2010, Women's Leadership Style

A Graceful Struggle: The Lead Women Pastors Project

By Susan Willhauck, Virginia Annual Conference

Transformation of any kind can come only from a holy scuffle. In our tradition, women in ministry have been engaged in a graceful struggle, one of those genuine paradoxes of leadership. Struggle implies suffering, great effort, and determination, perhaps even the gnashing of teeth and flailing of arms; yet a struggle can also be a dance with movements that free us from past confines. When that struggle is filled with grace, God is made known, wisdom prevails, and metamorphosis happens.

A recent chapter in the story of the graceful struggle of United Methodist clergywomen involves the Lead Women Pastors Project (LWPP) that began in 2008. The LWPP had its origins in the 2006 International Clergywomen’s Consultation that celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of clergy rights for women in the United Methodist tradition.1 That event sparked curiosity about how women were cracking the stained-glass ceiling to serve in large-membership churches. As The United Methodist Church (UMC) has been greeting a new era of women’s leadership, this question emerged: How can the Church equip younger generations of clergywomen to fulfill their calling to serve the needs of the present age that demands gender inclusivity in theology and practice? The Reverend Dr. HiRho Park, director of the Office of Continuing Formation for Ministry of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM), envisioned the LWPP. The GBHEM sponsored Dr. Park’s direction of the project. Because of my past research on women’s leadership in the Church, GBHEM invited me to serve as a consultant to the LWPP. Our leadership team also includes two large-membership church lead women pastors (LWPs): the Reverend Patricia Farris of the California Pacific Conference and the Reverend Trudy Robinson of the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference.2

The three goals of the LWPP include establishing an online continuing education and support network for clergywomen serving as lead pastors in large-membership churches, conducting quantitative and qualitative research on the leadership styles and issues of LWPs, and facilitating a coaching program between current LWPs and those women pastors identified by bishops and cabinets as exhibiting potential to serve large churches. The LWPP seeks to affirm, empower, and nurture women as lead pastors in churches with a membership of one thousand or more.3 The LWPP is also exploring the distinct call to pastor a large-membership church and women’s leadership in that role.

Typically, the large-membership church has been viewed as the benchmark for judging ministerial success in the denomination. As such, it has remained essentially an intact stained-glass ceiling for clergywomen until a few women began to crack it. The LWPP does not make the presumption that bigger is always better or that women ought to “climb the ladder” to that benchmark of success, but aims to ensure that all ministries are fully open to women’s leadership in the UMC and that women’s leadership is valued in all settings. The LWPP seeks to tap into the rich resource of LWPs to better understand pastoral leadership. Instead of measuring pastoral effectiveness against already established criteria that are male defined, the LWPP looks at ways that LWPs are redefining pastoral effectiveness on their own terms. People who are invested in male models of leadership (especially for the large church) are loath to admit that women bring anything unique to leadership or something that will reform the Church because that acknowledgment threatens the status quo of males in charge. In order for the struggle to remain graceful, clergywomen and proponents of women’s leadership in the Church must continue to affirm and claim the gifts of women for the Church despite the barriers.

To meet the first goal of the project, the LWPP leadership team planned and hosted a retreat in September 2008 for the ninety-four LWPs (and a second retreat seven months later). The LWPP leadership team introduced the clergywomen to Blackboard, a distance- learning program, as a way to foster networking and discussion and to gather information. The clergywomen were divided into chat groups and participated in a series of chats during the year. The discussion focused on the two books on leadership the women had received: Sharon Daloz Parks’s Leadership Can Be Taught: A BoldApproach for a Complex World (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2005), and my book Back Talk!: WomenLeaders Changing the Church (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2005).

The second goal of the LWPP focused on conducting quantitative and qualitative research to gain information about current trends and needs. The quantitative aspect consisted of an online survey sent to the ninety-four LWPs and a randomly selected sample of three hundred LMPs of large churches.4 Qualitative data were obtained from online chats, the discussion board, case studies, and interviews. The GBHEM Web site 5 provides a full report on the survey; therefore, I will summarize only a few key findings.

