomen did not see an opportunity to be a local church pastor after they received elder’s orders in local church ministry. Even though racial ethnic clergywomen responded that their primary appointment was to serve the local church as a pastor, they expected difficulties in being appointed to or accepting this call in their situation. While the second reason is out of experience of difficulties in the local church ministry, the third reason is out of concern for lack of opportunities.

In summary, both our previous research and current research concur that “while a large majority of the participants indicated a non-specific call to ministry, their intended appointment after receiving their elders’ orders indicates their commitment to local church ministry.”[1] In other words, when we consider both ‘primary reason for seeking ordination’ and ‘primary appointment intended after elders’ orders’, the desire of clergywomen, both white and racial ethnic, is working in a local church.  Furthermore, this reason is consistently the main reason for them to seek ordination. However, we recognize that there is slightly less number of clergywomen who indicated a call to be a local pastor after receiving elder’s orders in general and especially for racial ethnic clergywomen.

Again, going deeper, we asked questions in reference to the “Local church being the best place to serve.”  The primary reason given was “Doing God’s Call” at 68% (61% previously) (see Tbl 5). This response appears to be a summation of the previous findings. The majority of clergywomen confirm that they serve the local church doing God’s call. In the case of racial ethnic clergywomen, 58% of them answered with this reason while 73% of white clergywomen indicated the same answer. In our previous research, 70% of racial ethnic clergywomen answered with this reason as 61% of white clergywomen chose the same answer. It is interesting that while racial ethnic clergywomen chose this answer decreasingly (-12%) from 70% to 58%, white clergywomen chose this answer increasingly from 61% to 73% (+12%) in an equal rate. For racial ethnic clergywomen, the second leading reason is “Committed to the Church as an Institution” (11%) and third leading reason is “Priestly Duties are Important” (9%), while for white clergywomen, the second leading reason is “Enjoy; Comfortable; Home” (7%) and the third leading reason is “Appreciate Parish Relationships” (6.1%) in our current research. In the case of “Marital Status of Participants,” “Doing God’s Call” is the primary reason. NM group (71%, previously 60%) and CM group (70%, previously 60%) show a higher percentage while SDW group and CR group stay in the similar percentage that our previous research indicated. In case of “Participants with a Clergy Partner,” both clergy partner (66%, previously 57%) and no clergy partner (71%, previously 64%) groups show slightly higher percentages to choose this answer as the leading reason. In case of “Denominational Background of Participants,” it shows the same. Reared Methodist group shows a higher percentage (71%, previously 59%) to choose “Doing God’s Call.”

In summary, regardless of marital status, participants with a clergy partner or no partner, or denominational background, when we asked questions in reference to the “Local church being the best place to serve,” the primary reason given was “Doing God’s Call.” It is still true that their call to ministry is very vital and their desire to be in a local church is a big part of their call. Comments from the survey participants confirm this analysis. Let’s hear their voices: 1) “I enjoy it, even though it’s not always comfortable;” 2)  “Opportunity to work at becoming Christ’s beloved community;” 3)  “I am making a difference for God’s reign;” 4)  “Context best uses and stretches my gifts;” 5)  “This is where I am currently called to live out my passion for church revitalization;” 6)  “A desire to share God’s message through community relationships;” 7)  “I am committed to the church – community of faith seeking God’s direction;” and 8)  “I believe the local church is the beacon of hope in every community when the church is at its best.  I want to be a part of something that shares Christ’s love and grace in the local community.  That is why I serve the local church.” Therefore, we can conclude that still large numbers of clergywomen serving in the UMC are continually answering God’s call to specifically serve the local church. Regardless of marital status, clergy partner, or previous denominational background, nonspecific call to ministry, and doing God’s call to serve the local church were consistent responses when various forms of the above questions were asked.

Table 1.  Primary Reason for Seeking Ordination

1994 2011
Primary Reason for Seeking Ordination Frequency
(N=1369; None Listed=17)
Percent Primary Reason for Seeking Ordination Frequency
(N=1936; None listed=2)
Percent
Nonspecific Call to Ministry 934 68% Nonspecific Call to Ministry 1400 72%
Call to the Local Church 75 5% Call to the Local Church 80 4.1%
Call to Preach 109 8% Call to Preach 146 7.5%
Required for Priestly Duties 48 4% Required for Priestly Duties 83 4.2%
Required for Ministry Other Than the Local Church 19 1% Required for Ministry Other Than the Local Church 48 2.4%
Talked Into It 6 0.4% Talked Into It 20 1%
Natural/Logical Progression 142 10% Natural/Logical Progression 118 6%
Other 36 3% Other 39 2%

