UM Clergywomen: Fifty Years of Living Out Our Call to Pastoral Leadership

wellsprings_womensleadership

Kim Cape, Southwest Texas Conference

I accepted the invitation to write this piece on women’s leadership because it gave me a chance to reflect more intentionally on this rather fluid topic. I entered Perkins School of Theology at SMU in 1975, graduating in 1979. I joined The United Methodist Church in 1972. Women were perhaps 10 percent of the Perkins student body at that time. There were two women on the faculty. One in Hebrew Bible and one in Pastoral Care. Period. Some of the male students made a pact not to date any of us because it was clear to them that we were there for the MRS. Degree, not the MDiv. That didn’t last long!

One of my clergywomen friends, the Reverend Barbara Ruth, recounts the story of searching for an annual conference that would welcome a clergy couple in the late 1970s. She and her spouse, both Perkins graduates, first approached the annual conference in which her husband had been ordained. They sought out the pastor on the Board of Ordained Ministry who they believed would be the most receptive to their coming, met with him, and asked him how he thought a clergy couple would be received in that annual conference. He looked at them, considered their question, and as kindly as he could, said, “You will die a martyr’s death a thousand times.” After that conversation, they approached her annual conference, which was more open to receiving them.

I can say with confidence that the world has changed in these intervening years. This story is illustrative of the journey of clergywomen. My friends went where they were welcomed and have served faithfully and fruitfully all these years in settings small and large. Barbara served on the cabinet and is now the chairperson of the Order of Elders in that same annual conference.

There are several things we can learn from Barbara’s good example. Perseverance is a must. All these years later, not all doors are open to women. I believe that God, working through clergywomen, has changed the conversation. But it is still fair to say that SPRC committees will have more questions about receiving a woman as their pastor than they will about receiving a man. Support and accountability go together. Barbara is faithful and fruitful in ministry. She works hard. She grew as a pastor, learning what was needed to lead the people of God in each ministry setting to which she was appointed.

We aren’t born knowing everything we need to know to lead congregations. Seminary is the beginning of your education as a pastor, not the terminus. Congregations are different and face different challenges. Clergy, male and female, have to be lifelong learners. Barbara and her family went where the bishop and cabinet appointed her. Sometimes she served with her spouse; sometimes she was a solo pastor. She said yes. It was not easy. Some churches were more receptive to her leadership than others. Many times we commiserated with each other in our respective wildernesses. The church will give you your greatest joy, but also your deepest pain.

Recently, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry convened a conversation around the Young Clergy Initiative established by the 2012 General Conference. The invitees were mainly young clergy or young people entering or navigating our ordination process. We had a rich discussion and are using the insights we gained to inform our planning for the Young Clergy Initiative. What struck me in listening to the fishbowl conversation and the interaction of these young people is how much things have changed, and also how much they have not changed.

The part that had not changed was the manner in which the older congregations treat their young clergy, male and female. There will always be well-meaning people who want to fix up their young pastor with a prospective mate. Matchmaking for the single pastor will always be a congregational sport. The seas will ebb, the mountains crumble, but that will not change.

The part that has changed is more acceptance of women in the pastoral role. That has become more “normal.” Women clergy are much less of an “oddity” today than they were forty years ago. Women compose more than 50 percent of the enrollment in some of our seminaries, and the number of women on seminary faculties is also much more equitable.

What is not similarly normalized is the number of women bishops, not only in Central Conferences, but also here in the Jurisdictional Conferences. I underline this because I think it is important. Many of you will remember in Chicago at our last Clergywomen’s Consultation in the United States when the women bishops were introduced. They were greeted with thunderous, sustained, emotional applause that rose and fell and rose and fell in waves. It went on and on and on. We were celebrating our women bishops as signs of hope to all of us that there is room in this church for women, where we are affirmed, encouraged, and empowered. They embodied our hope that we could fulfill our call, whatever it was, to serve Christ in this church, and not be held back because we were women. We thanked them, and we thanked God for them.

One of my clergywomen friends is serving as a DS in an annual conference that just received a woman bishop. I was somewhat surprised at her recounting what a difference it makes for her as a cabinet member to see a woman bishop in leadership, exercising both formal and informal leadership. Because of her bishop, she as a woman district superintendent felt more certain and more confident in her own functioning. To have a woman bishop makes women in leadership more normative.

In 1988 I attended a Jurisdictional Conference for the first time. All of the bishops were male, and they all wore black robes. When they processed into worship, it looked as though they were leading a funeral. As frustrated as we sometimes are with the slowness of change, we have made tremendous gains! Remember, the Christian church is two thousand years old. Women have been ordained in the UMC for fifty-five years. That is a blink of an eye in history.

That said, the gains we have made must be preserved, and in some cases are slipping. I just finished reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. Many of you have read this as well. Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook and a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Business School. Some have discounted her perceptions, noting that she speaks from a position of privilege. While it is true that what we see depends on where we stand, some of her perceptions I think ring true.

