United Methodist Clergywomen Retention Study

Chapter One: The Problem Emerging

Nearly one-third of United Methodist clergywomen in full connection were not serving local churches five years ago.1  Some of those clergywomen were on leave.  Other clergywomen were serving as hospital chaplains, campus ministers, or in other ministries outside the local church.  In 1991 several United Methodist clergywomen in local churches from the former Southern New England conference remarked about an increasing absence of their female colleagues.  The Anna Howard Shaw Center was asked to investigate the observation.  Indeed, the Division of Ordained Ministry of The United Methodist Church confirmed that women are leaving local church ministry at a ten percent higher rate than male clergy.2 

In 1993 the Shaw Center, with funding in part from the Division of Ordained Ministry, began the United Methodist Clergywomen Retention Study to identify reasons why large numbers of clergywomen were not serving local churches and to propose possible interventions by the connectional structure of the Church intended to retain clergywomen in local church ministry. 

Women’s ordination has a long history in the traditions comprising The United Methodist Church.  The United Brethren Church approved the ordination of women in 1889.  The Evangelical Church was opposed to the ordination of women, however.  When those churches united, the new church, The Evangelical United Brethren [EUB] Church, did not continue the practice of ordaining women.  The Methodist Church did not approve women until 1956, though ordination as “local elders” was allowed much earlier.  In 1968, the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church merged, at which time full clergy status was continued for women.3 Currently, The Book of Discipline states, “Both men and women are included in all provisions of the Discipline that refer to the ordained ministry.”4  Additionally, The United Methodist Church, in its Social Principles, supports the rights of women.

We affirm women and men to be equal in every aspect of their common life.  We therefore urge that every effort be made to eliminate sex-role stereotypes in activity and portrayal of family life and in all aspects of voluntary and compensatory participation in the Church and society.  We affirm the right of women to equal treatment in employment, responsibility, promotion, and compensation.  We affirm the importance of women in decision-making positions at all levels of Church life and urge such bodies to guarantee their presence through policies of employment and recruitment.5

Other studies have investigated the experiences of clergywomen in The United Methodist Church and other denominations.6  These investigations have shown inequitable experiences between clergywomen and clergymen.  A study of United Methodist clergywomen, sponsored by the Division of Ordained Ministry of The United Methodist Church in 1980, revealed that clergywomen experienced discontent in their interpersonal relationships with their superiors, peers, and parishioners.  Clergywomen experienced overt discrimination, lack of acceptance, and were stereotyped into certain gender roles.7  In Women of the Cloth, a study of clergywomen in nine denominations, researchers found that some lay leaders in the study had a difficult time reconciling the images of minister and woman.  This type of conflict may make it difficult for clergywomen to succeed in their churches.8

Salary studies in the Virginia and South Carolina Annual Conferences of The United Methodist Church, as well as in other conferences, have shown that clergywomen earn less than their male colleagues, even when researchers controlled for years of service.9  In the Virginia Annual Conference, some women earned up to $10,000 less than their male counterparts who had the same amount of experience.  Clergywomen in the South Carolina Annual Conference earned an average of $1,675 less than their male colleagues, even though the average age of the clergymen was two years younger than the average age of the clergywomen.  In both conferences, differences in salary increased with years of service.10

United Methodist clergywomen are leaving local church ministry at a higher rate than their male colleagues.  Previous investigations have revealed salary differences and difficult professional relationships between male and female clergy.  Church and society create cultural conflicts between the roles of minister and woman.  Therefore, investigation into the reasons United Methodist clergywomen leave the local church ministry is urgently needed. 

In the study proposal submitted to the Division of Ordained Ministry of The United Methodist Church, four hypotheses were identified.  Statement of hypotheses was inappropriate for this study, however; it was never meant to be an explanatory, but an exploratory, study.  The following hypotheses, then, more appropriately should be considered the research biases with which we conducted the study.  First, women enter parish ministry with the intention of staying and offering themselves in service.  Second, women in local churches face a greater difficulty in acceptance of their ministry than men do.  Third, women need specific supports from the connectional structure to make their ministry effective.  Fourth, some clergywomen might remain in local parish ministry through efforts of the connectional structure of The United Methodist Church to be more responsive to the different needs and circumstances of clergywomen in American culture. 

The two main objectives stated in the proposal were appropriate to the study.  They were:   to identify reasons clergywomen leave local church ministry; and, to identify possible interventions by the connectional structure of the Church in retaining clergywomen in local churches.11 

Confronting the material in this study is difficult.  The project staff, especially the transcribers and coders who worked with the interviews, lived with these women, their voices, and their pain.  One coder commented, “I think I suffered more with the pain of these women than I wanted to.”  Another coder commented, “Reading the stories of these women clergy was one of the most painful tasks I have ever undertaken.” 

Hearing difficult voices is often hearing prophetic voices.  The Church is both location of God’s grace and a place of human responsibility, fallibility, and faith.  Hearing the voices of clergywomen is not an ancient activity in the Church.  Sometimes voices of clergymen have also been heard only as contradictions of the tradition or the dear status quo.  Hearing openly and carefully voices of clergywomen offers an occasion for the Church itself to live more completely its vision of gracious, abundant life.  This is a vision for women and men, for children and adults, a vision for humans and the whole creation.


1. Division of Ordained Ministry of The United Methodist Church, “1992 Statistics United Methodist Clergywomen,” Wellsprings 6 (Spring 1993):  34-35.  2074 of the nearly 3000 clergywomen in full connection (or 69%) were serving local churches.

2. Division of Ordained Ministry of the United Methodist Church/Rolf Memming Longitudinal Clergy Study (to be published in late 1997).

3. The United Methodist Church, The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. (Nashville TN:  The United Methodist Publishing House, 1996), 19.

4. The Book of Discipline, Par. 364.2, 245.

5. The Book of Discipline, Par. 66F, 93.

6. Harry Hale, Jr., Morton King, and Doris Moreland Jones, New Witnesses:  United Methodist Clergywomen (Nashville TN:  Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 1980).  Jackson W. Carroll, Barbara Hargrove, and Adair T. Lummis, Women of the Cloth:  A New Opportunity for the Churches (San Francisco:  Harper and Row, 1983). Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW), Virginia Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, “Female Clergy Earnings Far Smaller than Earnings for Male Clergy,” Press Release,  31 March 1993.  Paula D. Nesbitt, Feminization of the Clergy in America:  Occupational and Organizational Perspectives (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1997).

7. Hale, King, Jones, 17.

8. Carroll, Hargrove, Lummis, 142-144.

9. COSROW, 1.

10. COSROW, 2.

11. See Appendix B1 for additional discussion of the methodology.