In 2017, the North Alabama Conference COSROW felt that women clergy in our Conference were not receiving the same opportunities in appointments that male clergy were. Increasingly, clergy and laity were expressing the same concerns to COSROW. In order to determine whether this sense of disparity in the appointive process was accurate or not, the North Alabama COSROW decided to designate two members to research appointments in our Annual Conference and, if the data supported our suspicions that women were receiving fewer opportunities for advancement, to write a Resolution to address the issue.
The Reverend Henry Gibson and I volunteered to compile and analyze a list of clergy and salaries. Each year, salaries are reported along with appointments in our Annual Conference Journal, which are publicly available online. Henry and I made a spreadsheet of salaries broken down into ranges and calculated the percentage of each gender in every range. We then compared this to the overall percentages of male and female clergy in our Conference. This was an extremely basic way of compiling this data, but it was enough for us to see a consistent history of disparity in appointments.
We chose to focus on salaries for that first data analysis because the numbers were publicly available to us. However, clergy salaries are not entirely straightforward. Housing allowances or parsonages are not reported in our Journal, and neither are continuing education budgets or such “perks” as lawn care and church daycare availability. However, we decided it was better to start simply with the salary numbers we had and could easily compare over time. Because our Cabinet makes appointments based solely on salary and not housing allowances or other compensation, this would also mean that we were basing our Resolution on the very numbers they used for appointment making.
We decided to talk over the data with our District Superintendents because we wanted to work with them on improving these disparities, and we wanted to ensure that the changes we sought were realistic. Initially, the Cabinet was defensive about our salary study. They explained that the numbers did not portray the complexity of the appointment process, and stressed that the Cabinet could be prevented from making positive changes toward parity during years with few appointment moves. Henry and I countered that while the process is surely complex, the Bishop and Cabinet’s office is the only structure in our Discipline that has the power to make these changes; therefore, the responsibility must lie with them. We pointed out that because our data was based on salary, it was possible to improve the numbers even without making a great many moves: churches who were already led by appointed female clergy could be persuaded to increase salaries to match those of their male counterparts.
The Cabinet’s further objection was that a major impediment to appointing female clergy to any church was the local churches’ resistance to female leadership. In response, we asked the Cabinet to consider that a Resolution for Parity in Appointments, should it pass the Annual Conference, would give them a mandate to help convince churches to move forward with the appointments of female clergy. (If the Resolution did not pass, then one interpretation of those results would be for the Cabinet to be validated in its belief that churches did not want female leadership. However, we felt confident that many more churches were ready for female leadership than perhaps their SPRCs expressed.)
After discussion, the Cabinet asked to sign on to the Resolution itself, on the condition that we agree to a few editorial changes, and they agreed to supply more accurate numbers than what had been published in the Journal. COSROW accepted this partnership and Henry and I analyzed the data again with the new, more accurate numbers. The Resolution that Henry and I authored and submitted to the Annual Conference can be viewed in the 2018 North Alabama Conference Pre-Conference Journal. (Volume One is here and Volume Two is here.)
Henry and I spoke to as many people as possible about the Resolution ahead of Annual Conference. Our Conference hosted District Meetings to prepare delegates for Annual Conference, and Henry and I drove to each district that would have us to explain and answer questions about the Resolution. Most of the delegates were receptive and excited about the Resolution. It did become apparent early on that numeracy was an issue: many people struggle with the ability to interpret numerical data, particularly statistics. Henry and I had to learn how to educate delegates about the meaning of the statistics we reported, what they did and did not mean, and what we were asking the Bishop and Cabinet to achieve in terms of results.
When Annual Conference arrived, I was able to give a very brief overview of the Resolution during COSROW’s report. I shared that COSROW knew it was the belief of United Methodists that everyone God has called, regardless of gender, should be treated with fairness in the appointive process. While salary markers are not a complete measurement of appointment opportunities, they were a way for us to begin the work of equalizing opportunity, audience, and pay for all clergy. When the Resolution came up for the vote on the following day, it passed almost unanimously, with only one “no” vote.
Our Resolution allowed two appointment cycles for the Bishop and Cabinet to work to correct the disparities and charged COSROW with reporting on their progress in the 2021 session. For those two appointment cycles, the Reverend Henry Gibson and the Reverend Emily Nelms Chastain (who is also a GCSRW board member) analyzed the data with the help of a lay sociologist, Dr. Philip Gibson (brother to Rev. Gibson). Their analysis included not only salary comparisons, but also average worship attendance of the local churches. This information is reported weekly on our Conference website, and added an additional layer of insight into the gender bias we have seen in the appointive process.
This year, as stipulated by the Resolution, our COSROW chair did report to the Annual Conference on the progress made. Unfortunately, we have seen no significant changes, and in some respects appointments for clergywomen have regressed. The only positive change that could be documented was the appointment of an additional female DS to the Cabinet. While these results are disheartening and raise greater questions about our appointive system, we feel our efforts were worthwhile to draw attention to disparities and to secure a formal clarification that the body of our Annual Conference does want to see women represented proportionally in our higher-salaried, larger churches. The conversation with our Bishop and Cabinet will have to move to a deeper level to understand why they did not meet the markers we had all agreed to work toward. But in the meantime, women entering our Conference as clergy can accurately judge the climate they will be working in, and current clergywomen as well as laity and clergymen who support parity can see that their suspicions—that our system is not utilizing the gifts of men and women equally in clergy leadership roles—were not unfounded.
Rev. Dr. Kelsey Grissom is the pastor of Camp Branch United Methodist Church in the North Alabama Conference. Her pastoral interests include preaching to all ages and practical theology for the home. Kelsey is married to Lee and they have four children.