“Laurie, if you and Gary return to Michigan, we’ll have a church waiting for you. Would you like an appointment in the West Michigan Conference?” In 1981, two district superintendents in the West Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church traveled to Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut for a seminary visit with my husband, Gary, who was a candidate for ministry. We were thinking about making our home in Michigan after completing seminary, but there was a major challenge. I was taught about the love of Jesus as a child, felt called to ministry at a young age and was seeking to become one of the first women ordained in the General Conference Mennonite Church.
“You mean you would allow me, a Mennonite, to serve in a United Methodist Church?” Knowing that there was great opposition to women in ministry in Mennonite churches, I wondered whether their welcoming gesture was a sign that this might be where God wanted me to live out my call. In fact, all of the clergy in my Mennonite district in Pennsylvania boycotted my ordination in 1982.
Even thirty-five years ago, The United Methodist Church had open hearts, open minds and open doors and welcomed me into the fold with open arms. I found a new home and transferred my ordination credentials to The United Methodist Church in 1987.
This is not to say that I haven’t had my moments of struggle as a clergywoman in a traditionally male profession. In my first part-time rural appointment, I was approached by a congregant who was upset by one of my very first sermons and called the district superintendent. He gently recommended that I wait to preach a sermon on peacemaking until I had been there for a few months.
I offered to add extra hours to my responsibilities in order to start a youth group and asked if parents would volunteer to take turns caring for our two young children. We had no family in the area, and all of our babysitters were either in my youth group or Gary’s youth group. A few SPRC members were upset with my request, with one woman explaining her scramble to find child care when she works odd hours in a grocery store. As we talked about how prevalent child care concerns are with working parents, we discovered common ground and grace.
At my next part-time appointment, the United Methodist Women gifted me with a portable crib so I could nurse our third child in my office during the first months of her life. But when I brought the baby with me, it was suggested that this appeared to be unprofessional. One time when I was serving communion by intinction, a middle-aged man put his hands around my hands as I was holding the cup and left them there for ten seconds. It was an unsettling position in which to be.
In my first full-time appointment, a complaint was made to the church council that I wasn’t managing my three young children while I was leading worship and preaching. Oh, and two families left the church before I even arrived because they did not believe in women pastors. All of this, and it ended up being one of my favorite churches!
A different culture welcomed me at my fourth appointment at a large downtown congregation whose first reaction after hearing that Gary and I would be appointed as co-pastors was, “Who is going to have the senior pastor’s office?” and “Which pastor is going to make the final decisions?” Even though I was occasionally called the “pastor’s wife,” the congregation strongly affirmed the importance of us making major decisions together, treated us as equals and provided the same salary. Gary and I decided together that I should take the senior pastor’s office.
In good Wesleyan fashion, we continue going on to perfection. The stained glass ceiling is still in place at times, as many of our largest congregations prefer to have a male as their senior pastor. In truth, most small and medium size churches would also love to have a male pastor whose wife who is active in the congregation. Two for one is always a bargain!
I am mindful that clergywomen still earn less on average than clergymen. Racial ethnic clergywomen face a different of challenges in cross-racial appointments as well as in their own communities. In addition, United Methodist clergywomen in other parts of the world have unique, yet similar experiences.
I am deeply grateful for every church to which I have been appointed and for each congregation in the district where I served as a superintendent. Like many of my colleagues, I have occasionally been bullied, insulted, dismissed and threatened and have experienced sexual harassment. People have made comments about my clothes, shoes, accessories and hair. Yet, most of the time I have been shown grace upon grace. In every appointment, I have gained new skills, grown in my faith, partnered with laity in creating vital ministry and have had the privilege of walking with parishioners through the most devastating, beautiful and sacred times of their lives.
I have been accepted for who I am and have learned to be kind and understanding with those who are uncomfortable with a female in a clergy role. Most congregation members eventually realize that the most important quality of their pastor is not their gender but their ability to motivate, inspire and courageously lead their congregation into the future God has in store for them.
Yes, we are still on the journey to full participation of women in the life of the church. Are we there yet? Not quite. Yet we rise every day with joyful hearts, thanking God for the privilege of being in ministry in The United Methodist Church.
Rev. Laurie Haller is an ordained elder in the West Michigan Conference and currently serves as the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Michigan, the largest UM Church in the Detroit Conference. She is a delegate to the 2016 General and Jurisdictional Conferences and is an endorsed candidate for the episcopacy in the North Central Jurisdiction. Laurie’s book Recess; Rediscovering Play and Purpose, was published in 2015 by Cass Community Publishing House in Detroit, Michigan.