NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The United Methodist Church, which boasts a history of ordaining women clergy, is seeking to shatter the so-called "stained-glass ceiling" blocking female pastors from its largest pulpits.
The nation's second largest Protestant denomination has launched a new initiative, the Lead Women Pastor Project, to examine barriers to women being appointed pastors to Methodist churches with more than 1,000 members.
The Nashville-based United Methodist Church has a total of 44,842 clergy, and about 10,000 are female — or 23 percent. Yet just 85 women lead those largest churches, compared to 1,082 men in those positions.
The project aims to research leadership styles of women who head these large churches and encourage more female leaders by building a mentoring program for women with potential to serve large congregations.
Church leaders say more women are needed to shepherd the large churches, considering that women make up more than half of those enrolled in master of divinity programs in United Methodist seminaries. Also, nearly 58 percent of the 8 million-member denomination is female.
"Coming from that perspective it's almost natural we pay more attention to the development of women's leadership in the church," said the Rev. HiRho Park, the project's director. "It's breaking the stained-glass ceiling. I think it gives a younger generation of women hope to have a collective vision for the future."
In 2006, women accounted for 34.4 percent of enrollment at U.S. seminaries that are open to female students — a headcount of nearly 28,000, according to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.
The National Council of Churches notes, however, that it's difficult to know how many of those women go on to be pastors. Similar organizations that monitor church activities either don't track or have current data on female pastors in the U.S. About 15 Protestant denominations allow for women to be pastors.
Jackson Carroll, a professor emeritus of religion and society at Duke Divinity School who's written extensively about female clergy, said there were a total of about 60,000 ordained female clergy in 1990. Now he estimates that number is close to 80,000.
Methodists have long been open to female clergy. In 1880, a woman was ordained as a clergyperson in a Methodist denomination that later became part of the United Methodist Church, a church spokesman said. But women didn't have voting and other rights that male clergy enjoyed until the mid-1950s.
The Rev. Grace Huck, 92, has pastored more than a dozen Methodist churches throughout her career, mostly in North Dakota. At one of the first churches Huck served, "when the district superintendent told them he was appointing a woman pastor, one of the men pounded the pew and shouted, 'There will be no skirts in this pulpit while I'm alive!'" she said. Huck notes, however, he later became one of her strongest supporters.
She believes women's opportunities to serve as pastors have greatly improved over the years, but lingering discrimination is likely why more women aren't leading larger Methodist churches.
"Women for centuries were supposed to be meek, submissive, and if a woman is strong, it's hard for some men to accept," she said. "We should just be human beings working together. It doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman."
The Rev. Patricia Farris, 57, who has been senior pastor of the 1,200-member First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica, Calif., for 11 years, said qualities associated with male leadership typically are "emphasis on the leader being the one who casts the vision and leads the way, that this is the direction we should take."
"Women can do this too, but we lead in other ways that are more collegial and cooperative," she said. "Women are more inclined to say 'Let's discern this together.'"
In September, women who lead United Methodist churches with more than 1,000 members gathered in Nashville as part of the Lead Women Pastor Project to work on supporting clergywomen who lead large churches, researching their leadership styles and establishing a mentoring program for women who have the potential to serve such churches.
Women and men pastors who lead large United Methodist churches are being asked to complete a survey, which includes questions about leadership styles, pastors' salaries, demographics of their church and community and what kind of challenges and conflicts they face. The results of the survey are slated to be released sometime in the spring.
Project director Park said there's also an online study program for participants, where women can discuss the issue and recommend reading material on the subject.
"The present culture as a whole demands gender inclusivity," Park said. "Because of this demand, the church needs to develop some tools to help these female leaders to function effectively as religious leaders in this tremendous pluralistic and inclusive global context."
"Politically, women are rising in society. Why not in the church too?"