United Methodist Clergywomen Retention Study

Chapter Three: Cooperating With Grace

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.  Integrated lives require that all aspects of life, the institutional, congregational, personal, and civil, be permeable.  Since the life of a clergywoman is like its own sub-system of a greater whole, each area within that sub-system influences the other areas.  Clergywomen do not leave local church ministry because of one isolated reason.  Instead, their exit is most likely due to several interconnected factors.  These interrelationships are very complex and are unable to be fully articulated in this report; they deserve to be considered through comprehensive analysis and discussion in the near future throughout the Church.  Acknowledging the interrelationships is crucial in trying to understand what can be done to retain these women in local church ministry.

Just as each of the factors contributing to a clergywoman’s exit from local church ministry is not an isolated influence in her leaving local church ministry, these factors are related in a larger system.  To a great extent, they are systemic and no one intervention will be adequate to make the necessary improvements.  Instead, each issue can be mitigated, and ultimately resolved, if the entire system is engaged, rather than only one person or agency attempting to promote change.  In this challenge to the entire system, the Church has a great opportunity to examine what it truly means to be the Church.  Five areas are identified here as having some responsibility for the support of United Methodist clergywomen:
•    The appointment system
•    Annual Conference Leaders and Clergy Colleagues
•    Congregations
•    Seminaries
•    Clergywomen

The Appointment System

Implicit in the questionnaire’s phrase “lack of support from the hierarchical system” is the appointment system and process that are responsible for placing United Methodist clergy in local churches as well as in other positions.  In the interviews the appointment system received an astounding proportion of negative comments (74%); such a large proportion indicates a negative experience with the appointment process, and subsequently, a distrust of the appointment system and its agents.

I think part of [leaving] had to do with the churches I was serving and it had a lot to do with my distrustfulness of the appointment process to move me anywhere much better than that. . . . I was distrustful of the situation improving, of putting myself back into the appointment process again.”

The distrust among the United Methodist clergywomen in this study toward district superintendents, bishops, and cabinets as a whole has been the result of personal experiences with the system and its officials who have demonstrated a lack of support for clergywomen and their ministry.  Women perceive a lack of support at the beginning of the appointment process when new appointments are made.  Gender is made the defining factor in some cases where churches are being assigned women pastors:

One of the things that I have found in all of the appointments, I think, frustrating was that when the District Superintendent told the church who they wanted to appoint there, it always seemed to be a defining factor that I was a woman. . . . You know, ‘We’re going to send you a woman . . . So they made it the issue right off________Not ‘Here’s what the person is like, here’s what the person can do, here’s a little bit about the person.’  But, ‘Hold on to your seats, we’re going to send you a woman.’  It’s always the defining thing.

Also, churches are perceived as having more power than they should when they oppose a Cabinet’s decision to appoint a woman to their church.

[W]hen DS’s tell churches, ‘You’re getting a woman minister’ and they raise a stink.  DS’s are too afraid to say, ‘This is your pastor.  The Bishop has made this appointment and this is your pastor, and you will get along with her and you will not cut her salary before she comes.  And you will not steal the piano out of the worship center, and you will give her your full support because this is your pastor.’  And we need more of that kind of mentality.  We need to not be afraid.  I think the bishops need to quit being afraid of sending women to these places.  And need to let women handle it, because women can handle it if they’re given the opportunity and they’re given the backing.

From the time a district superintendent, the Cabinet, a clergywoman, and a local church enter into the appointment process together, some women experience a lack of support from bishops and district superintendents who allow local churches to reject appointed pastors based on gender.        Once local churches express explicit or indirect hostility toward a clergywoman, some district superintendents fail to respond decisively and effectively.

I had another friend that went to a church and they cut her salary before she came without the DS saying ‘You have to cut it,’ I mean they just did it.  And the DS said, ‘You can’t do this,’ and they said, ‘Well, we will.’  And the DS never challenged them.

I needed a parishioner or a DS who was able to stand up and say, ‘Hey, we need to examine how to make some changes’________I needed a DS who was able to stand up and prevent parishioners from cutting my pension________And I did not have a DS who was willing to do that________And they would say, ‘Well, you know, she’s just a single person, she doesn’t need all that.’

Without the necessary advocacy from district superintendents and bishops during conflicts between churches and female pastors, the authority and validity of a clergywoman’s ministry is undermined.  If the conference leadership does not model concern for the needs of clergywomen, then congregations, especially if they are already hostile regarding gender issues, may be less likely to value those concerns, too.  Modeling by annual conference leadership of just attitudes and practices establishes a certain standard and expectation for the treatment of all clergy by all persons involved, including congregations and clergy colleagues.  Of course, it is important to recognize that some district superintendents are effective in supporting clergywomen in hostile situations where congregations are setting unreasonable expectations and making excessive demands of the female pastor.

[My] woman district superintendent looked at their list of complaints, and looked at some other letters that other people in the congregation had written, and said, ‘It’s my perception your pastor is overworking, and working too hard, and somehow nothing is enough for you.’   And she encouraged them to work with me, see if we could work it out for a year . . .”

