By Linda Green
A UMNS Report
On her first Sunday as lead pastor of a 1,300-member United Methodist congregation in Hyattsville, Md., the Rev. Joan Carter-Rimbach stood before a packed congregation where "everyone had come to see the woman pastor."
Carter-Rimbach told the congregation that she realized it "never had somebody in the pulpit who dresses like me or looks like me."
Four years later, she acknowledged that, between staffing issues and team challenges, "it has been hard serving the church where the norm has been a male as the senior pastor." However, she has earned the respect of the staff and congregation through her nurturing leadership style.
More than 50 years after receiving full clergy rights in The United Methodist Church, more and more women like Carter-Rimbach are breaking through the stained glass ceiling that, for the most part, has kept clergywomen in small-membership churches or as assistants in larger congregations.
Today, there are 85 United Methodist clergywomen serving as lead pastors in one of the denomination's 1,172 U.S. churches with 1,000 or more members. In all, there are 7,073 active clergywomen serving one of the 34,398 United Methodist congregations in the United States and another 1,819 clergywomen serving in other settings across the country.
In the North Indiana Conference, there are 88 clergywomen (12 deacons, 76 elders) serving appointments. In the South Indiana Conference there are 104 clergywomen (12 deacons, 92 elders) serving appointments. Of the 26 largest worship attendance (500+) congregations in Indiana, two have females as senior pastors - the Rev. Karen Davaisher at Avon and the Rev. Ann Glass at Plainfield. One of the state's oldest congregations, Meridian Street in Indianapolis, received its first female senior pastor, the Rev. Anne Rosebrock, this past year.
Lead women pastors
Forty clergywomen leading large-membership churches gathered in September in Nashville, Tenn., as part of the Lead Women Pastors Project, initiated by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry to begin a conversation and study about how clergywomen are redefining leadership expectations.
The research project seeks data about women serving large-membership churches, their career paths, if there is a distinct call to larger churches and what gifts and leadership qualities are needed. Clergywomen who lead churches of 1,000 or more members are engaged in the study through April.
The difficulties of leading a large church vary from day to day, said the Rev. Julia Price, pastor of the 1,020-member Wenatchee (Wash.) First UMC.
"I think it brings with it many of the same struggles that any size church does," she said. "There are days when the woundedness and brokenness of the people that I deal with leaves a very heavy mark on my heart, but there are other days that I go home filled with great joy because I've been able to offer some grace and peace to someone."
A clergywoman leading a 1,000-plus member congregation in any denomination is "fairly rare," said the Rev. Susan Willhauck, a faculty member of United Methodist-related Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and leader of the study project.
Women lead only six percent of churches with 1,000 members or more, she said, adding that The United Methodist Church is "ahead of the game in some ways compared to other denominations."
A recent report points out that, although the number of female clergy has increased significantly in recent years, they are less likely than their male counterparts to be appointed as senior pastor of a large-membership congregation, according to Michelle Fugate, director of research and data management for the Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
Twenty-eight percent of male clergy lead large-membership churches, compared with 15 percent of female clergy. Twenty-four percent of male clergy serve in small-membership churches, compared with 27-30 percent of female clergy.
Carter-Rimbach says the disparity is disturbing, even though strides are being made. "We have the skills. We have the knowledge. We have the dedication. We have the commitment. We have the passion. We have the love. Why has it taken so long?" she asked.
One explanation is that "people are afraid of change because the power will shift and those who have the power now are afraid," she said.
A different approach
The Rev. Martha Ward, co-pastor of 2,500-member Ankey (Iowa) UMC, said many churches have traditionally had a chief executive officer approach to leadership and a top-down direction. Nevertheless, women pastors offer something different.
"I think women offer a more grassroots style of leadership," she said. "We're used to helping people make connections, helping people use their own strengths, building up the laity in how they can be in ministry-not to say that men don't do that. But I think women do that a little more naturally perhaps."
Collectively, the clergywomen noted that the most important part of their job is to love, guide and help people move toward transforming themselves and the world.
Linda Green serves as a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.