I thought that I could not be hurt – part 2

Sex and the church — Countering institutional sexism

By M. Garlinda Burton

Women as pastors

“Women marry pastors; they don’t become pastors.”

The United Methodist Church appoints and assigns pastors to congregations, unlike other denominations where each congregation “calls” and selects its own pastor. United Methodist bishops and cabinets are mandated to match the gifts, talents and temperaments of pastors and congregations.

In theory, a benefit of this system is that it may encourage congregations and clergy to push beyond sins of sexism, racism, classism, ageism and able-ism to build richly diverse Christian communities that witness beyond walls. For example, the gifts of a young, Latina pastor may be just what an open, older, White congregation needs to engage the diverse crop of newcomers of young black, Latino and Vietnamese moving into a local church’s neighborhood.

Even with our denomination’s stated practice of open itineracy, which means any eligible pastor may be assigned to any open pulpit, and the assertion by founder John Wesley that “The world is my parish,” most United Methodist congregations in the United States comprise white members and are led by white, male pastors. In fact, while the U.S. population in 2010 was 65% people of color, the membership of The United Methodist Church in the United States remained nearly 95% white; most of the denomination’s top leaders — bishops, agency executives, district superintendents — are white and male.

Since the mid-1950s, 50% or more of the membership of The United Methodist Church have been women. The former Methodist Church extended full clergy rights to women in 1956. Even though the denomination technically opened the door for women almost two decades earlier, by 1972 women only accounted for 1% of ordained United Methodist elders in the United States — and there were no women bishops or conference treasurers or lay leaders.

Fast forward

Fast forward nearly 40 years later: The denomination has made progress thanks to God’s work through such organizations as United Methodist Women, the General Commission on the Status & Role of Women and the former Women’s Caucus, but while women are more than 54% of the world population:

  • Women account for only 19% of United Methodist clergy worldwide; in the United States, women pastors fill 24% of parish pulpits.
  • Females were only 30% of the General Conference delegates assigned to the Financial Administration Legislative Committee that recommends how churchwide monies will be allocated and spent for mission, ministry and administration.
  • Of the 69 United Methodist bishops serving in Africa, Europe, the United States and the Philippines, only 17 are women, 15 are U.S. based; of the 19 active bishops in Africa and Europe, only two are women, one on each continent. The Philippines has yet to elect a woman bishop.
  • Among United Methodist congregations, at least 10% do not allow women to usher at weekly worship, according to a survey of local churches by the General Commission on the Status & Role of Women.
  • At least one United Methodist annual conference has yet to ordain a woman.

Local congregations can and sometimes do, with impunity, reject women pastors. It is perfectly acceptable in many areas around the world for a parish to assert, “We won’t take a woman.” Bishops and superintendents most frequently acquiesce.

Many congregations eventually welcome and celebrate their first woman pastoral leader. But if she “messes up,” watch out!

Funny how you never hear church members say, “You know, Bishop, we tried a man pastor a few years ago. But he was so cold or was a such bad preacher or changed too many traditions or didn’t sing enough of our favorite hymns that I don’t think we can take another man in the pulpit.”

Biblical misinterpretation

The continued reluctance to embrace church women’s leadership has been exacerbated by two millennia of intentional exploitation and misinterpretation of biblical precepts by theologians, scholars, pastors, bishops, spiritual-life coordinators, mission executives, Christian educators and Sunday school teachers, and our mothers and fathers.

Institutional sexism in the church has, for centuries, conveyed the erroneous message that women pastors and bishops, financial chairpersons and trustees represent a radical departure from the “natural” order of humanity and God. Those best equipped and anointed to make ecclesiastical, theological, moral, political, financial and administrative decisions on behalf of the worldwide church, are men, preferably the majority of them white and English-speaking.

The “natural,” meaning for many “biblical,” reality is that women have played a prominent role in spreading the gospel message, managing church business and finances since Jesus walked the earth. Women underwrote Jesus’ earthly ministry with goods and financial resources (Luke 8:1-13, 10:38-42). Theologian Demetrius Williams asserts that the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30, Matthew 15:21-28) and the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-43) were among the leaders in shaping a theological argument to expand the Jesus movement to the Gentiles.

“Women advocated for and sought to protect the inclusive equality of discipleship called for by Jesus,” Williams writes in An End to this Strife. The Politics of Gender in African-American Churches. “In this way, they challenged the Jesus movement to remain true to God’s new vision of human relations that Jesus initiated by extending his table fellowship.”

An accurate, gender-inclusive reading of biblical history tells us that women from Esther to Mary Magdalene to Lydia led, financed and preached in Christ’s church. Women have long been called and sent by God to spread and live out the gospel.

Patriarchy and the sin of sexism, however, have distorted this reality in the church and stunted the called ministry of both women and men. Political aspirations and considerations, fear of offending patriarchal Christianity by speaking God’s truth, abuse of the Bible to give men privilege over women, and reverence of so-called culture and tradition over the Word of God have caused the church to compromise the call to equity and justice for women.

In a groundbreaking move earlier this year, the General Commission on United Methodist Men passed a resolution supporting the calling and ministry of ordained women in the life of the church. The international men’s organization also called for men to repent of their individual and collective participation in institutional sexism that has blocked women clergy and undermined God’s call to the whole church.

Given the continuing dearth of proportional representation of women in church leadership around the world, the call to repentance is one that should be issued across the whole of United Methodism. Church members should be invited into a churchwide, guided critique and study of former biblically based teachings that continue to undergird sexist policies, practices and beliefs.

To read the rest of this article and the other in the series, please follow this link to the UMC General Board of Church and Society website.)


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