 

Table 2.  Primary Reason for Seeking Ordination:  Ethnic Background of Participants

1994 1994 2011 2011
Primary Reason for Seeking Ordination Ethnic Minority Women
(N=111; None listed=2, 2% of total)
White Women
(N=1250; None listed=13, 1% of total)
Ethnic Minority Women
(N=161)
White Women
(N=1740; None listed=164)
Nonspecific Call to Ministry 73 (66%) 856 (68%) 92 (57%) 1286 (74%)
Call to the Local Church 2 (2%) 72 (6%) 11 (6.8%) 68 (4%)
Call to Preach 15 (14%) 94 (8%) 24 (15%) 118 (7%)
Required for Priestly duties 7 (6%) 40 (3%) 11 (6.8%) 71 (4%)
Required for Ministry Other Than the Local Church 0 19 (2%) 4 (2.5%) 40 (2.3%)
Talked Into It 0 6 (0.5%) 2 (1.24%) 19 (1.1%)
Natural/Logical Progression 11 (10%) 130 (10%) 13 (8%) 104 (6%)
Other 3 (3%) 33 (3%) 4 (2.5%) 34 (2%)

 

Table 3.  Primary Appointment Intended After Receiving Elders’ Orders

1994 2011
Primary Appointment Intended After Elders’ Orders Frequency
(N=1361; None Listed=25)
Frequency
(N=1567; None Listed=339)
Local Church Pastor 1113 (82%) 1240 (79%)
Counseling 48 (4%) 37 (2.4%)
Chaplain 69 (5%) 68 (4.3%)
Campus Ministry 27 (2%) 34 (2.1%)
Missions (with Missions Board) 7 (.5%) 25 (1.5%)
Youth Ministry 7 (.5%) 19 (1.2%)
Teaching 26 (2%) 58 (3.7%)
Social/Community Service 18 (1%) 39 (2.4%)
Other 46 (3%) 47 (3%)

 

 

Table 4.  Primary Appointment Intended After Elders’ Orders:  Ethnic Background of Participants

1994 1994 2011 2011
Primary Appointment Intended After Elders’ Orders Ethnic Minority Women
(N=105; None listed=6, 5% of total)
White Women
(N=1248; None listed=15, 1% of total)
Ethnic Minority Women
(N=129)
White Women
(N=1420)
Local Church Pastor 85 (81%) 1021 (82%) 90 (70%) 1140 (80.3%)
Counseling 3 (3%) 44 (4%) 3 (2.3%) 33 (2.3%)
Chaplain 4 (4%) 65 (5%) 4 (3.1%) 63 (4.4%)
Campus Ministry 4 (4%) 23 (2%) 4 (3.1%) 29 (2.04%)
Missions (with Missions Board) 1 (1%) 6 (0.5%) 5 (3.8) 17 (1.2%)
Youth Ministry 0 7 (0.6%) 3 (2.3%) 16 (1.1%)
Teaching 2 (2%) 24 (2%) 10 (7.8%) 48 (3.4%)
Social/Community Service 1 (1%) 17 (1%) 4 (3.1%) 33 (2.3%)
Other 7 (7%) 40 (3%) 6 (4.7%) 41 (2.9%)

 

Table 5.  Primary Reason the Local Church is Best Place of Service

1994 2011
Primary Reason Local is Best Place of Service Frequency
(N=1007; None listed=376,
27% of total)
Frequency
(N=1453; None listed=453)
Enjoy; Comfortable; Home 126 (13%) 98 (6.7%)
Committed to the Church as an Institution 59 (6%) 69 (4.7%)
Doing God’s Call 619 (61%) 1014 (68%)
Priestly Duties are Important 57 (6%) 86 (6%)
Appreciate Parish Relationships 61 (6%) 88 (6%)
Appointment System Secure 7 (.7%) 8 (.5%)
Have Not Found Anything Else Yet 19 (2%) 19 (1.3%)
Financial Security 8 (.8%) 10 (.7%)
Hours Good for Family 10 (1%) 14 (1%)
Too Invested to Leave 2 (.2%) 10 (.7%)
Other 39 (4%) 37 (2.5%)

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[1] Margaret S. Wiborg, and Elizabeth J. Collier, United Methodist Clergywomen Retention Study, (Anna Howard Shaw Center: Boston University School of Theology, 1997), 6.