Intentional education and training of district superintendents and bishops is necessary to help cabinets effectively work with congregations through the process of receiving a female pastor, especially in congregations where there is great resistance to women in ministry.  A recognition that the process of receiving and accepting a female pastor does not end on the moving date is crucial, for problems sometimes do not arise until after the appointment has begun.  Support from district superintendents and bishops is equally crucial during the first few years of the appointment, especially if the church is working with a clergywoman for the first or second time.  Conference officials need to be equipped to help pastors and parishioners process the theological and as well the seemingly mundane issues that arise.  Several women noted that they experienced more support from congregations than from conference officials regarding their ministry.  Insight from pastor-parish relations committees, pastors, and parishioners who have successfully helped congregations make the transition to having a female pastor probably would be advantageous as training programs for district superintendents and bishops are developed.

Clergywomen in this study have indicated that district superintendents, cabinets, and  bishops are not always forthcoming with information regarding their future appointments.  The inaccurate information sometimes provided by district superintendents to clergywomen seems meant to be persuasive rather than descriptive of a particular situation.  Once these women commit and move to an appointment, they discover the information they received was inaccurate. Some clergywomen appropriately described district superintendents as outright dishonest when they try to market appointments to clergywomen.  The distribution of misinformation is particularly damaging when a clergywoman has been misleadingly told a congregation is open and receptive to having a female pastor.

[T]he DS in the second appointment_______when he took me to see this church, he just sold me a bill of goods.  He really did.  He talked about this was a bedroom community of [name of company] in [name of city] . . . It wasn’t hardly any community, it was out in [name] basically!  And he said there wasn’t any resistance to my going there, and there was.  Lots of people quit, wouldn’t come to church.  People asked the bishop to reconsider.  So there was much resistance.  And then when I got out there, [he]was not very supportive.  I just never heard from him, or had very little contact.

Congregations also seem to be the recipients of misinformation during the appointment process.  One district superintendent apparently failed to inform a congregation that a clergy couple was being appointed to the church to co-pastor:

Our DS forgot to tell the lay people that we were coming to co-pastor.

Well, I’m not really sure; but he forgot to tell them that I was part of the pastoring team.

In one situation, when issues of housing for a clergy couple in two different appointments arose, the district superintendent ridiculously informed the congregations that the couple would move every six months so that both parsonages would be used:

[T]he DS would tell them things like I would live in [husband’s] house for six months, and we’d live in my house for six months.  The people said, ‘Well, that’s what he said.’

The lack of honesty sometimes found in agents of the appointment system erodes the trust clergywomen and congregations have in the appointment system.

Additionally, women, particularly if they are married or have a clergy partner, have a difficult time in the appointment process.  One woman discussed her experience with the appointment system as it related to gender and having a clergy partner:

“I moved to get out of an associate position, and I was sent to another one________When I asked to speak to the bishop about it, I was told I was a woman, and I was a part of a clergy couple, and therefore, I was a double problem for the cabinet.  In other words, shut up and be quiet.

A single woman was told by her district superintendent that if she wanted to succeed in the Church she should not get married:

My first District Superintendent with whom I met said, ‘Of course, you’ll never be able to get married if you want to be successful because women who are married are difficult to appoint.’

Still another woman with a clergy spouse was asked directly by her conference Board of Ordained Ministry to choose between her marriage and her ministry:

I went before the board one more time, and got crucified________I mean, they focused totally and solely on my having gotten married the year before__________he chair of the Board [said], ‘You know, bottom line’ . . .  he said, ‘Which is more important?  You know you have to choose which is going to be more important to you–ministry or your marriage?  You have to choose.  Which would you choose?’  And I was amazed, and I said . . . ‘I don’t think any one of us here today would ever want to be posed with that question, to have to be forced to choose between our marriage and our ministry.  I do not understand why that’s being posed to me.  I think we all, each one of us, want to be able to have both . . .that’s all I’m asking–[husband] and I are willing to work with you in a partnership relationship here, and we’re just hoping you’ll work with us, you know.’ . . . and they chose not to ordain me this year________And I talked to the chair of the Board over the phone a week later, and he told me, basically, it was a split decision, you know, half of them wanted me and half of them didn’t want me, and that those half that didn’t want to, he said, ‘Four of them probably voted you down because you’re a woman, four of them, because you’re your mother’s daughter, and four of them, because you got married and they’re not sure you’re committed to the church.’

Women with employed husbands (whether clergy or not) appear to pose particular problems to the appointment system.  Currently, consideration of a clergywoman’s gifts and graces is sometimes sacrificed in the appointment process if the cabinet must consider a spouse’s employment when making an appointment decision.  In another case where inaccurate information was given, one married woman was given one job description by the district superintendent and then another when she arrived at her new appointment:

[W]hen they asked me for my first appointment, if I wanted to be in a church of my own, or if I wanted to be an associate, I said I didn’t care as long as I was in a big enough city for my husband to find a job.  But I told them specifically that I did not want to be a youth and education person.  If I was going to be an associate, I wanted to be at a church big enough that they already had those people, and I was going to get to be a pastor in the church________And the district superintendent even told me that they already had those people here at [church], that I would be the associate pastor, and when I got here — he just plain old lied to me.  He knew that I was coming to be the youth and education person, and just lied to get me to go, and so, I was really angry . . .

Clergywomen with family responsibilities also have difficulty in the appointment process.  One woman was faced with an appointment that was unreasonable and unfair for her children:

I wanted to spend time with my kids rather than in meetings all the time.  So they gave me a church that had a big increase in salary and was pretty big and was all the way on the other side of the state.  My kids spend every other weekend with their dad who is on this side of the state.  If we had moved they would have had to spend about 24 hours of the weekend on the road.  I turned the Cabinet down.  They were hurt.  They had good intentions but they weren’t listening to me.  It had to do with my being a mother.  They don’t understand mothers.

