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Clergywomen urged to celebrate their gifts

Clergywomen urged to celebrate their gifts

PALM BEACH GARDENS – They came from across the nation and spanned the racial-cultural spectrum, but one message echoed across meeting rooms during the first day of the United Methodist Clergywomen Leadership Seminar:

Everyone’s ministry gifts are unique. 

Rev. Dr. HiRho Park at the podium
Rev. Dr. HiRho Park, co-editor of "Breaking Through the Stained Glass Ceiling: Women Pastoring Large Churches," welcomes a crowd of 180 to the United Methodist Clergywomen Seminar's keynote session. Photos by Susan Green.

Women preachers should not have to follow a traditional male role model to succeed in ministry, nor should they be required to fit some kind of maternal stereotype expected of a female pastor.

“We don’t have to act like men,” said Dr. Angela Washington, pastor of Mount Hope UMC in Haven, Kansas. “We just have to act like who we are.”

Washington was among ordained clergy and local pastors who shared stories of their calling and hurdles they have encountered in answering it during “A Listening Session,” hosted by the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW). The speak-out period was part of a four-day conference organized by the General Board of Higher Education & Ministry at the DoubleTree Hilton.

The event, which ends today, included speakers, panel discussions, workshops and individual mentoring sessions, as well as worship, for 180 participants. Rev. Dr. HiRho Park, director of Clergy Lifelong Learning for GBHEM, said interest in the seminar was so strong that organizers had to make arrangements to accept dozens more than anticipated.

In a show of hands at the listening session, participants indicated they were mostly local church leaders, although district superintendents and retired elders also were represented. Most attendees hailed from the Southeastern, Northeastern, North Central and South Central jurisdictions, with about a dozen participants from the Western Jurisdiction. 

Rev. Dr. Traci West delivers UM Clergywomen keynote address
Rev. Dr. Traci West, keynote speaker, talks about prejudice and cultural differences in her keynote address about advancing clergywomen in leadership.

Ethnicities included Hispanic, Asian and African Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and Caucasians, as well as a few attendees who identified themselves as biracial.

Since 1972, when less than 1 percent of United Methodist clergy were women and COSROW was created, the number of women clergy has climbed. In a denomination that counts women as more than half its membership, however, commission data indicate women make up 27 percent of appointed clergy and 17 percent of active bishops. At COSROW’s inception, there were no female bishops in The United Methodist Church.

Even so, some women said they don’t enjoy the same appreciation for different leadership styles as men. Some said men – particularly Caucasian men – get “first pick” of large congregations, and male co-pastors aren’t always careful to support the perception that the women preaching alongside them are equal in authority and ability.

One speaker suggested that COSROW conduct a study of associate pastor salaries to determine whether men appointed to those jobs are paid more than women.

Several women, including Washington, said young and old, new and experienced clergywomen should support one another, even if it means seeking advice and encouragement from women pastors in other denominations.

“I think we need to learn to be our sister’s keeper,” she said.

Others said they thought the time has come to organize a meeting that includes their male counterparts and annual conference leaders to discuss the challenges women face in professional ministry. But one speaker cautioned that women clergy should be careful not to set up an adversarial relationship that pits one gender against the other. 

Rev. Stephanie Leonard addresses UM Clergywomen about call
"It really is all about serving God." Rev. Stephanie Leonard, pastor of Mount Olive UMC, DeSoto, Mo., tells the story of her call to ministry during the UM Clergywomen Seminar listening session.
Panel discussion including Florida's Rev. Verona Matthews
 Rev. Verona Matthews, pastor of St. Luke's UMC, Lake Worth, second from left, discusses the challenges of a cross-racial appointment during a panel discussion at the UM Clergywomen Seminar.

The seminar’s keynote speaker, Rev. Dr. Traci West, a professor at Drew University Theological School, followed by a panel of women from different backgrounds, talked about issues of skin color, culture and language that affect women’s progress on the clergy track. People whose native language is not English can encounter resistance in the appointment process, some members said.

Rev. Anita Phillips, president of the Native American United Methodist Clergywomen Association, said today’s women clergy face a “perilous time” in their faith journey.

“Our greatest hope is also our greatest fear: that our church has the opportunity to genuinely look at us in the margins and take a risk on our behalf.”

Rev. Verona Matthews, pastor at St. Luke’s UMC, Lake Worth, reflected on her experience as an African American woman assigned to lead an Anglo-American congregation.

She remembered asking God, “Why would you have me here? …They don’t care about people who are on the margins of society.

“That’s when God revealed to me, ‘That’s why I sent you there,’” Matthews recalled. “He sent me there, I guess, to expose them to what is going on outside their little closed-in community.”

Park said after the session she thought it was important to emphasize that gender is not the only issue before the church as it seeks to nurture new leadership.

“We cannot assume now that we are all together because we are all women,” she said.

She said she hopes that information collected from the seminar will lead to a strategy that will incorporate a collaborative approach to recognizing and celebrating diverse leadership styles and improving the clergy experience for women.

-- Susan Green is the managing editor of Florida Conference Connection.