ALCOA, Tenn. -- When Bishop Dindy Taylor invited Holston’s full-time clergywomen for lunch and conversation, 80 responded and came to the Alcoa Conference Center on Oct. 24.
That in itself was cause for celebration, Taylor told the pastors encircling her on the first floor of Holston’s headquarters. “Look at the progress we’ve made. I mean, we’ve got a whole room of women here. Brenda [Carroll] and I remember when there were two of us.”
Women were ordained in the Methodist tradition as early as the late 1800s, yet women did not receive full clergy rights until 1956. Today, women make up about 20 percent of Holston clergy, with 229 females out of 1,104 total pastors.
Reflecting on her own experience, Taylor said she called the meeting because she wants clergywomen to claim the joy accompanying their roles while confronting the reality that a few congregants will resist or even bully their pastors.
“It’s not my problem. It’s our problem, and I can’t fix it,” she said. “This is the world that we live in, so how can we deal with it?”
One pastor said that she felt hurt by parishioners who undermine her leadership because they did not want a female preacher. “Every single day something happens to a clergywoman that doesn’t happen to a man,” she said. “Every day, it’s the little things that hurt.”
Another pastor said she felt unprepared and disappointed when she was told by a church member, at her first meeting with the congregation, that they did not want a female pastor.
One pastor said that male clergy as well as clergywomen are bullied by some parishioners. Others attending the meeting said they had received support and affirmation from their district superintendents, congregations and other pastors.
“We need our laity to talk about what it means to have a female as a pastor, and we need our district superintendents to speak up for us,” one participant said. “When we see intentional efforts to equalize our role across the conference, that gives us hope.”
Others suggested training for lay members in theology supporting women in the pulpit. One clergywoman said that just being present and persisting in the call to ministry is educational. “I feel like I have been educating the laity of Holston Conference for 42 years, and I’m not done with them yet,” she said.
One pastor reminded the group to lean on each other for advice and support through conflict. She recalled how soccer players stand shoulder to shoulder during a penalty kick, protecting themselves while protecting their goal.
“One of the things that is glorious about the United Methodist Church is that you are in a connectional system,” Taylor said, “and the take-away message, when you leave here today, is that you are not alone.”
Guest speakers included Del Holley, Knoxville district attorney and Holston lay leader, and the Rev. Laura Shearer, Holston pastoral counselor. Holley spoke about situations escalating to conflict or potential risk for clergy. Behavior involving threats, harassment, or stalking is serious and “rises to the level of crime,” Holley said.
Shearer talked about maintaining healthy habits (exercise, diet, stress reduction, relationships) and positive attitude to boost resiliency.
See also: "Why does the United Methodist Church ordain women?" on UMC.org.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.