For the past 6 months, this section of the blog has launched directly into narrating the history and impact of the organization, charter, and ministering of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. This month’s blog is no different, but I’m pulling back the curtain a bit to share a personal story before connecting it to some history.
If you’ve read my bio, you know that I’m a United Methodist deacon and a religious historian, whose favorite area tends to be Methodism and its intersection of gender. What you don’t know is that I got a call to ministry when I was 21… and I didn’t follow up on that until I was in my mid-to-late 30s. I grew up in a different denomination, one in which women’s leadership was limited. When I heard my call to ministry, I received the opposite of affirmation; I was questioned on the validity of my calling. After spending many years following that coming into the Methodist church and its theology, I found a safer space to do what I thought I was called to do. However, it took gatherings of women to empower me to step further into what my vocational call was and should be. Had it not been for some incredible clergywomen (and clergymen) in North Alabama and the powerful work of the board of GCSRW, I would not be where I am today – a UMC Deacon pursuing doctorate work in religious history. In these sacred spaces, I had colleagues affirm my gifts and graces in a way that I never experienced before, almost in a visionary and prophetic way. In my experience personally and in mentoring and supporting other women in ministry, it’s the affirmation that comes from the community of women that helps guide many other women into taking the next steps, because their calling is no longer isolated – women’s calling to ministry becomes communal and connectional.
Much of the more modern United Methodist history contains a plethora of gatherings of women who have networked and supported one another in efforts to take their ministry into the world. As this year’s celebration of GCSRW’s 50 Years has shown, Methodist women are determined and have strategically accomplished incredible ministry throughout its history from the gifts of deaconesses to the organization of United Women in Faith (formerly United Methodist Women) to the gathering of clergywomen to commit to expanding women’s leadership within the denomination. These women “took seriously their baptisms, their learnings from Bible stories told by parents and teachers, and their Christian commitment. These foundations led them to teach others, to evangelize, to raise money to support overseas and home missions, and to go as missionaries themselves.” (1)
This month, the focus lies with the Consultations of United Methodist Clergywomen and how they gathered to support and affirm the callings of women to higher leadership within the denomination. The battle for clergywomen’s rights in Methodism have wearied many over its ups and downs. But, in 1956, when clergywomen finally earned their right to full connection within the Methodist system, their status as full elders made them eligible for the episcopacy. Rev. Jeanne Audrey Powers was the first clergywoman to run for the episcopacy in 1964, but she did not collect enough votes for election. Contextually within the denomination, the institutionalization of the United Methodist Church occurs in 1968 after merging The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Just four years later, the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women chartered a specific agenda to expand women’s participation within the denomination. In 1975, United Methodist clergywomen offered a Consultation gathering, in which the goal was to strategically connect clergywomen together in these efforts of women’s participation. By 1979, the Consultation of United Methodist Clergywomen gathered again, netting approximately 600 women to focus their agenda on the episcopacy and where and who might make the best candidate for bishop and strategize on making that candidate the head of the clergy delegation for the 1980 General Conference. Rev. Dr. Marjorie Matthews emerged as that candidate, a clergywoman from the West Michigan Conference who was ordained just one year following Rev. Powers. Matthews accepted the challenge, stating that she “firmly believed God calls men and women, and even children, into the work of the Church.” Matthews won the endorsement of her home conference and nearby Northern Illinois. On the thirtieth ballot of the North Central Jurisdiction’s 1980 meeting, Matthews was elected bishop by acclamation of the final two on the ballot to fill the final two episcopal roles. Her election marked 100 years since the first women, Anna Howard Shaw and Anna Oliver, officially attempted ordination within the Methodist denomination.(2)