Concerns regarding family responsibilities and the overall appointment system that  emerged in the questionnaire and interviews suggest that a more open and honest appointment system is necessary.  Open communication between district superintendents, congregations, and appointed pastors is essential.  Congregations and pastors need full knowledge of the relationship they are entering.  A clergywoman needs to be made aware of potential resistance within a particular congregation.  If she has some expectation of the situation, she can be more prepared to respond in a constructive manner.  Congregations need to be made aware of potential concerns regarding clergy couples and clergywomen with particular family responsibilities so the congregation will be prepared to negotiate those needs with the incoming pastor.

One method of providing a more open appointment process is for annual conferences to publish an updated explanation of their appointment process, describing those factors which take precedence in the process (spouse’s job, family issues, clergy couple, salary, size of church, etc.). The creation of an official statement would allow all clergy and congregations to know and understand the appointment process and would provide them the opportunity to indicate a preference for those factors they consider most important in the decision-making process.  They would share the responsibility of making those distinctions with the cabinet.

Another important issue that needs to be addressed by annual conference leadership is the need for clergy to live balanced, integrated, whole lives.  The ability to live fully and authentically is crucial for a healthy clergyperson.  Clergywomen need to be able to personify and live their many different roles: pastor, mother, partner, daughter, citizen, etc.  If they are only permitted to live out their role as pastor, then they are not being able to live out the fullness of their creation.  As one clergywoman said,

Does this please God that we abandon our families and our children and our spouses for meetings? . . . I’m not sure it does. . . . I mistakenly started to date a United Methodist clergyperson. . . . And realized that I got put on hold every time there was a church meeting or camp or anything that took precedence. . . . I don’t think that pleases God. . . . And I’m very unhappy with a church structure and hierarchy that seems to reward that.

Indeed the church structure should encourage clergy living whole lives rather than living one role.  Being consumed by one role forces persons to lose a sense of self and potentially creates perilous power issues for clergy in local church ministry.

Education and training of cabinets about issues of self-care are necessary so they may listen to the needs of a clergyperson as specified by that clergyperson (rather than making assumptions about their needs).  Cabinets must take the entire life of a clergyperson into account when making appointment decisions.  For example, if support networks are a particular specified need for a clergywoman, then her appointment should reflect that need without being punitive.  In some annual conferences, conference leadership has been responsive to particular situations where a pastor’s child has only one year left in high school; the pastor has been permitted to stay in an appointment for an additional year.  Now, with changes in gender roles, the influx of women in ministry, and the increasing number of clergy with employed partners, that flexibility needs to be more inclusive and comprehensive in addressing a variety of needs.  To encourage the health of their clergy, bishops and district superintendents also should model a more holistic approach to life.  Instead of rewarding those persons who become consumed by the role of pastor, they should call this into question.

Cultural expectations and gender roles are of particular concern for clergywomen.  Socially prescribed roles of being a family caregiver often come into conflict with the expectations around the role of pastor.  Further study about gender roles and how the appointment system and the Church reinforce those roles will be essential in helping to educate clergy and laity about the conflict between those two roles and how to resolve that conflict.  Additionally, the church must ask itself why the traditional values and theology of family do not apply to clergywomen as clergy but are applied to them as women.

Another area of support that needs improvement is compensation of local church pastors.  Though financial reasons were not the leading factor attributed by clergywomen who left local church ministry, compensation as a justice issue needs to be confronted.  The interview was not designed specifically to obtain information regarding salary; some women raised the issue during the interviews, nevertheless.  When salary was discussed, only negative comments were made.  Two separate studies in the South Carolina and Virginia Annual Conferences, among others, have shown that over time clergywomen are paid less for their years of service than clergymen.  And while current quantitative data on equitable compensation is not readily available, the perception among clergywomen is that they are being paid less than men and that marital status is also a factor in determining compensation.

But, particularly for single women pastors, a lot of us get paid a lot less than our married colleagues and men_And parsonages tend not to be well prepared, our needs tend to be more overlooked . . .

I guess it really does relate to women in ministry, since over all, they’re still, based on years of experience and all, grossly underpaid compared to the men.  I think there is a desperate need for the integrity of the United Methodist Church to remain intact, for them to go to some type of system of standardized salaries, with a salary cap, and for moves to be made based on gifts and graces, and not just salary______

The appointment system is perceived as being driven by salaries rather than focusing on gifts, graces, and needs.  That perception was confirmed by one bishop in a conversation with one of the clergywomen interviewed:


No, since I was told by the bishop, at the time when I  moved from one associate position, and ended up in another — when I questioned that, he said, ‘I am the CEO of this organization.  I deal promotions based on salary.  I do not have time to deal with gifts and graces.  I do not have time to be a pastor.’

What are the theological and moral costs in having an appointment system that subscribes to the corporation model of the United States?  If salaries were scaled also according to years of ordained ministry or equivalent work rather than determined by each charge conference, cabinets would no longer have to place pastors according to salary only.  Cabinets could then use their time and energy to educate themselves about the gifts, graces, and needs of particular congregations and pastors in order to place them in effective working partnerships.  Comprehensively determined compensation also would eliminate inconsistencies in compensation based on factors such as gender, race, and marital status.

