The question was asked with a mixture of incredulity and indignation. He could not believe what he had been asked to repeat. Featured in a video “gone viral,” a young male UM pastor struggled to read the script in front of him. He was not alone. Almost two dozen male clergy members of the North Carolina Annual Conference had been asked to read aloud comments said to their female clergy colleagues. As they read the platitudes, sexual innuendo, backhanded compliments, straightforward insults, and wildly offensive remarks that female clergy hear on a regular basis, the men’s reactions ranged between bemusement, frustration, anger, and sadness.
Yes. A Methodist said it. And I understand his reaction. The UMC is a denomination within the wider Wesleyan tradition that affirms women in ministry leadership at all levels, whether it be committee chairs and presidencies for laity or the pastorate, superintendency, or episcopal office for clergy. Aren’t we the inheritors of a movement initiated by a man who, by and large, supported, encouraged, and depended on women to foster scriptural holiness in their lives and in others? Wasn’t it at a Wesleyan chapel in Seneca Falls, NY, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and others gathered for the first women’s rights convention and adopt the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848? After all, we aren’t neo-Calvinists stifling women’s voices, telling half the human race that they can’t preach, don’t have spiritual authority, and can’t be ordained by virtue of gender! How could a Methodist say any of these things to women we’ve validated through ordination to be gospel-bearers in this world?
The sad truth is, the struggle of women in ministry leadership is wide-ranging. From our sisters in uber-Reformed circles who are denied a place in the pulpit to those of us who preside at the Eucharist, we all deal with mansplaining, micro-aggressions, and sexism—both blatant and subtle. And the struggle is not limited to the church, but is present in the academy. Worldwide, men—especially Euro-American men—dominate biblical and theological studies and, consequently, its published literature. An Australian colleague has formed her own resistance to the saturation of white male authors, pledging to teach contemporary theology in a #nowhitemenforayearchallenge (and, by the way, she’s killing it). In a separate, but related move, InterVarsity Press has taken notice of its lopsided publishing record and begun a concerted effort to publish more women voices and sharing it in a #readwomen campaign. Inspired by IVP, a Canadian colleague took stock of the bookshelves in her office and reversed the books authored by men so that those book spines were next to the shelf, making the texts authored by women prominent. The result is visually enlightening, striking, and a bit depressing.
So, what’s a woman and the men who support women in ministry to do? Be proactive in realizing that just because women’s ordination is not a hot-button topic or even on the radar for theologically educated Methodists in the twenty-first century, it does not mean everyone is on the same page. Women in ministry isn’t an issue for other theological traditions to wrestle with. Equity and fairness are still-ongoing struggles for denominations that have ordained women throughout the twentieth century. For example, United Methodism has many capable women serving as district superintendents and bishops, yet the number of women clergy appointed to large membership churches is not proportional.
Whether it’s a first tentative step or a renewed commitment motivating interest and involvement for women in ministry, good resources are a wise thing to have on hand. Four “go-to” texts for any library include:
Cynthia Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostles’ Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Baker Academic, 2016)
Stanley Grenz, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (IVP Academic, 1995)
Scot McKnight, Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Zondervan, 2008)
Tara Beth Leach, Emboldened: A Vision for Empowering Women in Ministry (InterVarsity Press, 2017)
As good as books are in educating one on the foundational arguments, relationships are key to supporting women in ministry. Networks and communities within Annual Conferences, clergy fellowships, and professional guilds are often places of support. Two such Facebook communities include “Women in Evangelical Theological Society” and “Biblical Christian Egalitarians.” Other resources that introduce one to a wider community of men and women committed to supporting, encouraging, and advocating for women in ministry are listed below. And while these rich resources provide insight and articulate understanding of the issues, the relationships and friendships they foster among women and men are invaluable. As women in ministry break glass ceilings throughout the church and in the academy, every one of us needs a team of supportive friends and advocates. And as difficult as the struggle can be for Euro-American women in ministry, the need to support our sisters of color who co-labor with us on behalf of Christ is intensified.
We are, after all, better together.
Christians for Biblical Equality. Publishers of Priscilla Papers, CBE is a nonprofit organization of Christian men and women who believe that the Bible, properly interpreted, teaches the fundamental equality of men and women of all ethnic groups, all economic classes, and all age groups (from their website www.cbeinternational.org/).
Feminist Studies in Religion understand “feminist studies in religion” to encompass global critical feminist work in religious studies, theology, and spirituality both inside and outside the academy and at the grassroots level. Publishers of Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (from their website https://www.fsrinc.org/).
Fixing Her Eyes: a community of Australian women crossing denominations and generations designed to gather and encourage one another to grow in faith and discipleship (from the website http://www.fixinghereyes.org).
Junia Project: a volunteer community of women and men advocating for the inclusion of women in leadership in the Christian church and for mutuality in marriage (from the website https://juniaproject.com/).
Marg Mowczko. Committed to biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism, Marg is Australian and hosts a fully resourced website for any person interested in knowing more about equipping and supporting women in ministry (from her website www.margmowczko.com).
MissioAlliance: a relational network of missionally minded churches and leaders that takes a primary interest in encouraging and equipping church planters (from their website). Sponsors of the She Leads conference held in Fall 2018. More at https://www.missioalliance.org/
National Women’s Studies Association. Established in 1977, the National Women’s Studies Association has as one of its primary objectives promoting and supporting the production and dissemination of knowledge about women and gender through teaching, learning, research and service in academic and other settings (from the website https://www.nwsa.org/).
The Sacred Alliance. A ministry of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, the Sacred Alliance published this Five Minutes Forward video on the history of Junia, and how her name got changed into Junius. More at https://www.thesacredalliance.org/.