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

Responding to Why

The previous section reviewed the number of clergywomen “In and Out” of local church ministry. In this section, we will undertake the task of determining the reasons for such decisions.  Our first question asked both those who have left on a temporary and permanent basis why they chose to leave local church ministry. The number one reason was to follow a call to another kind of ministry at 20% (previously 25%), followed closely by family responsibilities and other, both at 18% (previously other at 20% and lack of hierarchical support at 15%).  Next, we specifically sought input from those who left (surrendered credentials) ordained ministry.  Again, we wanted to know their reason for leaving.  Their primary reason was lack of support from the hierarchical system at 35% (previously 22%).

Delving deeper, we asked ethnic minorities their primary reason for leaving local church ministry.  That question yielded two top responses. Compared with white clergywomen who answered in higher percentages for “to follow a call to another kind of ministry (22%)”, “family responsibility” (19%) and “other” (19%), racial ethnic clergywomen chose the higher percentage for “lack of support from the hierarchical system” (44%, white clergywomen 16%), “lack of opportunity to use gifts” (44%, white clergywomen 8%), “too much rejection by churches” (28%, white clergywomen 8%), and “cannot maintain integrity in this system” (22%, white clergywomen 5%). The primary reason for racial ethnic clergywomen leaving the ministry is the same as the primary reason for clergywomen who left ordained ministry permanently. Actually, in both cases, the rate for “lack of support from the hierarchical system” has increased. For racial ethnic clergywomen, the percentage increased from 27% in the previous research to 44% in the current research. For clergywomen who left ordained ministry, it was increased from 22% in the previous research to 35% in the current research.  In the previous research, 48 racial ethnic clergywomen participated in this question and confirmed the same reason. In the current research, 18 racial ethnic clergywomen answered this question with the same reason. Overall, the answers provided by racial ethnic clergywomen showed increased participation in local church ministry. However, we are left with questions as to why racial ethnic clergywomen experience more difficulties with institutional systemic challenges. In the previous study, we find:

“Lack of the support from the hierarchical system” was one of the most serious main reasons to leave local church ministry for clergywomen twenty years ago.

“The questionnaire and interview data indicate that lack of support from the hierarchical system, being unable to maintain one’s integrity in the system, rejection from congregations/parishioners, and the conflict of family and pastoral responsibilities are the major reasons clergywomen are leaving local church ministry.”[1]

It is still the leading reason. Even though it is difficult to make a conclusion to confirm, these results (due to the dramatic changes of higher participation rates of local church ministry for clergywomen over the twenty years), the primary reason leaving ordained ministry has not changed. Many racial ethnic clergywomen and clergywomen who left ordained ministry expressed their struggles in a similar manner, as did those clergywomen in our previous research.

When other areas such as clergy partner, previous denomination, and ordination were considered, the primary responses were either lack of support from the hierarchical system, family responsibilities, or to follow a call to another kind of ministry. Comments from participants are as follows:  1)  Abuse from parishioners with no accountability for their actions, 2)  Unethical behavior of Senior pastor, 3) Retirement, 4) Was discontinued in the ordination process, 5) Crisis in child’s life, 6) Wasn’t doing good self-care, 6) The moving (etc.) destroyed my health and self-esteem, 7) When I was married to a UM clergy and I had to follow his appointments, there was not always something suitable for me, and 8) Inability of UMC hierarchy to allow the congregations to be what they need to be to truly interface with the world as it exists in the twenty first century, rather than the nineteenth century.

For our question, “if you are serving a local church, what are the factors that make it the best place of service for you,” many clergywomen raised their voices by leaving additional comments. Interestingly, many of these answers were quite negative about the experience with local church ministry. Let us hear their voices here.

“Pastoral ministry has eroded my self-esteem because of a previous appointment in which the congregation was intentionally cruel. I no longer feel the passion and creativity I once did around ministry and worship, but I have invested too much and am too old to make a change in career.”

“The sexism in our institution is getting worse. The patterns of “old boys” decision making is reinvigorating itself…. I often wonder where I am, what institution I am serving, whether there is any room for me here. I am encouraged by the church’s interest in engaging young people—it needs to do that—but I wonder whether the denomination has any interest in retaining the people who have been of service all our lives. However, I am proud of the Methodist heritage and tradition and feel a strong commitment to many people with whom I have served in a variety of capacities.”

“I am no longer sure that the local church is the best place for me to serve. Currently I’m trying to discern whether or not God is still calling me to this particular ministry.”

“I am committed to the people of the church not really the church as an institution.”

“While it is not perfect, nothing else seems more faithful for me.”

“I am committed to making local church service work in my life. It takes effort & confidence.”

“This is not the best place for me and I intend to leave in the next year or two.”