A more open appointment system–one that takes into account the entire life of a clergyperson, recognizes that placing women in difficult appointments is a process into which pastors, congregations, and cabinets enter together, and focuses more on gifts and graces–will help to alleviate some of the problems in the appointment system which prevent women from remaining in parish ministry.  Such an appointment system would be capable of providing some of the support required for clergywomen to execute their ministry while also living out their various roles within their families, friendship networks, and communities.  As long as a more authoritarian, closed system remains intact, a more cooperative, healthy, balanced, and mutually supportive appointment process will be difficult to achieve.

Problems with the manner in which appointments are made were not the only issues to arise regarding the appointment system.  In the interviews, some women commented on the disconnectedness from the Church they felt while on leave or in appointments beyond the local church.  Except for the annual letter from the Board of Ordained Ministry requesting salary information and whether or not the person on leave is seeking appointment for the next year, many women did not receive any communication from church officials.  Some women were excluded from conference mailings.  Several of the women expressed fears of re-entering the appointment system because they may receive difficult appointments and salary reductions as “punishment” for leaving local church ministry.

You know, people who are on leave, and this is probably true for most annual conferences, there’s a little bit of a punitive pitch you get when you get back, and that I’ve experienced a little bit, and it makes it real easy just to stay out another year.

I think people who are on leave of absence, the connection needs to have a better relationship, a closer relationship to them.  I wrote a letter.  I told them, and I was on the board when I got out, and I said, ‘I am not feeling well.’  Nobody, my DS never came up–not that I really needed him, but you know, you would just think, if he truly is my clergy, and I had left a job, and I don’t feel well, you’d think he might drop by or call.  Never.  The board, I think should–you know, somebody from the board other than their annual letter, . . . . So you don’t hear from anybody in an official capacity. . . . You need to have a relationship, because everybody who leaves to go on a leave of absence–something is going on in their lives. . . to me that’s what connection is–part of what it ought to be. . . . we’re going around to these seminaries trying to do recruitment, and yet we’re almost blowing people out the back door.


No, it just made me furious.  I do get those things to fill out your report every year that tells what your salary is; but even the mailings that come from the Conference Council on Ministries, no never get ’em.  And I’ve asked many times to be put on the list.  ABLC people never got invited to the ministers’ convocation, pastors’ school before I insisted.

In some respect the clergy who go on leave or seek appointments beyond the local church disappear from the larger connection of The United Methodist Church.  Unfortunately, if an intentional effort is not made to improve the appointment system, clergywomen who have left local church ministry may disappear from the Church altogether.  Women who are on leave of absence may not be the only clergy to vanish.  Since higher proportions of ethnic minority women and women who are in committed relationships (which may include lesbian clergywomen) tend to leave local church ministry, the diversity of perspectives these women bring to the local church and the larger connection may be lost.

The new deacons’ orders for ordination may also contribute to the disappearance of clergywomen from local church ministry. The new order potentially could provide a means for tracking women, particularly women with clergy and non-clergy partners, away from local church ministry.  Another danger is that women who would prefer to be in local church ministry may seek deacons’ orders because they are discouraged from entering an appointment system which appears unwilling to accommodate the challenges they present.  Since the ordination changes have the potential to be detrimental to clergywomen, the Church needs to be continually evaluating the effects these new changes in the appointment system are having on the presence of women elders in local church ministry.

Annual Conference Leaders and Clergy Colleagues

While those in ordained ministry are peers by the fact that they all are ordained clergy, there is a sense that all are not equal colleagues.  Rather, there is a political hierarchy in which one’s peers have control over one’s life or have the potential to someday possess that control.  Competition among clergy for appointments also makes collegiality difficult.  Lack of trust among colleagues, which prevents clergy from talking with their peers about struggles and challenges in their ministry, results from such a highly political system.

And you have your peers who are also endorsing you or ordaining you________And you have competition for your appointments________And there has never been a place to say ‘I need some help here, if you can help me with a parishioner who’s doing wrong to me.  Hear me out.’

I don’t think that I really felt comfortable being honest because I felt anything I said could be used against me.  So, that’s part of the structure.  Once again, you know, it’s very difficult to be honest about what you’re struggling with because all those people hold all the cards, you know.  They control where you go and how your whole career is going to unfold. . . . So that’s another problem with the way the structure is set up.

According to the 1996 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, the district superintendency is supposed to be the space where clergy can go to receive guidance and counsel when needed.  Several of the specific responsibilities assigned to district superintendents as outlined in the Book of Discipline provide provisions for such support:

[B]y giving priority to the scheduling of time and effort for spiritual leadership, pastoral support, supervision, and encouragement to the clergy and to the churches of the district; . . . by encouraging their personal, spiritual, and professional growth.

This role of the district superintendent as the clergy’s clergy is complicated by the fact that the district superintendent also is responsible for the evaluation and appointment of the clergy in their district.  Since district superintendents possess power over the appointments and professional futures of clergy, clergy have a difficult time discussing their struggles in a pastoral relationship with their district superintendent, because boundaries become blurred between the various roles of a district superintendent.

Undergirding the lack of trust clergywomen experience toward conference officials and other clergy colleagues is the presence of blatant and indirect sexism among clergy.  Some women in the interviews commented that they had a much easier time being accepted as a woman in ministry by their parishioners than by other clergy.