Age, Race, and Marital Status

Of the survey respondents, 99 percent were Caucasian. Clearly, there is a dearth of ethnic lead pastors in large churches. Lead women pastors (LWPs) are an average of three years younger than lead men pastors (LMPs), but LWPs have served slightly more appointments than their male counterparts before becoming lead pastors of large churches. Of LWPs, 69 percent are married compared to 99 percent of LMPs, a gap that is greater than for the general population. Without speculating too much on what the data indicate, suffice it to say that the data challenge the Church toward consistency in inclusivity.

Education, Career, and Salary

More LWPs than LMPs received their education in United Methodist seminaries. More LWPs than LMPs have been awarded doctoral degrees. More LWPs than LMPs became clergy as a second career. More LWPs than LMPs have served as district superintendents prior to appointment to lead a large church. LWPs tend to serve in suburbs of large cities, while more LMPs serve large churches that are located in mid-size and small towns. As far as salary is concerned, this study showed that more clergywomen than clergymen earned more than $100,000. The LWP survey respondents earned slightly more than LMPs. According to the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, this finding does not match other reports about clergy salary. For example, male clergy (with one identifiable exception) serve the top one hundred largest congregations. The majority of the male respondents of this survey are serving in the middle- and bottom-third of the large churches. Very few LWPs are serving in the top one-third of the largest churches, and their average salaries are about 27 percent lower than LMPs.


The average number of professing members in LWPs’ churches was 1,827, compared with 1,736 in LMPs’ churches. The average worship attendance of churches that LWPs serve is higher than that of churches the male respondents in this study serve. On average the churches of LWPs have more weekly services than those of the LMPs. LWPs spend more time in pastoral care and supervise more staff than LMPs do. Though there were similarities between the men and the women respondents’ comments on leadership style, the overwhelming majority of both LWPs and LMPs in this survey noted that they perceive gender differences in leadership. Even so, many qualified their statements to avoid blanket generalizations. Slightly more women identified their leadership style as collaborative. The survey revealed that men and women agree that the standards for clergymen and clergywomen differ. Men receive a standing of authority often not present for women. Compared to 58 percent of LMPs, 33 percent of LWPs reported that they feel confident in dealing with church finances. LWPs reported less major conflict in the last two years than LMPs did. The top two challenging issues for male and female clergy are finances and staffing. More than clergymen, clergywomen think that the need for more clergywomen serving large churches is an important concern.

In the Blackboard discussions, chats, and interviews, the LWPs mentioned that sexism is alive and well in the Church. The women noted that the perspective that a large church needs a man to “handle” it persists as an “undercurrent” in the Church. Here are some of the comments of LWPs:

Women are very much still on trial in the large church. Authority is not automatically given to a woman because she is in the role of lead pastor.

Women have to walk a tightrope about how they dress, speak, and show emotion.

I was told my voice in preaching is not low enough.

My male associate pastor is often assumed by new people to be the senior pastor.

I was asked by an Pastor – Parish Relations Committee member if the church could have a formal arrangement with a nearby church with a male senior pastor, so that when men wanted to talk to a pastor and did not want to talk to a woman, they would have someone to go to.

As a part of a clergy couple, I am often introduced as the preacher’s wife.

When men fail, they say that it was a bad fit. If a woman fails, she is more likely to feel responsible or to be blamed.

I find that male clergy are more likely to ask for an appointment to a large church—are more likely to voice their needs to a Cabinet.

Women tend to say “send me where I’m needed.” Women are conditioned to wait to be asked (for a date, asked to dance, etc.). We need to up our confidence level about self identifying to serve the large church.