“I am not serving in the local church now. I left it due to discrimination in the appointive system in 1996.”

“There is no way I will ever again serve in a pastoral position. I have been under-paid, humiliated, belittled, “told off” by the senior pastor numerous times (without cause), been made to grovel for the minimum wage suggested by Annual Conference….. I was humiliated in front of the staff, the church council and other governing bodies…. I often filled in for the senior/associate pastors at a very high level of responsibility but was never respected or compensated.”

“I am ¼ time so I [can] be at home with my kids. I will return to full time when they are older.”

Their comments reflect the difficulties that they faced or face in ministry. Even the clergywomen who are currently involved in the local church ministry consider other options to explore.

For our question “if you ever left service in the local church, for what reasons did you leave?” the additional answers are as follows:

“don’t like church politics.”

“Parish ministry’s expectations and schedule were wreaking havoc on my young children.”

“abuse from parishioners with no accountability for their actions.”

“Serving as a clergy couple is difficult.”

“lack of flexibility in the system to honor my contributions while working in a less than half time status.”

“unethical behavior of senior pastor.”

“Long hours, no time-off, unrealistic & conflicting pastoral expectations, needy inward focused members, weary of church conflict, no time for family…”

“local church position eliminated.”

“..never have I received such rejection of my gender.”

“Yearly moving, leads to unstable life, depression, no access to friendship and fellowship outside the UMC professional structure.”

“On several occasions, parishioners told me that having a woman pastor was difficult.”

“racism, failure of the church to be the church.”

Whether they are currently in local church ministry or not, they express their struggles in their ministry such as “rejection from congregations/parishioners, the hierarchical system, and the conflict of family.”[2] These are very similar voices that we heard in the previous research. These voices also confirm our conclusion that the primary reason for leaving ordained ministry has not changed despite the increased participation by clergywomen in church ministry. Many of these additional comments indicated that clergywomen still experience racial and sexual prejudices, church systematic barriers, lack of support from UMC system and local congregations, conflicts with senior pastors and/or congregational members, and difficulties of managing their life with family while doing local church ministry. These reasons have not changed over the past twenty years. In summary, even though the numbers of clergywomen who exited temporarily or permanently from the local church ministry have decreased from 583 clergywomen to 307 clergywomen and many clergywomen have participated in local church ministry in drastically higher percentages, the leading reason to leave the local church ministry has not changed.

Table 21.  Primary Reasons for Leaving Local Church Ministry Selected by Women Who Have Exited Temporarily or Permanently

1994 2011
Primary Reason For Leaving Local Church Ministry Frequency
(N=583; None listed=803, 58% of total)
Percent Primary Reason For Leaving Local Church Ministry Frequency
(N=307)
Percent
Lack of Support From the Hierarchical System 90 15% Lack of Support From the Hierarchical System 46 15%
Lack of Opportunity to Use Gifts 50 9% Lack of Opportunity to Use Gifts 27 9%
Too Much Rejection by Churches 43 7% Too Much Rejection by Churches 23 7%
Cannot Maintain Integrity in this System 42 7% Cannot Maintain Integrity in this System 17 6%
To Follow a Call to Another Kind of Ministry 145 25% To Follow a Call to Another Kind of Ministry 62 20%
Do Not Like Local Church Ministry 5 0.9% Do Not Like Local Church Ministry 4 1%
Family Responsibilities 67 11% Family Responsibilities 54 18%
Financial Reasons 3 0.5% Financial Reasons 8 3%
Health Reasons 24 4% Health Reasons 12 4%
Other 114 20% Other 54 18%

Table 22.  Reasons for Leaving the Local Church Selected by Participants Who Have Left Ordained Ministry

1994 2011
Primary Reason For Leaving Local Church Ministry Frequency
(N=36; None listed=7, 16%of total)
Percent Primary Reason For Leaving Local Church Ministry Frequency
(N=60)
Percent
Lack of Support From the Hierarchical System 8 22% Lack of Support From the Hierarchical System 21 35%
Lack of Opportunity to Use Gifts 3 8% Lack of Opportunity to Use Gifts 4 7%
Too Much Rejection by Churches 3 8% Too Much Rejection by Churches 4 7%
Cannot Maintain Integrity in this System 9 25% Cannot Maintain Integrity in this System 7 12%
To Follow a Call to Another Kind of Ministry 2 6% To Follow a Call to Another Kind of Ministry 1 2%
Do Not Like Local Church Ministry 0 0% Do Not Like Local Church Ministry 0 0%
Family Responsibilities 0 0% Family Responsibilities 8 13%
Financial Reasons 0 0% Financial Reasons 1 2%
Health Reasons 2 6% Health Reasons 5 8%
Other 9 25% Other 9 15%

Table 23.  Primary Reason for Leaving Local Church Ministry:  Ethnic Background of Participants