The place that has been more difficult for me has not been parishioners, but has been other clergy. . . . In the early days, I would go to a district meeting and have the District Superintendent say something to the men of the conference, and mean the clergy. . . . That’s been more of a drain than working with parishioners. . . . I have found parishioners a little bit easier, and little more willing to at least talk to me about it than the rest of the church.

Some of the sexism women experience from clergy colleagues is very blatant and direct.

My first district superintendent . . . told me at various points that I needed to lose weight, that he hoped I would find somebody to marry in my second appointment.

[T]he third senior pastor in my second appointment . . . used to give me little lectures in staff meetings about how women are really supposed to be home and how women are really supposed to be raising kids.

[T]he supervising pastor [in internship] was very, um, what’s the word you know, disrespectful–you know, would call me his ‘little helper’ and stuff, in front of other people.  I was supposed to be functioning as a clergywoman, like I was going to be marrying these people or something, you know.

Or even after I had my first child being asked by a DS, ‘Well, what’s going to happen when you have a second child?’  What man have you asked that?  My alb will have to be looser, what can I say?!  There have been those sorts of things.

[W]hen I told [district superintendent] I was taking a leave of absence, he called me a mean damn woman on the phone.

Other expressions of sexism are not so verbally direct.  Some sexism is revealed in attitudes toward inclusive language, the lack of attentiveness some clergymen give clergywomen in a professional capacity, or inequitable treatment of clergywomen in the appointment process compared to men.


I didn’t want to go on Leave of Absence.  It was around the time of my divorce.  My ex-husband and I were trying to decide who would stay in that church (where we were co-pastors).  He finally decided he would stay.  It was so late in the appointment process that the conference said there were no appointments available; it wasn’t true.  But I was kind of coerced into taking leave.  I think the Cabinet thought it would be nice for me to have the time off.  I have noticed that they don’t do the same thing for the men who are divorced________I felt like they were condescending and patronizing to me.

The second week that [new senior pastor] came, he called a pastor-parish committee meeting without letting me know, so that he could convince them that I only needed to preach quarterly instead of once a month.  That was the first thing that happened, and from there, it went downhill.

I just saw too many men that were on the Board of Ordained Ministry–district superintendents and people who had control of my life, making jokes about inclusive language, and one interview committee that I had on the Board of Ordained Ministry, the guy didn’t even look up from his magazine he was reading the whole time they were interviewing me________There were just a lot of things like that that happened, that I felt like they weren’t serious about us.  They just–they put up with us and made jokes about us—




Mostly it was from conference officials___And the other colleagues.  Not that they were so much against me, but a majority of men colleagues here who have a double standard of ‘We’ll accept women into the ministry, but we know that the men are the ones who have the right to have control in this conference.’ . . .The women are the ones who get the lower paying jobs, they’re the ones who do not get the visibility, and inclusive language is a joke in my conference.

Clergywomen have a difficult time trusting other clergy for support when they are not even certain some of those clergy, including district superintendents, are actually supportive of women in ministry.

Not all clergywomen experience such direct and/or covert sexism from their colleagues.  One woman who left parish ministry and later returned talked about the overwhelming support she experienced upon her return to local church ministry.  She recounted an affirming response from one of her male colleagues:

‘You  know, [name], I have to tell you; you are the second best piece of news I’ve received in recent years.  Your decision to come back to the local church.  The first was [name] was going to be our bishop.’_______And it was an older male colleague, and I just found that so moving and touching. I have to say that almost uniformly, I have been received back with great enthusiasm and joy.

Still, some women do not receive that kind of affirmation and support, and therefore, the sexism that exists within the church among colleagues must be addressed.

Better education and increased accountability regarding inclusive language, gender roles, sexual harassment, and sexism need to be provided and mandated for all clergy.  Included in that education should be personal exploration by clergy regarding their own theologies and how those theologies perpetuate certain attitudes about gender roles, women, and diversity.  Until the underlying ideologies, theologies, and biblical interpretations that guide and affirm sexist attitudes toward women are addressed, permanently eliminating expressions of sexism in the Church will not be possible.  In addition clergy need to identify gender roles and patterns in local church leadership and encourage capable, gifted lay women and men to serve in roles that have traditionally been filled by one gender.  If congregations start to experience capable leadership of women in traditionally male roles, then they may be more likely to be receptive to female pastors.

Additionally, the issues of collegial support must be addressed.  As long as the current system remains entrenched in its current leadership styles and political hierarchy, clergywomen (as well as clergymen) will be unable genuinely to give and receive support from other clergy.  In annual conferences that have tried to mandate peer support networks, the groups often have proven to be ineffective and artificial.

Anything official, like a cluster gathering or district gatherings or anything like that, I have never found to be supportive, helpful or very useful

The [mentors] who have been outside of the conference have been the more supportive, but nothing inside the institution.

To compensate, some clergywomen have worked to establish their own support networks.  One group of clergywomen discovered they needed to work specifically on the interconnections of images of authority and past and present family structures.  They hired a therapist from outside the United Methodist system to facilitate group therapy on a regular basis.

[W]e actually hired, for group therapy once a month, a Lutheran minister, to help us, in a sense, do group therapy or share________And it was our time.  It was a safe place.