Social gains are never handed out. They must be seized. Leaders of the women’s movement from Susan B. Anthony to Jane Addams to Alice Paul to Bella Abzug to Flo Kennedy to so many others spoke out loudly and bravely to demand the rights that we now have. Their courage changed our culture and our laws to the benefit of us all. Looking back, it made no sense for my college friends and me to distance ourselves from the hard-won achievements of earlier feminists. We should have cheered their efforts. Instead, we lowered our voices, thinking the battle was over, and with this reticence we hurt ourselves. . . . Progress turns on our willingness to speak up about the impact gender has on us. We can no longer pretend that biases do not exist, nor can we talk around them. [1]

We are not clergywomen because we are feminists and want to further the feminist agenda. We are women who have been called by God to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in the United Methodist tradition. The United Methodist Church is a human organization that does its best to do justice and love mercy, honoring God by its witness. Living out our call as United Methodist clergywomen means serving God through the church. Equal access to service is where our call and feminism intersect. I believe there are more women who are capable of serving large-membership churches than are now afforded the opportunity. With you, I long for the day when the question is competence and commitment, not gender.

In truth, leadership itself has changed in the last forty years because the world has changed so drastically. I think by necessity, women’s leadership has changed as well, and I think this is part of our challenge. I think that women who have led the way must continue to lead the way, encouraging and mentoring young women in ministry. Truthfully, I have felt I had to prove myself in many settings. In my second appointment, I started a Covenant Prayer group, which continued for many years after I left that church. After I had been there about a year, one of the older men in the group confided to me that when I was appointed, he thought mine was a token appointment, and he didn’t expect me to last past the first year. He told me he thought I was good, much better than he expected me to be, and he hoped I would stay as long as I wanted. He was giving me a compliment! What he was also doing, inadvertently, was telling me how marginal he saw me at the beginning.

One thing I am sure of. It is because of our United Methodist appointment system that I have been offered the opportunities I have had to serve. I served large churches that would have never called me to be their senior pastor. Why has The United Methodist Church offered women more ministry opportunity than any other Christian denomination? Because of the guaranteed appointment system. Is it perfect? No. Can it be improved? Yes.

Getting in the door, being entrusted with a place to serve, is only the beginning. In conversations around the church, I have heard young clergywomen say that they question whether or not they will stay in parish ministry. They cite the work habits of their older colleagues, both men and women, as a source of dismay. Their perception is that they don’t want to do the job the same way their senior pastors are doing the job. Working sixty or seventy hours a week, with no life but the church, is not the choice they want to make. All professional people, men and women, have to set appropriate boundaries and then make appropriate exceptions. People will die on your day off, your Sabbath, and you must be present with that grieving family the moment you get that call. Weddings, with rehearsal dinners on Friday night, the service itself on Saturday night, and then your regular Sunday schedule, can be brutal. You can’t work every day of the week. So adjust.

As pastoral leader in the congregation, you must tithe. A pastor who is a financial leader has credibility, and people will respond to your integrity. Most people, even pastors, can’t start tithing all at once. Make it a spiritual discipline and add 2 percent a year until you reach the tithe. Explain to your church that you are on a spiritual journey to grow in generosity, and invite them to join you. They will respect you for your transparency and be more willing to follow your lead in other areas of ministry, such as starting an after-school program for the neighborhood children.

I, like most of you, try to learn and model adaptive leadership. Ron Heifetz, John Kotter, Gil Rendle, and Susan Beaumont all have insights to offer. I think it is important to continue to grow as a leader, scholar, and never think you have arrived. Janice Virtue said at the last district superintendent/director of connectional ministry training that 10 percent of our work is adaptive. [2] That means that 90 percent is answering the questions to which we know the answers. Small changes in the DNA strand make a significant difference.

One thing further: you can’t do this by yourself. One of the things that keeps me going over thirty-eight years in ministry is a small group of clergywomen with whom I talk almost weekly. We share our joys, challenges, sermons, books, diets, exercise routines, and how it is with our hearts. We have seen each other through illness and deaths of children, spouses, and parents, as well as births of children and grandchildren. During a recent gathering, we were talking about the funeral of another clergywoman and began reflecting on how we would plan our own funerals. One of our group shared that when her spouse asked her what she would have him plan for her funeral, she said, “Honey, please don’t worry. The sisters will take care of it.” I covet this kind of lifelong spiritual friendship for each of you. It is intentional. It doesn’t just happen. This is a long obedience in the same direction. To go the distance, we need each other. Here is my prayer for you as you seek to be faithful to your call to ministry:

In our shepherding role to others—as parent, teacher, caregiver, counselor, listening friend—we begin to guide as we have been guided. Our faces and voices will change. The way we listen and respond will change, not through imitation but spontaneously through deep love. “When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

A powerful way to pray when we find ourselves in a shepherding role would be something like this: “Living Christ, Shepherd of our lives, enfold me in your spirit, speak through my voice, touch through my hands. Give me your listening hear, the power of your silences, the compassion of your words. Let me be transformed and guided by you, even as I am helping to guide others.” [3]


[1] Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Knopf, 2013), 157–58.

[2] Vicki Brown, “New district superintendents look over GBHEM resources,” August 27, 2012, http://www2.gbhem.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lsKSL3POLvF&b=7941329&ct=12152229&printmode=1.

[3] Flora Slosson Wuellner, Enter by the Gate: Jesus’ 7 Guidelines When Making Hard Choices (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2004).

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