1994 2011
Primary Reason for Leaving Local Church Ministry Ethnic Minority Women
(N=48; None listed=65, 58% of total)
White Women
(N=535; None listed=728, 58% of total)
Primary Reason for Leaving Local Church Ministry Ethnic Minority Women
(N=18)
White Women
(N=257)
Lack of Support from the Hierarchical System 13 (27%) 77 (14%) Lack of Support from the Hierarchical System 8 (44%) 40 (16%)
Lack of Opportunity to Use Gifts 4 (8%) 46 (9%) Lack of Opportunity to Use Gifts 8 (44%) 20 (8%)
Too Much Rejection by Churches 5 (10%) 38 (7%) Too Much Rejection by Churches 5 (28%) 21 (8%)
Cannot Maintain Integrity in this System 0 41 (8%) Cannot Maintain Integrity in this System 4 (22%) 14 (5%)
To Follow a Call to Another Kind of Ministry 10 (21%) 135 (25%) To Follow a Call to Another Kind of Ministry 5 (28%) 57 (22%)
Do Not Like Local Church Ministry 0 5 (0.9%) Do Not Like Local Church Ministry 0 4 (2%)
Family Responsibilities 5 (10%) 62 (12%) Family Responsibilities 6 (33%) 50 (19%)
Financial Reasons 0 3 (0.6%) Financial Reasons 1 (6%) 6 (2%)
Health Reasons 2 (4%) 22 (4%) Health Reasons 0 12 (5%)
Other 9 (19%) 106 (20%) Other 3 (17%) 50 (19%)

Table 24.  Primary Reasons for Leaving Local Church Ministry:  Participants with a Clergy Partner

1994 2011
Primary Reason for Leaving Local Church Ministry Clergy Partner
(N=172; None listed=221, 56% of total)
No Clergy Partner
(N=412; None listed=583, 59% of total)
Primary Reason for Leaving Local Church Ministry Clergy Partner
(N=52)
No Clergy Partner
(N=191)
Lack of Support from the Hierarchical System 21 (12%) 69 (17%) Lack of Support from the Hierarchical System 8 (15%) 37 (19%)
Lack of Opportunity to Use Gifts 15 (9%) 35 (8%) Lack of Opportunity to Use Gifts 1 (2%) 14 (7%)
Too Much Rejection by Churches 15 (9%) 28 (7%) Too Much Rejection by Churches 5 (10%) 8 (4%)
Cannot Maintain Integrity in this System 11 (6%) 31 (8%) Cannot Maintain Integrity in this System 3 (6%) 8 (4%)
To Follow a Call to Another Kind of Ministry 37 (22%) 108 (26%) To Follow a Call to Another Kind of Ministry 13 (25%) 39 (20%)
Do Not Like Local Church Ministry 1 (0.6%) 4 (1%) Do Not Like Local Church Ministry 0 0
Family Responsibilities 26 (15%) 41 (10%) Family Responsibilities 11 (21%) 38 (20%)
Financial Reasons 0 3 (0.7%) Financial Reasons 0 3 (2%)
Health Reasons 9 (5%) 15 (4%) Health Reasons 1 (2%) 8 (4%)
Other 37 (22%) 78 (19%) Other 10 (19%) 36 (19%)

Table 25.  Primary Reason for Leaving Local Church Ministry:  Denominational Background of Participants

1994 2011
Primary Reason for Leaving Local Church Ministry Reared Methodist
(N=397; None listed=539, 58% of total)
Reared Non-Methodist
(N=178; None listed=240, 57% of total)
Primary Reason for Leaving Local Church Ministry Reared Methodist
(N=159)
Reared Non-Methodist
(N=87)
Lack of Support from the Hierarchical System 51 (13%) 38 (21%) Lack of Support from the Hierarchical System 31 (19%) 15 (17%)
Lack of Opportunity to Use Gifts 36 (9%) 12 (7%) Lack of Opportunity to Use Gifts 10 (6%) 5 (9%)
Too Much Rejection by Churches 30 (8%) 13 (7%) Too Much Rejection by Churches 11 (7%) 3 (3%)
Cannot Maintain Integrity in this System 23 (6%) 19 (11%) Cannot Maintain Integrity in this System 5 (3%) 6 (7%)
To Follow a Call to Another Kind of Ministry 99 (25%) 44 (25%) To Follow a Call to Another Kind of Ministry 36 (23%) 17 (20%)
Do Not Like Local Church Ministry 4 (1%) 1 (0.6%) Do Not Like Local Church Ministry 1 (1%) 0
Family Responsibilities 52 (13%) 12 (7%) Family Responsibilities 29 (18%) 18 (21%)
Financial Reasons 1 (0.3%) 2 (1%) Financial Reasons 0 1 (1%)
Health Reasons 19 (5%) 4 (2%) Health Reasons 6 (4%) 4 (5%)
Other 82 (21%) 33 (19%) Other 30 (19%) 18 (21%)