While group therapy does not address the larger systemic issues around sexism and lack of trust among clergy colleagues, it can provide a safe, confidential space in which clergywomen (and clergymen) can process the struggles and challenges they experience in their churches, families, and communities.  Since such collegiality is not easily available (or even possible, in many cases), annual conferences should encourage and provide access to free or inexpensive resources outside the system through which clergy can seek confidential guidance from persons such as professional counselors or therapists, negotiators, mediators, or conflict resolution assistance.  Without access to effective support, clergywomen are going to be more likely to leave local church ministry.


In addition to annual conference structures and leadership and other clergy, congregations play an important role in the support of female pastors.  Congregational expectations, respect for a clergyperson’s privacy and personal time, effective pastor-parish relations committees, and a strong lay leadership all contribute to a congregation’s participation in a mutually supportive partnership with their clergywoman.

In the interviews, coders observed a sizable proportion of negative effects for the congregational expectations item (86% of the observed effects for that item were negative).  Those expectations paired with the pressures a clergywoman experiences in her other roles (mother, partner, and citizen among them) make it difficult for a clergywoman to fulfill all the expectations.  Clergywomen need to have opportunities to attend to all their roles.  Yet, some congregations do not understand the importance of private time for their pastor.  One woman described receiving non-emergency telephone calls from her parishioners at inappropriate times:

And [members of  the congregation] thought that they should be able to call me at ten at night on business–not emergency priority, you know, or call me at six in the morning, and when I would set boundaries, they were very uncomfortable with that.  They thought I should be all things to all people.

Cultural differences also can complicate understandings about personal and vacation time.  In one farming community, a congregation refused to grant one clergywoman a few days of vacation and instead suggested that the time she spent on a church youth trip was vacation:

[O]ut here, this is a dairy community, and they never take vacations, ever________And I tried to take off three days last fall, and there were questions.  PPR tried to get me to count the youth ski trip as vacation, and I said, ‘No, I wouldn’t do that.’

In some congregations, respect for a clergywoman’s privacy, especially if she is single, is lacking.  One woman talked about how members of her congregation watched her comings and goings from the parsonage:

I would get things like–because it was a small town–‘We didn’t see your car in the driveway last night,’ ‘Well that’s because it was in the garage.’ . . . One time, a male friend of mine from seminary who was driving back to [school] from [city], stopped one night to see me.  So, they had seen us driving around.  So I got lots of questions about that.  But then when my female friends would come to stay, that was quite fine. . . . They didn’t see anything inappropriate about that.

Married women also have difficulty negotiating time to care for their needs and demands beyond the congregation, such as maternity leave, which forces women to rally their own support within the congregation:

[T]here were some [parishioners] that didn’t want me to get maternity leave.  We had that struggle, but I was able to rally my own forces when they knew they were really needed.  They didn’t want to speak up–I find a lot of people are like that, they just don’t want to get involved–but when they knew that it was really threatening what I needed, then they all came in mad, and got me what I really needed for the maternity leave.

Just as cabinets need education about living and taking into account a balanced life, so do congregations.  Education should be provided for pastor-parish relations committees regarding the importance of respecting and supporting a clergywoman in all the roles she may play.  Teaching pastor-parish relations committees and incoming pastors how to clarify expectations and needs at the beginning of an appointment, as well as how to negotiate necessary adjustments during the appointment, is essential for a functional partnership between pastors and churches.  If everyone is clear about goals and expectations from the beginning, and each party is held accountable and evaluates those goals and expectations periodically, then everyone is more likely to be satisfied with the outcome.  Included in such negotiations should be specific, practical guidelines about a pastor’s vacation time, compensation time, office hours, and personal time.

One clergywoman interviewed thought educating pastor-parish relations committees would be quite beneficial:

I hope the church could educate parishioners, especially if they’re going to serve on PPR committees to judge pastors, that they should be educated in compassion and understanding.

Once pastor-parish relations committees are educated about boundaries and have negotiated appropriate expectations with a pastor, it should be the responsibility of that committee to communicate those expectations and guidelines to the congregation, as well as to educate the congregation in why allowing a clergywoman to live a balanced life is important to her well-being as well as to the well-being of the congregation.

In addition to the practicalities of negotiating reasonable expectations between congregations and pastors, the Church’s theology of the role of the pastor and the nature of ministry must be considered.  The United Methodist Church in the Book of Discipline affirms the ministry of all Christians.  This ministry of all believers is reiterated at the beginning of chapter two in the Book of Discipline, which outlines the meaning and guidelines for ordained ministry.  Unfortunately, this concept of shared ministry is not always practiced in local congregations.  Some pastors and congregations believe that the ministry is exclusively reserved for the ordained pastor rather than the ministry being shared among the pastor and parishioners.  This theory of ministry is not consonant with The United Methodist Church’s definition of ministry, nor is it conducive to developing healthy congregations in which all members are responsible for the ministry of God.

Empowering and equipping laity is essential for churches to carry out ministry.  Congregations need to take responsibility for their ministry, and they need to encourage their pastors to provide laity with the education, training, and resources necessary to do the work of ministry.  Developing a strong laity will help diffuse some of the excessive expectations placed on pastors who carry out the bulk of the ministry in a congregation.  A strong laity which claims its ministry will also help shift the power structures within the church which are clergy-driven and reinforce authoritarian ideologies and practices.  A paradigm shift to a shared ministry between clergy and laity would allow those in the Church to live authentically as people of God doing the work of God.


