Women reflect on changing roles in United Methodist leadership

David Burke


Friday, March 8, is International Women’s Day, and we are taking this opportunity to salute the female pastors in the Great Plains Conference. 

The Methodist Episcopal Church first licensed and ordained women as pastors in the early 1920s, but that position had to change in 1939 at the time of the union of the Methodist Episcopal Church South and the Methodist Protestant Church. By 1956, full clergy rights were granted to women in the Methodist Church. As United Methodists since 1968, women have always been eligible for ordination. 

Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede, pastor of Lincoln South Gate UMC, speaks at Orders & Fellowship. Photo by Todd Seifert

Today, 27 percent of United Methodist clergy are female in the United States, as of October 2018, despite being 58 percent of the laity in the U.S., according to the General Commission on Status and Role of Women. 

The percentage of clergywomen in the UMC doubled from 1994 to 2017. While the UMC is the largest denomination with female pastors, two denominations – Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ – have numerical equity between men and women.  

In the Great Plains, 286 of the 936 ordained elders – slightly more than 30 percent – are women. Out of the total number of clergy, adding deacons, licensed local pastors and retirees, 458 of the 1,306 (35 percent) are women. The cabinet will gain its seventh woman this summer, when the Rev. Dr. Nancy Tomlinson is installed as the Blue River/Elkhorn Valley district superintendent. 

With a lot accomplished – and a long way to go – we spoke with several female clergy in the conference to get their views: the Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede, pastor of Lincoln South Gate UMC; the Rev. Kirstie Engel, associate pastor of Lincoln St. Paul UMC; the Rev. Dr. Jane Florence, pastor of Lincoln St. Paul UMC; the Rev. Amy Lippoldt, pastor of Basehor (Kansas) UMC; and the Rev. Karen Nyhart, associate pastor of Fairway Old Mission UMC. 

What is it like to be a female pastor in 2019, compared to when you began your ministry? 

Ahlschwede: There’s more of us, which is exciting. And because time has gone by, we’re less likely to be the first woman pastor at our churches, or the first woman pastor people have heard preach. That’s notable. The fact that we can still ask that question and expect a different answer than the male clergy points to many systemic issues as a church. … Especially in the last two congregations I’ve served, at Dietz Memorial (in Omaha), when I walked in to meet the SPRC (Staff-Parish Relations Committee), the trustee chair hollered, “Thank goodness we finally get another woman.” That was great. My current church at South Gate has been very specific that I am their leader, and they are glad to support me. I really appreciate that. 

Rev. Kirstie Engel, associate pastor of Lincoln St. Paul UMC, at a gathering of black clergy in 2018. Photo by David Burke

Engel: I do see tremendous differences, but I’ll be honest – I don’t know if it’s my approach to the whole ministry, but I always felt empowered in the pulpit. Of course, when I started in my 20s I’ve had some experiences where every time I preached I’d experience some pushback a little bit, people leaving the sanctuary at Saint Mark in Wichita because they were not used to a young female in the pulpit. But over time it built some resilience in me, and I was determined to keep pushing on. As an African-American woman, I feel like our conference has created a red-carpet experience for myself. Everywhere I’ve been, people seem to welcome me for my youth, my energy and my diversity.  

Florence: I did encounter more open resistance to female leadership 20 years ago when I entered ministry. There were some folks that wouldn’t give a chance to see – “Oh no, it’s a woman, we can’t have that.” The door was closed immediately in some cases. Now, at least where I have been – and I have been the first female here as senior pastor and the first female in Omaha (First UMC) as senior pastor – I have been well-received. I don’t believe it’s in the reception where the resistance lingers. Twenty years ago, somebody would say flat-out to my face, “You’re a woman. What are you doing here? You don’t belong here.” I haven’t heard any of that. I think that is progress that has been made. 

Lippoldt: There have been some changes, but it also makes a difference that I’m not 25 anymore. I would say I don’t really ever encounter resistance anymore. It’s definitely more accepted, especially inside the United Methodist Church. It’s more rare now. It’s places outside the church where I encounter more pushback – “Oh, you’re a pastor. I didn’t think a woman could do that” or “You’re the first woman pastor that I’ve ever met.” It’s happened sometimes, but not as often as it did back in 2002 when I started. 

Rev. Jane Florence, pastor of Lincoln Saint Paul UMC. Contributed photo

Nyhart: When I started thinking about going into ministry, I didn’t really see a lot of female clergy around. There were a few. When I first started in ministry, if my husband was around, people would go up thinking he was the clergy. There was some of that happening. But as the years have progressed, I don’t see that as much now. People come up and introduce themselves first, and … there’s not that assumption that it’s the man who’s the clergy. For the most part, I’ve felt accepted as a female clergy. I’ve seen more and more women become clergy as the years have gone on. … I find that encouraging. 

What are the biggest challenges you face as a woman in ministry? 