Table 26 (2011 data).  Primary Reasons for Leaving Local Church Ministry:  Primary Reason for Seeking Ordination

Primary Reason for Leaving Local Church Ministry Nonspecific Call to Ministry
(N=198)
Call to the Local Church
(N=13)
Call to Preach
(N=27)
Required for Priestly Duties
(N=21)
Required for Ministry Other Than the Local Church
(N=14)
Natural/ Logical Progression
(N=23)
Lack of Support from the Hierarchical System 39 (20%) 6 (46%) 11 (41%) 10 (48%) 7 (50%) 5 (22%)
Lack of Opportunity to Use Gifts 12 (6%) 0 1 (4%) 2 (10%) 2 (14%) 2 (9%)
Too Much Rejection by Churches 10 (5%) 1(8%) 2 (7%) 1 (5%) 0 1 (4%)
Cannot Maintain Integrity in this System 9 (5%) 2 (15%) 2 (7%) 1 (5%) 2 (14%) 2 (9%)
To Follow a Call to Another Kind of Ministry 42 (21%) 1 (8%) 3 (11%) 1 (5%) 1 (7%) 2 (9%)
Do Not Like Local Church Ministry 0 0 0 0 0 0
Family Responsibilities 40 (20%) 1 (8%) 2 (7%) 1 (5%) 1 (7%) 4 (17%)
Financial Reasons 1 (.5%) 0 0 0 0 1 (4%)
Health Reasons 8 (4%) 0 0 0 0 2 (9%)
Other 37 (19%) 2 (15%) 6 (22%) 5 (24%) 1 (7%) 4 (17%)

Table 27 (1994 data).  Primary Reasons for Leaving Local Church Ministry:  Primary Reason for Seeking Ordination

Primary Reason for Leaving Local Church Ministry Nonspecific Call to Ministry
(N=399; None listed=537, 57% of total)
Call to the Local Church
(N=14; None listed=61, 81%  of total)
Call to Preach
(N=47; None listed=62, 57% of total)
Required for Priestly Duties
(N=22; None listed=26, 54% of total)
Required for Ministry Other Than the Local Church
(N=12; None listed=7, 37% of total)
Natural/ Logical Progression
(N=65; None listed=77, 54% of total)
Lack of Support from the Hierarchical System 67 (17%) 4 (29%) 7 (15%) 3 (14%) 2 (17%) 5 (8%)
Lack of Opportunity to Use Gifts 30 (8%) 0 5 (11%) 3 (14%) 3 (25%) 7 (11%)
Too Much Rejection by Churches 28 (7%) 2 (14%) 4 (9%) 3 (14%) 0 4 (6%)
Cannot Maintain Integrity in this System 34 (9%) 0 1 (2%) 1 (5%) 1 (8%) 3 (5%)
To Follow a Call to Another Kind of Ministry 96 (24%) 3 (21%) 10 (21%) 7 (32%) 5 (42%) 15 (23%)
Do Not Like Local Church Ministry 3 (0.8%) 0 1 (2%) 0 0 1 (2%)
Family Responsibilities 51 (13%) 1 (7%) 1 (2%) 0 0 12 (18%)
Financial Reasons 0 1 (7%) 1 (2%) 0 0 1 (2%)
Health Reasons 18 (5%) 0 3 (6%) 0 0 3 (5%)
Other 72 (18%) 3 (21%) 14 (30%) 5 (23%) 1 (8%) 14 (22%)

Over the twenty-year period, dramatic changes related to clergywomen’s participation in local church ministry regardless of their race, marital status, having clergy partners, and denominational backgrounds has occurred. Our current research shows that the retention rates in local church ministry of clergywomen have increased, and that many clergywomen are actively participating in local church ministry. The status of clergywomen has improved despite some similar struggles that they have dealt with continuously. However, the primary reason for leaving the local church ministry for clergywomen has not changed over these years. This continues to reflect similar difficulty that UMC clergywomen have had to endure over the years.

These results do not prove or guarantee that the struggles clergywomen in local congregations have faced have been resolved or diminished. Further study is needed. Because of our findings and the limitations of this research, we would like to suggest several recommendations for further research.

Next Page: Recommendations


[1] Margaret S. Wiborg, and Elizabeth J. Collier, United Methodist Clergywomen Retention Study,) Anna Howard Shaw Center: Boston University School of Theology, 1997), 29.

[2] Margaret S. Wiborg, and Elizabeth J. Collier, United Methodist Clergywomen Retention Study,) Anna Howard Shaw Center: Boston University School of Theology, 1997), 29.