Despite these challenges, these LWPs overwhelmingly believe that serving a large church is their distinctive call, and they are gracefully and uniquely fulfilling that call and continuing to transform the Church. Bishop Jane Allen Middleton of the Central Pennsylvania Conference said in an interview, “We are not just men in skirts. We have our own styles, and we have another way of looking at the world, and we have changed the Church.”6

The results of the survey and qualitative data were reported at the second retreat in April 2009. The LWPP attracted national media attention with an Associated Press article appearing in dozens of newspapers including USA Today, an article in the Christian Century, and an interview on YouTube.7The experiences of these LWPs will serve as a resource for the formation of future generations of women’s leadership.

The third goal of the LWPP is currently under way. Some of the LWPs currently serving large churches are participating in online training in coaching and have been paired with clergywomen who have been identified as potentially serving a large church. They have covenanted to communicate monthly to work together to understand the issues and challenges of leading a large churchDistrict superintendents and cabinets will be informed that the clergywomen have participated in this leadership development to prepare them to serve a large church.

As mentioned, the LWPs read Sharon Daloz Parks’s book, Leadership Can Be Taught: A Bold Approach for a Complex World, as one of their texts. Parks describes the methodology of Ronald Heifetz, a noted teacher at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Leadership. Heifetz talks about the twofold task of a leader: to “get on the dance floor” and to move “to the balcony.”8 To be on the dance floor means that at times a leader must be immersed in the choreography of an organization. A leader must also move to the balcony for a while to see things that one can never see from the dance floor—the bigger picture of the patterns of interactions. Clergywomen are dancing their way in the large churches and changing patterns of leadership that more and more of the faithful are seeing and affirming. Let us give thanks for LWPs engaged in this graceful struggle!

1 The 1956 General Conference passed legislation approving the ordination of women. The United Brethren Church had ordained women since the 1880s. Their merger with the Evangelical Church complicated matters; however, some women continued to be ordained in The Evangelical United Brethren Church that merged with The Methodist Church in 1968. See Mark Chaves, Ordaining Women: Culture and Conflict in Religious Organizations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 23.

2 I wish to acknowledge Elizabeth O’Neal of the GBHEM staff for her tireless and competent administrative help.

3The General Board of Finance and Administration defines lead pastors of large-membership churches as clergy who are serving churches with 1,000 or more members within the UMC. As of December 31, 2004, there were 34,659 UM churches in the United States. Of those churches, 1,154 had a membership of 1,000 or greater, with 64 having a woman as lead pastor. These figures were reported in the 2005 General Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the UMC and compiled by the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA). In October 2008, the Office of Continuing Formation for Ministry identified 94 LWPs of large churches.

4 The LWPP leadership team prepared the survey and conducted it online through Survey Monkey from September through December 2008. The Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) provided the statistical analysis on March 2, 2009.

6 Bishop Jane Allen Middleton, interviewed in “Lead Woman Pastors Project Introduction,” YouTube, March 10, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-ci63EYAzc.

7 Associated Press, “Methodist Women Seek to Crack Stained-Glass Ceiling,” USA Today, January 22, 2009; John Dart, “Breaking Glass Ceilings at Large Churches,” Christian Century, June 30, 2009.

8 Sharon Daloz Parks, Leadership Can Be Taught: A Bold Approach for a Complex World (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2005), 30.


2019 – Unity in the Church

2018 – Claim Who We Are in Christ

2017 – Bodies, Oppression, and Gospel

2016 – Birthing a Worldwide Church

2015 – Clergywomen Lead Vital Congregations

2014 – Empowerment for All

2013 – What Next?

2012 – What Does the Lord Require of Us?

2011 – See, I am Doing a New Thing

2010 – Voicing Truth With Grace

PDF archive – 1987 to 2009



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WellSprings, A Journal of United Methodist Clergywomen, is published by the Division of Ordained Ministry, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

Editor: HiRho Y. Park

Managing Editor: Barbara A. Dick

Editorial Circle: Patricia Bonilla, Neelley Hicks, Anita Phillips, Jacqui Rose-Tucker, Trudy Hawkins Stringer