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Featured: Despite changes, gender challenges persist for clergywomen

The Rev. HiRho Park


The Rev. HiRho Park

The Rev. Wendy Deichmann


The Rev. Wendy Deichmann

Other episcopal leaders pray with Bishop Rosemarie Wenner as she is installed as president of the Council of Bishops during General Conference 2012.


Other episcopal leaders pray with Bishop Rosemarie Wenner as she is installed as president of the Council of Bishops during General Conference 2012.

The Rev. Karen Oliveto leads the Sunday celebration at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church.


The Rev. Karen Oliveto leads the Sunday celebration at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church.

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Despite changes, gender challenges persist for clergywomen


Tita Parham
September/October 2014

The Rev. Wendy Deichmann says what's most fulfilling about her ministry is experiencing "hope, joy and growth in Christ and in God's mission in the world."

She also values working with her colleagues and students at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, where she serves as president.

What is less appealing, she says, are assumptions made about her because she is a woman — that she is not very smart or good at what she does, that she would "fail to fight for what is right."

"I have had to become consistent in standing up to this and calling it out when it comes into play," she says, "even though I have also experienced the fact that standing up for what I believe is not always appreciated by others."

Deichmann hasn't let those challenges deter her in the 25 years since her ordination, however.

Thousands of other clergywomen have also persevered in their calling since predecessor denominations of The United Methodist Church began ordaining women in the 1800s. Today, there are more than 11,000 United Methodist clergywomen, nearly a quarter of the denomination's clergy population in the United States, according to the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.

Women also constitute more than a quarter of all senior pastors, 15 percent of the appointments to churches with membership in the top 10 percent and 30 percent of the 2,200 cross-racial/cultural appointments, according to the General Council on Finance and Administration.

There are 13 active and 12 retired female bishops. Heading five of the 13 United Methodist seminaries as presidents or deans are three clergywomen and two laywomen.

Those statistics show clergywomen have made progress, but both denominational leaders and clergywomen say more needs to be done.

Much has changed, remains the same

From 2010 to 2012, the Anna Howard Shaw Center at Boston University and the Clergy Lifelong Learning office at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry co-sponsored research for the United Methodist Clergywomen Retention Study II.

The goal was to discover what changes have taken place for clergywomen in the years since the first retention study in 1994; 1,906 women elders who responded to a survey about their ministry experiences provided the data. (The study did not include deacons. In 1994, most deacons became elders. The permanent order of deacons was created by the 1996 General Conference.)

The study found the number of clergywomen participating in local church ministry increased by nearly 50 percent from 1997 to 2008; the number who left the ministry dropped from 583 to 307.

The study also indicated gender and salary gaps are decreasing, although salary inequities have not improved for racial-ethnic clergywomen.

Despite those advances and societal gains, the results showed clergywomen are still experiencing racial and sexual prejudices, systematic barriers within the church, lack of support from the denomination and congregations, conflicts with senior pastors and members, and difficulties managing work and family.

The leading reason women left the church 20 years ago was the same: "lack of support from the hierarchical system."

The Rev. HiRho Park, director of clergy lifelong learning for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, says the data does show progress. The improved retention rates and increased numbers of clergywomen serving in leadership positions and at large churches bear that out.

What is worrisome, she says, is the existing salary gap — a 13 percent difference between male and female clergy — and underrepresentation of racial-ethnic women in leadership roles.

Park notes that no racial-ethnic clergywomen serve large churches — those with more than 1,000 members — and the denomination has never elected an Asian-American or Native American clergywoman as bishop.

Bishop Rosemarie Wenner is the first clergywoman to lead the Germany Episcopal Area. Ordained in 1982 and elected a bishop in 2005, she says her appointments to churches or as a district superintendent were firsts for those places and position. She was also the first woman to be elected a bishop in a central conference.

"Some people questioned whether it was appropriate to be in that leadership role. Some had theological concerns," she says. "And I had to find my way without female role models."

Wenner has become one of those role models and says younger clergywomen tell her they no longer feel they are seen as exceptions or need to explain their call to ministry.

But, she says, there are still too few women in leadership positions, often by choice because many feel they aren't good enough or their family responsibilities are too great.

"Women in Germany are more familiar with servant roles than with leadership roles, at least (related) to mainly male-dominated arenas," she said. "In addition, many women are raised with the expectation to please everybody, which will not be possible in (a) leadership position."

Similar dynamics exist in the United States, says the Rev. Karen Oliveto, senior pastor at San Francisco's Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, an 11,000-member congregation with an average Sunday attendance of 2,000.

Oliveto says women still face leadership issues caused by stereotypes — often based on cultural assumptions about gender and race — that dictate who can lead, the style of leadership that's valued and "who is conferred authority and why."

"The language we use in worship ... at annual conference and General Conference, the leadership we choose, the style of leadership we use — all these and more are areas that need improvement because they can either build up or break down stereotypes and power dynamics," she says.

The appointive system has assisted clergywomen, Oliveto says, because, unlike a call system, churches can't choose their pastor and "default into their own biases and stereotypes."

And although she has personally felt respected and supported by the congregations she has served since her ordination in 1985, she has experienced the stereotyping.

"Even when I am introduced as pastor, sometimes it doesn't ‘compute' and folks assume that any man I am with must be the ‘real' clergyperson," she says.

As a bishop, Wenner has experienced similar biases. "I do not know if male bishops ever have been asked, ‘How about your spouse? Is she happy with your election? What is she doing when you are travelling?'" she says.

It's an issue for the whole church, Deichmann says. "If one part of the body is injured, the whole body suffers and mission is impaired. Men and women need to understand this as our problem, not women's problem."

Putting data into action

"When I was coming up in ministry I really didn't know anybody, didn't have anybody," says Park, who was ordained in 1993. "Now we realize how important it is to have coaching and mentoring for younger generations."

With that insight, Park's office now coordinates five racial-ethnic clergywomen associations, each focusing on coaching or mentoring and gathering periodically for continuing education.

Park also works with conferences and regional areas in and outside the United States to coordinate consultations, leadership seminars and continuing education opportunities.

Oliveto says she was fortunate to be part of the Lead Women Pastors Project, designed to "equip the next wave of lead women pastors."

From 2008 to 2013, Park worked with clergywomen serving large churches to research their leadership styles and develop a mentoring program for women with potential to serve large churches. The women participated in online discussions and coached younger clergywomen. Both male and female large church pastors completed a survey of their leadership styles, salaries, church and community demographics and ministry challenges.

When the project began, Park says, there were 64 clergywomen serving large churches. Now, there are 116. Discoveries from the project led to the production of Breaking through the Stained Glass Ceiling: Women Pastoring Large Churches (GBHEM eBook), describing how clergywomen can balance their ministry and home life, motivate team members, manage conflict and remain spiritually healthy.

"This kind of empowerment is critical," Oliveto said, "as we seek to be a denomination where every person is equipped to be a disciple of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."


Other resources

"Milestone Year: United Methodist clergywomen celebrate 50 years of full clergy rights" 

Lead Women Pastors Project

UM Clergywomen Leadership Seminar

Large Church Lead Women Pastors' Challenges and Leadership Style