Seminaries, as one of the primary places where future clergywomen are prepared for ministry, participate significantly in providing the foundational support of clergywomen.  The interviews during this study resulted in mixed reviews for the seminaries.  While many women felt the theological foundation they received in seminary was formidable, many women also commented that the seminary did not prepare them to make the transition to the local church.


Being in touch with reality of what the real world is like out there.  It’s great to study all the theologians, the history of Christian thought, and all of those courses, and I did well on those, and I went on academic scholarship.  I enjoyed studying, but there’s really no connection that I’ve found between seminary and local pastoral work, with the exception of the teaching parish course.

One of my big issues here_______has been the transition from seminary to parish ministry for women and I don’t think we do an adequate job of preparing people for that.  Now as far as the tasks of ministry, I was very well prepared for that________But what it was going to be like to be rejected solely because I was a woman, I was not prepared for that.

Some women commented that their seminary experience prepared them not so much because of their practical theology courses, but because they sought out situations that gave them the practical experience required.

Seminary prepared me well, but not because the seminary did, because I prepared myself while I was in seminary.  I did a lot of field education, and in different settings.  That was really helpful. I took a lot of different kinds of classes that challenged me, and so forth.  But when I look at seminary, I could have gone through seminary and come out really, really ill prepared if I hadn’t sort of done my own picking and choosing along those lines.

My field education experience, I think, really helped me to understand and appreciate, realistically, the world of work of the parish. ______Some of my practical theology courses_______some of that course work was just not terribly helpful.

Some women are leaving the seminaries without the preparation they need to make the transition to parish ministry, and as a result they lack the foundational support to help sustain them in the local church.

Additionally, many women do not expect to enter a system in which sexism exists, blatant or covert.  One clergywoman, in providing her description of the four generations of women to come through the seminaries in recent years, said of her generation,

[T]he fourth wave, which I consider myself to be in, came out and said, ‘Oh my gosh, is this still a problem?’  I was so naive.  I had no idea that this was still a problem for women in ministry, and so, I don’t know where women are now coming out of seminary, whether they’re wiser, or whether they’re still coming out saying, ‘Oh, is this still a problem?’

Seminaries could do a much better job of preparing future clergywomen to enter the local church. The naiveté among seminary students needs to be addressed with information about such topics as self-care, congregational dynamics, power structures within the church, the appointment process, conflict management, and negotiation.

If the interviews are an indication, theology also seems to be an issue in some clergywomen’s churches.  Female pastors find that their theology is sometimes quite different from the theologies of their congregations.  All clergy and congregations experience this discrepancy at times. Fortunately, the appointment system does not attempt to match identical theologies of pastors and congregations.  Nevertheless, clergywomen (and clergymen) need to be provided with the skills necessary to dialogue with and educate congregations and communities in a cooperative manner about theology and biblical interpretation.  For clergywomen, these skills are particularly important as parishioners often ground their resistance to ordained women in theology.  Seminaries, as the places that provide the theological foundation for clergy, must teach students to dialogue effectively with other theological perspectives so that clergywomen in particular are able to respond to conflicts around theology.

Speculation about differences in anticipated roles in the local church, especially for those who sought ordination because priestly duties were important to them and were reared in non-Methodist traditions, raises some specific questions about how seminaries view and present the roles of pastors.  Do seminaries adequately prepare future clergy for the variety of roles they must play in the Church?  In United Methodist seminaries, do students who were reared in traditions other than Methodist, but are seeking ordination in The United Methodist Church, receive adequate education about how the United Methodist system works?  How do seminaries respond to ecumenism?

In many respects, seminaries are microcosms of the larger Church.  Some of the confidentiality and political issues found in the larger United Methodist system are found in relationships among faculty, administrators, supervisors, and fellow students.  Since seminaries provide the primary educational foundation for clergy, they are one of the places where future clergy develop their pastoral and self-identity.  The foundations that are laid prior to and during seminary have a great impact on the identities, attitudes, theologies, and practices of future clergy.

Therefore, the Church and the seminaries must evaluate the foundation that is laid in seminary.  Is the seminary process or product oriented?  How does that orientation effect the approach that clergy, future conference leaders and local church pastors, take when working with churches that are not receptive to local church pastors?  Do the seminary faculty and administration model an authoritarian or a cooperative leadership style?  Are a variety of perspectives respected and allowed voice in the seminary?  Does the seminary encourage a balanced lifestyle for its students and faculty; or does the seminary focus too much on the product for students to develop healthy habits that help sustain them in the local church?  Certainly seminaries should be academically rigorous to nurture an educated clergy, but additional elements in the seminaries also help prepare students, particularly clergywomen, for ministry in the local church.


Undoubtedly, some of the responsibility for support also lies with the clergywomen themselves.  The systemic problems within The United Methodist Church perpetuate lack of support for clergywomen, but there are some things a clergywoman can do to make sure that she has some of the support and skills she needs to survive and indeed thrive in the local church.  Honoring the dignity of the self, establishing support networks, and supporting other women in ministry are three important areas.  These initiatives can be encouraged and understood as important by the United Methodist system, but clergywomen themselves will have to practice them.

Clergywomen interviewed were asked specifically what they did to take care of themselves while in local church ministry.  Some women admitted they were not effective at establishing self-care boundaries.  One woman said that because she was single she was able to give more time to ministry than to herself.  She said, “I give more time to my ministry than to me, but then again, I’m single.”  Some women indicated that they were people-pleasers, which makes it difficult for them to say “No” to the demands of the annual conference and their congregation.  That reluctance to say “No” prevents them from taking time for themselves or with their families.

