Survey shows barriers to women senior pastors still exist

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Survey shows barriers to women senior pastors still exist

By Erik J. Alsgaard | June 3, 2009 {1026}

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Of the 1,154 United Methodist churches in the United States in 2004 with a membership of 1,000 or more, only 64 were led by women pastors. Of that 64, just one was a person of color.

Today, the situation has improved, with 94 women serving as senior pastors in large-membership churches, but there is still only one woman of color serving in such a capacity.

The Rev. Susan Wilhauck shares results from the survey. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #09-1189.

Those results from a recent survey conducted by the Division of Ordained Ministry at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry show women have made progress in breaking the stained glass ceilings in ministry, but they also identify barriers still to overcome.

Clergywomen heard those results in late April in West Palm Beach during the final event of the Lead Women Pastors Project.

The Project is a continuing education initiative designed to affirm, empower, research and nurture leadership of clergywomen serving churches with 1,000 or more members. The survey was conducted as part of that initiative to describe the unique ways the ministry of women leading in large church settings compares to that of men in similar situations.

Led by the Rev. HiRho Park, director of the board’s Continuing Formation for Ministry, the research involved surveying the 94 women leading large congregations and 300 of their male counterparts.

Many similar themes emerged from the survey, said the Rev. Susan Wilhauck, a consultant working with Park who is formerly from Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C., and now at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“Leadership styles appeared to be very similar,” said Wilhauck, noting that both men and women respondents said being an excellent preacher was important. Women listed the three greatest gifts of ministry as preaching, leadership and administration. Men chose preaching, teaching and administration.

“Women have a more collaborative leadership style,” Wilhauck said, highlighting some of the differences identified. “They tend to be more relational and tend to be more delegatory, equipping, and exercise a more compassionate leadership.

“They spend more time in pastoral care with their congregations, and are seeking to … lead change by planting seeds of ideas in the congregation rather than a more male model, which tends to be recruiting particular support from particular individuals to lobby for change.”

A notable majority of both men and women said there were also gender differences in the way lay people perceive them and how they practice their leadership.

A parament on the altar during the closing worship service represents a crack in the stained glass ceiling, with all the colors of the rainbow now flowing down. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #09-1190.

“There is a great hope that the acceptance of women’s leadership styles and ways of being and ways of ministering are on the rise,” Wilhauck said. “Women’s leadership is increasingly being accepted in The United Methodist Church as a way of reviving the church. And this is not to disparage the male model of leadership at all — we need that — but to acknowledge the role and the exciting things that women are doing.”

Nearly all of the male respondents (99 percent) were married, compared to only two-thirds of the women. And more women pastors “come from appointments beyond the local church and have served more churches than their male counterparts,” Wilhauck said.

“Ninety percent of women serving in 1,000-membership churches are the first woman to serve that church as lead pastor,” she said.

The survey also showed no woman serves as senior pastor in the 100 largest U.S. congregations and the women tended to serve churches outside large, urban areas.

“Very often, (lead women pastors) are appointed into churches that are declining, where there is a low risk,” said the Rev. Sue Haupert-Johnson, co-pastor with her husband, the Rev. Allen Johnson, of First United Methodist Church in Ocala. “If they go in and do well, great; if they don’t do well, it continues the decline. If you look at (worship) attendance, do churches with the highest attendance get women pastors?”

Haupert-Johnson, who has served her congregation for nine months, said some of the leadership style results were encouraging.

“I don’t think appointing a woman to any of these pulpits is cataclysmic,” she said. “I think that (with) similar styles of leadership, similar views of what’s important to the task, it shouldn’t be that earth-shattering. When you appoint a woman to a large-membership church, it’s not a night-and-day experience; in fact, it will probably be more similar.”

The Rev. Sara McKinley takes communion during the closing worship service. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #09-1191.

Networking and fellowship were important elements of the project, many women said.

“It was great inspiration and encouragement to be with women who are leading large-membership churches,” said the Rev. Sara McKinley, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Coral Springs for the last two years. “The non-competitive atmosphere was just fantastic. I was surprised (to learn that) there were no women lead pastors in the really large churches, but I feel encouraged that there are this many lead women pastors throughout the country and to feel the support and know that you’re not alone.”

The Rev. Catherine Fluck-Price was also surprised not one woman is leading any of the largest churches. Fluck-Price serves as co-pastor at Harvest United Methodist Church in Bradenton with her husband, the Rev. Steve Price.

“Would it be worthwhile to think about how we could be intentional about appointing a female to one of those churches in the future and how a clergywoman from the Florida Conference could be shaped to be ready to assume a position like that?” she asked. “And, perhaps more importantly, how those congregations could be shaped now by the lay leadership and the men serving those congregations so they would be ready to not only accept but embrace and relish in having leadership from a different perspective.”

The Rev. Joan Carter-Rimbach, who serves First United Methodist Church in Hyattsville, Md., near Washington, D.C., is the only woman of color serving a large-membership church.

“It’s been a good event, and it’s been an eye-opener,” she said. “This does not represent our church, this meeting here. I came to this gathering last September, and I was the only woman of color at the event. It’s disheartening. It means we still have a lot of work to do.

“Certainly there are capable women within our denomination who should be and can be serving congregations of 1,000 or more, but this gathering, this conference, tells us that that is not the reality of who we are; that’s not what we’re doing because I’m here and I’m representing African-American women and women of color and I’m it.”

The Rev. Joan Carter-Rimbach participates in discussion. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #09-1192.

Carter-Rimbach said several unofficial mentors helped pave the way for her to lead a large church, a gift she will return as she becomes a mentor for a woman identified as a possible lead woman pastor. This is part of the second phase of the research project. Sixteen women nominated by bishops as having the potential to lead large-membership churches will go through a training program and be paired with a coach who will help nurture the skills needed for a large church, according to a United Methodist News Service report of the event and survey.

“As an African-American woman, I have not just been serving African American churches,” she said. “That has benefited me and our denomination because I can serve any church and … I know that I can go into any church anywhere and be the pastor. So I think that as I have done that throughout my ministry, it has helped me get where I am today, along with other clergy sisters who have been mentoring me and encouraging me and supporting me and stirring me along.”

The full survey is posted on the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry Web site at

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.

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