By Lydia Istomina (first published by GCSRW )
What prevented The United Methodist Church from amending the original phrasing of Paragraph 4 earlier? The amendment is about female leadership in The United Methodist Church and the age of our leaders. Let’s leave social justice, democracy, and inclusivity aside for a moment and approach the problem from economical and performance standpoint.A recent study by Duke University shows that only 11% of women serve as “senior or solo pastoral leaders.” Ironically, the beginning of my ministry was with a “new start” congregation that became a fast-growing church. I became a poster-child for The United Methodist in Eurasia. But now, after 20 years of serving small American congregations, I do not see a way for me, as well as for many other clergywomen, to get even near the glass ceiling without divine intervention.
In 2008, there were 82 women who were senior pastors of churches with a membership of more than 1,000. In 2010, there were 94 women leading large churches. The survey found that 9 out of 10 lead women pastors of large membership churches were the first women to lead that church, as in the case of Grace Olathe UMC in Kansas.
Is the church scared of women’s sexuality behind the pulpit that it causes the church push a clergywoman to find a job outside of the church? Kira Schlesinger blogs about how often women clergy hear that they were “too pretty” to be a pastor. The still patriarchal Church continues viewing women as “desirable” or “disposable” objects. Could it be that out of the fear of sexual harassment lawsuits, The United Methodist Church keeps women away?
Pastors, like any other human beings, are mortal, and they do age. Harvard Business Review journal posted Zenger-Folkman’s results How Age and Gender Affect Self-Improvement. Successful professional women with age develop the higher ability for self-improvement in all professions because as they say themselves, “we must perform twice as well to be thought half as good.” The situation in business gradually improves. Though it is still true that women have to work twice as hard compared with men while being paid less for the same job, the studies in business show some progress. I find this study’s results quite ironic. In business, the study shows, women with age become not only more effective but also more accepted while male’s performance declines. (see Table 1). While businesses in America begin promoting women after 50 and electing them to higher positions, The United Methodist Church prefers young men fresh out of seminary.
Table 1. Leadership Effectiveness Between Males and Females by Age.
Table 2. Gender Breakdown within Age Cohorts – United Methodist Elders
A Lewis Center for Church Leadership’s study shows a 17% increase of men elders after the age of 35 in 2015 while the number of women elders in the same category drops from 26-29% in the same year.
The United Methodist denomination operates largely at the level of organizational interests. It is not a secret that large, wealthy churches continue insisting on getting young men for their pastors, but young men feel less and less attracted to ministry due to multiple factors: long hours, high stress and low pay. Women pastors have to work twice as hard compared to clergymen, but their salaries remain 13% less, according to UMCOM. Why have women pastors kept silent for decades? The reasons are many. One of them is the societal expectation of women to be “good girls” and to choose the “higher road.” Marie Fortune found that abused woman usually suffer in silence, “Christian women aren’t supposed to feel angry, are we?” On another hand, that very silence makes women appear weak as leaders.
Though Rev. HiRho Park reports in the study that the “percentage of female pastors in the UMC increased by about 50% over the study period, and seniority of female pastors increased on an average of about 30%,” it is not a secret that large, wealthy churches often request a young man as their pastor. This practice exists in spite of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that protects certain categories based on gender, race, age and others.
In some cases, if a local congregation accepts a woman under the Bishop’s pressure, soon, the church leaders tell their clergywoman, “No offense, but if we had a young man with a band, we would start growing.” And this is when their community profile is blue-collar, white residents, retired or close to retirement and the congregation itself is in their seventies. This anecdotal exchange tells a lot about the present attitude toward women in The United Methodist Church.
Women are not wanted by larger churches because they are viewed as fragile and easy to be coerced into doing something they do not want to do. Women have a deeper sense of compassion, and people interpret it wrongly. Women are raised as “good girls to do this or that.” We even hear that women are more vulnerable and too emotional. For the same qualities of being seen as a strong leader as a male leader, a woman is usually labeled a trouble-maker, nuisance, pest and an instigator. How do I know? I’ve worn those labels for years.
Let’s be honest, considering the ways girls and women are socially conditioned from birth, women are understood to be much more patient and more emotionally mature. Many women are fit and well-equipped for ministry in many cases, but they are not viewed as serious candidates. If women proved their efficiency in this business world, which is more demanding and technologically sophisticated, does it not mean that The United Methodist denomination misses a tremendous opportunity retiring qualified, better educated, healthy and hard-working professionals? As a result, women clergy feel discriminated against and unjustly treated when it comes to getting a well-deserved appointment. The stained glass ceiling of The United Methodist Church is hard to break.
When, by an extraordinary chance, I became the first female pastor in the former Soviet Union after 70 years of atheism, I was not meant to participate in the governance of the Church as a woman according to the present reading of The Book of Discipline. I was told by Bishop Vaxby from the Northern European Conference that the General Board made an exception for me. I was given the green light to serve on the General Board of Global Ministries and serve a local church without any theological education.
Rev. Canon Gina Gilland Campbell became a Canon Precentor of Washington National Cathedral after serving The United Methodist Church for 36 years. She is a good reason for me to believe that there should be no more exceptions in appointing deserving women in leadership positions, especially after 50, but a usual practice. It’s clear from both the data and the personal experiences of many women in the denomination that the vision of a church where women have the same opportunities and support as men is not yet a reality. Becoming a United Methodist, I thought that I joined a community of equality and acceptance. To make it a law, not an exception, I propose to add “gender” and “age” by amending ¶4. Article IV to ensure inclusiveness of gender and age in the global UM Church.
Lydia Istomina received her Doctoral Degree from St. Paul School of Theology. Her dissertation is on workplace and pastor bullying prevention. She was one of the key speakers at the Talking Taboo event at the Church of Resurrection in 2015. Presently, Lydia serves at Missouri UM Conference and serves as a mentor at the Regnier Institute of the Bloch School of Management at UMKC and SCORE.
Lydia Istomina is an author and holds the SOJOURNER OF TRUTH AWARD for courage and justice and the ARLON O. EBRIGHT AWARD for leadership.
Learn more about Paragraph 4 Article IV and other GCSRW petitions here.