Female pastors celebrate; say struggles continue


UMC Women in Clergy from Great Plains UMC on Vimeo.

As the 60th anniversary of women receiving full clergy rites in The United Methodist Church was celebrated Thursday during the General Conference, female clergy delegates in the Great Plains Conference say there is still a long way to go to achieve full equality with their male counterparts.

“It’s exciting to think about the perspectives that women bring into the ministry, the voice they bring into the ministry,” said the Rev. Rebecca Hjelle, pastor of First UMC in Blair, Nebraska. “It’s exciting to think that for 60 years we’ve been able to acknowledge that ministry.”

The Rev. Ashley Prescott Barlow-Thompson, a deacon serving part time at College Hill UMC and with the SoCe Life nonprofit organization in Wichita, said she stood on the backs of predecessors who had to fight for their roles in the denomination.

“When I think of 60 years of women in clergy, I’m reminded that we haven’t always been allowed to lead a church,” Barlow-Thompson said.

The Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede, pastor of South Gate UMC in Lincoln, also frequently thinks of the female clergy pioneers.

“I think of strong, strong women and how creative they had to be and how strong they had to be to imagine themselves as preachers,” she said.

The female pastors said that while their experiences may not be as daunting as those of their predecessors, there are still obstacles, even in 2016.

“I still experience sexism in the church when I relate to other clergy people not knowing what my role is,” Barlow-Thompson said. “The journey is not over. We’re all still working our ways toward the kingdom of God and toward perfection. I think we need to do it together.”

Of the 15 Great Plains clergy voting and reserve delegates at the General Conference, six are women. Besides Hjelle, Barlow-Thompson and Ahlschwede, the Great Plains also is represented by the Rev. Dr. Anne Gatobu, Ashland, Nebraska; the Rev. Amy Lippoldt, Basehor, Kansas; and the Rev. Cheryl Jefferson Bell, Leawood, Kansas.

Hjelle said that she tries to use the power of vulnerability and that she’s struggled with that in her role of church leadership.

“As a clergywoman, how do I embrace that vulnerability – those moments of weakness, those moments of great strength,” she said. “How do I not see that as a liability and actually a strength and a gift?”

Ahlschwede said she still encounters young women, some of them the pastoral candidates that she mentors, who have never been in a church served by a female pastor.

She said she and other pastors have “horrifying stories” about sexism and discrimination they still see in their churches.

“Too often we hear clergywomen referred to as ‘pastorettes,’ nicknames that people think are funny. But you don’t walk around calling your male pastor ‘pastor boy,’” Ahlschwede said.

“Things like that still happen in our local churches, and it’s important to remember that we are professionals,” she added. “We have equal training, we have equal experience, and we’re really good at our jobs.”

Jefferson Bell, associate pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, said that during the time she was a district superintendent, she encountered churches that protested the appointment of a female pastor.

“We’re at a point where we don’t have total freedom for all women. We’re continuing to raise that flag, to advocate, to say ‘yes,’” Jefferson Bell said. “We have to keep waving that flag. We have to continue to affirm women in our local churches, in our districts, in our annual conference.”

The challenge for female pastors, she said, is being accepted for who they are and as they are.

“When you’re a female coming to the table, one’s life experiences, one’s perspective is going to be different,” Jefferson Bell said. “As long as we can be open to hearing and truly listening and understanding that we are all equal in God’s sight, God’s understanding.”

Contact David Burke, communications coordinator, at dburke@greatplainsumc.org.

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