Clergywomen gathered again in 1983 and 1987 to process and strategize women’s issues within the denomination. Out of the earliest consultations, many women saw opportunities to follow in their mentors’ and colleagues’ footsteps. In 1984, two women were elected to the episcopacy. Two additional women ascended to the role of bishop in 1988. The year 1992 became a banner year for women bishops as three women received consecration. In particular, the election of Rev. Sharon Zimmerman Rader connected to earlier elections, as she worked on Bishop Matthews’s campaign and later received endorsement from her home conference for the episcopacy. By 1996, the fortieth year of women’s ordination in the UMC, three women were elected and the year also marked the completion of all U.S. jurisdictions electing a female bishop. Three women were elected in 2000 and were notably the second, third, and fourth African-American women, ushered into the episcopacy. The number of elections from 2000 doubled in 2004, as six more women became bishops of the UMC, elected in four of five U.S. jurisdictions. Elections of women occurred again in 2008 and 2012, bringing four more women collectively into the episcopacy. In 2016, a record number of seven women received election to the episcopacy, four of them Black clergywomen, in four of the five U.S. jurisdictions. There has yet to be an election of a woman from all five jurisdictions in the same year. The work of GCSRW cannot be undermined in this endeavor, as five of the 32 U.S. women bishops served on the commission prior to their election.(3)
Across the global connection, women are also rising into leadership, though not as quickly paced as in the U.S. Bishop Rosemary Wenner was elected as the first Central Conference woman bishop in the UMC in 2005. Bishop Joaquina Filipe Nhanala became the first female bishop in the African Central Conferences, consecrated in 2008. Like many of her episcopal sisters, she served on the board for GCSRW, as well. Bishop Nhanala’s presence introduced effective women’s leadership to the continent and our connection in Africa now hosts several clergywomen in district superintendency roles. With the elections of Bishops Wenner and Nhanala, the European and African Central Conferences have elected a woman to its highest office. The Philippine Central Conferences remain the only central conference area without a woman bishop. GCSRW has also played an integral role in the education and support of women in ministry across these central conferences.(4)
Within the leadership of the Council of Bishops, only a few women bishops have had the opportunity to hold office. Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher was the first woman to be president of the Council of Bishops, taking office in 2002. Bishop Sharon Rader was the first woman bishop to serve as secretary and ecumenical officer. Bishop Rosemarie Wenner led the Council of Bishops as President from 2012-2014. Bishop Cynthia Fierro-Harvey currently serves as the President of the Council of Bishops for the term of 2020-2022. For the upcoming 2022-2024 term, Bishop Tracy Smith Malone will be President-Designate, which will place her in leadership as President in 2024.
Perhaps aside from the simple notion of gathering women together for conversation and connection, the efforts of GCSRW in educating United Methodists about women in leadership have been considerably effective. GCSRW published a six-week study for churches and small groups called “Women Called to Ministry” that helps learners understand how important women are to ministries of the church and how effective women are in ministry. It is available for download in multiple languages and continues to be an important tool in empowering women in vocational discernment.
The narrative of women’s leadership in the UMC is still very fresh and there remains much to be told. However, the story is dotted with connections to caucuses and the organization of women, in efforts to become the path for other women to become leaders. The denomination has still not arrived at the full egalitarian principles it seeks. These courageous women elected to the episcopacy are still boldly finding new ways to be in relationship with the Church and for promoting the full gifts of all baptized into the priesthood of all believers. They continue to create space for other women to lead out of their gifts and graces and bring more women into leadership within the UMC.
(1) Troxell, Barbara. “Ordination of Women in the United Methodist Tradition.” Methodist History 37, no. 2 (January 1999): 119–30.
(2) First United Methodist Women Bishops: Episcopal Election Stories. Video. Claremont School of Theology, 2003.
(3) Stahl, Heather Peck. “Facts about Women Bishops.” The Flyer, August 2012.
(4) Bishops. Council of Bishops, The United Methodist Church. Website. https://www.unitedmethodistbishops.org/bishops.
Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain is a PhD student at Boston University, where she focuses on 19th and 20th Century American Christian History and the intersectionality of faith and gender. She earned her B.A. in History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2007 and graduated with an M.A. Religion and M.Div. in 2019 from Claremont School of Theology. She’s an ordained United Methodist Deacon in the North Alabama Conference, and entered academia after serving for 9 years within the United Methodist Church where she worked in Connectional Ministries. Emily served as a reserve delegate to the 2016 General Conference and as a delegate for the 2016 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. She has served on the GCSRW board since 2016.