Ahlschwede: One of the things that’s difficult is that sexism is a systemic issue, but it gets played out in individual cases. That makes it hard to discuss and hard to think of different ways of doing things. We think of specific examples and try to address a specific incident or happening, but we’re only going to see long-term change if the entire system shifts to realize it has great women in leadership. My goal is that it not be an exception to have a woman pastor – and feel good about a woman pastor – but rather the norm. 

Engel: The biggest challenge I still face is probably credibility. I still haven’t been able to discern if it’s because of age or gender or both/and. But I find that as soon as I open my mouth and preach or engage people on a one-on-one level, whatever those walls were seemed to come down. It does feel awkward when I’m going into the smaller, rural places where I’m the only one of my race. … There are times I feel like people just give me a surprised look or whatever. But as soon as I open my mouth and people get to know me – I’m a little charismatic here and there – it’s like the walls drop. I’m not going to be naïve and say it’s not there. The only way we as women can push through with these issues is really not to complain, but to show the love and grace of Christ. I really believe through being open and aware, those walls come down. 

Rev. Amy Lippoldt, Basehor UMC pastor, speaks at the 2019 General Conference. Photo by Todd Seifert

Florence: I feel the challenge when I say something or offer something or suggest something, and I sense that if that had been spoken by a male voice, with a lower tone and a larger physical body, it would have received a different response. Research and statistics have shown that white men over 6-foot-2 still have additional power and insolence in mere presence. 

Lippoldt: They’re not all that different from the challenges I see women facing in any professional space, where it’s less about being in the role of a pastor and more about how we have different expectations for women and men. Like how we want to hear women phrase things differently, more gently. I’ve seen women’s comments get passed over in favor of men saying very similar or the same ideas. I don’t know that we’ve passed more hurdles than women in other professions, but there is still a bias we have to encounter. We’re still lagging behind in terms of women’s pay, women being in our largest pulpits and that kind of thing. There’s room to grow. 

Nyhart: In my local setting, I don‘t feel like there’s very many challenges. I feel very accepted in the local church. I see more of it when I’m out in the community. There have been a couple of times when I’ve gone to the hospital to visit somebody and one of the volunteers will say, “Are you sure you’re clergy?” … As we were walking into the ER, I asked, “So how do you see a clergy looking?” She just stopped and shook her head and said, “I’m so sorry – in my head, I still see it as a male world.” 

How far do you think women have come in ministry – and how much further do you have to go? 

Ahlschwede: I think we’ve seen a number of women in really significant leadership positions. But I’m concerned that if you look at the aggregate experience of clergywomen it’s not yet the same as what clergymen experience. … Even the discussion about how we would know when we’ve embraced clergymen and clergywomen equally would be helpful.  

Rev. Karen Nyhart, associate pastor of Fairway Old Mission UMC.

Engel: I think we’ve come a tremendous long way. I think about the Great Plains Conference, from my first appointment to becoming pastor of First UMC (in Lincoln, effective in July), which is a pretty large church for our conference. I’m pleased the cabinet made that choice and was pleased with my gifts. … It should be more, but women are getting larger appointments. I don’t know if that’s because of clergy aging out or because that’s where we are now. … I have seen the appearance of women getting larger appointments and more opportunity. We do definitely have a long way to go, but I’m definitely optimistic about the future. 

Florence: The very fact that a question is offered to an SPRC committee as far as “Would you take a female as your senior pastor?” shows that we are not there yet. If you are asking the question of a progressive congregation, then someone’s out of touch. … I do believe we have made great strides, and I think part of it is remembering the journey and not taking it for granted. When I look at the women’s suffrage movement and getting the right to vote, and the cost some women paid with their families or their lives, that I’m not sure the current generation of young women may appreciate it. When you have a privilege after so long, you do take it for granted. … We can use our privilege and platform to others who might not have the same voice. 

Lippoldt: Women need to be in all levels of leadership. We’ve done a better job of raising women up in terms of administrative leadership and, somewhat, the episcopacies in the South Central Jurisdiction have had a hard time electing women. I think it’s terrible we have one woman (Louisiana Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey) on the whole college of the South Central Jurisdiction right now. I pray for her regularly. If you look at the top-100, top-200 churches in the country, there are still a very small fraction of them that are led by women. That’s a problem. … We’re not to parity yet at all. We tend to prioritize men’s voices more and see men as more capable and more capable at a younger age than we do women. But there’s not any one unique fix. I don’t put it all at the episcopal leadership’s feet. It’s systemic. If there‘s an easy fix, it would’ve happened already. It’s a process.  

Nyhart: I see more and more women becoming solo pastors in good ministry settings. … We have women as bishops, we have women as district superintendents, we have women as solo pastors and senior pastors with staff in front of them. There will always be an issue of equal pay between male clergy and female clergy, but that’s women and men in general. That’s starting to become a little more equal with the rules the financial committee has done. 


Contact David Burke, communications content specialist, at dburke@greatplainsumc.org

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