Being clear with one’s self and congregation about self-care needs is crucial in preventing the self-consumption which can happen in the role of pastor and results in the subsequent loss of identity.  Self-care needs can be a variety of things such as regular exercise, an established day off during the week, spending time with friends and family, and concentrating on one’s own spiritual growth and renewal.  Self-care means establishing boundaries with congregations and others as to what those needs are.  For example, one clergywoman keeps a careful calendar and honors her weekly day off,

I try real hard to only do what I can do.  I try to keep a real accurate calendar, and I always take my day off. . . . So if it’s something that comes on Friday, unless it’s something exceptional, I don’t do it. . . . And I schedule myself only to be away from the church maybe one day every two weeks. . . . I just really try to keep a good calendar and tell people, ‘I just can’t.’

Taking time to do the things one enjoys is also a part of self-care.  Doing those activities that allow one to “get away” from the pressures of the job is extremely important in finding physical, emotional, and spiritual renewal.

I made sure that I had, while I pursued my own spiritual growth, so I made sure that I had prayer time every day, and that I did things that were nourishing to my soul, like I had–music is important to me, so I always made sure that I had music to listen to, and the area was a beautiful area, so I always would go down to the river, or there were special places I liked to go in nature, kind of renew myself.

I would allow myself to say ‘no’ . . . ‘I need to go and be quiet for a while.’

Similar to self-care boundaries is the establishment of support networks.  Whether they find support from other clergy, mentors, therapists, family, or friends outside the church, clergywomen need to nurture those networks so that when a crisis arises, a confidential space is available where they can go for guidance and support.  The United Methodist system can and should provide resources for services such as therapy and help congregations understand why clergywomen need time away from their roles as pastors to care for themselves.

But clergywomen also have to nurture their relationships, including with each other, in order for self-care to be an efficacious reality.  In annual conferences where artificial support networks among conference clergy have been established by the system, the clergywomen commented that those networks were not very effective since there are confidentiality issues and competition among clergy, including clergywomen.  So, it appears that at this point, such efforts organized by the system in which a network is assigned to (rather than chosen by) the clergywomen (such as cluster groups and supervising elder) may not be as helpful as they could be. Therefore, while demanding the time and encouragement from the system to establish such support networks, clergywomen must also choose those persons who will be a part of their support network and nurture those relationships.

Mentoring future clergywomen is another way clergywomen are responsible for their support.

I think women, themselves, need to be willing to be mentors to other gifted women…And to consciously seek out their younger sisters, their new sisters in ministry, and offer themselves in support to those persons. . . . And to do that without hesitation.

Sharing experiences about the system, congregations, and challenges and opportunities with other women will help prepare future clergywomen to enter ordained ministry.  If future clergywomen know what they may possibly expect from the annual conference leadership, other clergy, and new congregations, they will be better able to establish the support and seek out the skills they need to be successful in the local church.

While the sample in this study is large, it does not include all United Methodist clergywomen.  Yet the women in this study, through their voices, do give some indication as to the reasons some clergywomen leave local church ministry.  They leave the local church primarily due to lack of support from the hierarchical system, a difficulty to maintain their integrity in the current system, family responsibilities, and rejection from their congregations.  Certainly these factors, as well as others, are connected and some of these reasons are more important for different women in different demographic groups.  In general, however, the clergywomen in this study left local church ministry because of systemic issues within The United Methodist Church.

As a result of the painful honesty of these clergywomen, The United Methodist Church has an extraordinary opportunity to examine itself and how it operates as a church.  The appointment system, conference leadership and clergy colleagues, congregations, seminaries, and clergywomen are responsible for providing an advantageous situation in which clergywomen can do ministry.  If each of these components of The United Methodist Church heeded the call of the women in this study and collaboratively worked to make the necessary improvements within the system, the Church probably would not lose as many of its clergywomen to ministries and professions outside the local church.  A strong presence of ordained women in the local church is crucial to the vitality and diversity of the larger Church.  Without them, the image of God and models for ministry each clergywoman represents are dimmed and may be forgotten.

Some additional studies that may aid the Church in its attempt to retain its clergywomen should be considered.  Exploring specific means of training cabinets, other clergy, and congregations in being more sensitive to the needs of clergywomen would help in the development of an education initiative which could lead to a more clergywomen-friendly Church.  Examination of seminaries and the preparation they provide future clergy would also result in some vital information leading to the implementation of some interventions in the seminaries to help prepare clergywomen specifically for local church ministry.  A comparative study on clergymen and their experiences within the United Methodist system would provide interesting information which could help determine how the experiences of men and women differ in the Church and which issues are similar for clergymen and clergywomen.

Decades have passed since The United Methodist Church first approved the ordination of women.  The Church needs to ask itself the difficult questions about the underlying theology that reinforces and affirms a highly hierarchical and political power structure.   The Church needs to develop and embrace a theology that would promote more equitable, cooperative, and respectful mentality among its clergy and laity.  The Church also needs to articulate what kind of God is pleased when clergy must leave the local church, or ordained ministry altogether, in order to live authentically.  These clergywomen are calling the Church to be prophetic in its own way by seizing the opportunity to respond effectively to the painful experiences of these and other clergywomen.  Acknowledgment that those painful experiences are actually symptoms of problems within the larger Church is an important place for the Church to begin.