Sunday, June 11, 2006

Annual Conference Reflections: Women in Ministry

As I mentioned in my last post, I had the privilege at Annual Conference this year of being part of a panel-discussion workshop with my own Bishop Fisher, conference preacher Bishop Judy Craig, and Rev. Betsye Mowry. Betsye, who is appointed to the other UMC in the town where I serve, Oneida. Betsye is the oldest female elder in our conference with the most years of service, and I am the youngest elder.

We spent a couple of hours answering questions about women in ministry and what our experiences have been, how are experiences have changed. Bishop Craig talked about being accepted as the 'exception' - churches that would not accept female pastor "except her," as if somehow she didn't really fit into that category.

A dear friend of mine, Rev. Carlton VanOrnum, pastor emeritus at the church where I grew up, was in attendance - he is in his eighties, and had been a DS at one point in his (retired-but-still-in-ministry) ministry. He was called on to give insights about his thoughts about what it was like when women were first entering the ordained ministry - he responded that his father was a pastor, and when unable to serve for a year, his mother served as the pastor of his father's charge for the interim. He said "I have to say, she was a better preacher than he was!" Obviously, his remarks delighted the audience!

All three of the other women strongly encouraged the importance of clergy women being supportive of one another, networking, encouraging, and lifting up. Bishop Craig was especially clear in encouraging women to be advocates for one another in their careers, and both Bishops mentioned that sometimes women have been suprisingly hard on other women - lay women hard on women as clergy, clergy women hard on female bishops. If you are a clergy woman, do you have ways of networking/supporting/having conversations with other clergy women? In my own district, we have a monthly lunch together for clergy women. It is one of my favorite things - ministry can be so isolating, and I really love out get together. Informal, but fun, and nurturing.

Someone asked about issues that women face today in ministry. I said that I think we can figure "we've arrived, we're here, we're finished, we've reached our goal," and thus become too complacent about our status. I think discrimination, sexism, can become more subtle, less overt, and so very dangerous. If no one thinks it is a problem anymore, no one pays attention to it, and keeps watch. I've been curious, after looking at the latest set of Judicial Council decisions - I want to do a little research - do female bishops have their decisions questioned more frequently than do male bishops? Is their authority questioned more regularly?

Also mentioned, of course, is the continuing problem of salary inequality, the "stained-glass ceiling" of size of appointments, etc. Someone asked about "reverse sexism." Has the tide turned and are clergy men now discriminated against? Bishop Craig responded to say that questions about "reverse ____ism" usually happen at about 15-20% of whatever issue - 15-20% of ordained clergy are women - and now the backlash begins. Still a long way, she said, from a minority becoming a majority. (Think of recent hoopla over the growing Hispanic population. 2004 statistics say that the US population is about 14% Hispanic - 67% White non-Hispanic. And yet, such fear of the majority losing 'status'.)

Personally, I've had few overt experiences of sexism - some people wondering, at my charge, what a woman would be like, since they'd never had one before. Some less excited than others to have me coming to them, but upon meeting me, were completely welcoming and supportive. I've experienced more often sexism from those not in the UMC - those from other faith traditions where women as pastors are not accepted. I actually had two people walk out of a soup kitchen once because I, the female pastor, was going to say grace. But perhaps today it is not at the beginning of ministry when female clergy face the most challenges. Maybe today women find more opposition (from men, from women) when they push at the upper levels, push for places of power that are still so often occupied by men.

What do you think?
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