Over the past year as I’ve studied the rhetorical arguments against women in church leadership positions, I’ve noticed that not much has changed over the years. When the Free Methodist denomination was founded B.T. Roberts faced opposition to ordaining women. He faced so much opposition that he didn’t encourage the new denomination to “officially” appoint women to senior leadership positions for fear it would divide a new, but fragile denomination. As the denomination strengthened and grew women became increasingly important to furthering the denomination’s growth and spreading Christianity. Yet, while women have been officially ordained as pastors for decades (since 1974) there are still relatively few women pursuing full-time ministry. Why is this? The entire purpose for my research is to show that women have historically played an important role in the denomination and that women should continue to feel called and supported to ministry.
A 1985 study by Deborah Smith, a student at Fuller Theological Seminary, interviewed Free Methodist women pastors and the Free Methodist bishops. (The bishops oversee different regions of the U.S. and odifferent areas of overseas missions). In the history of the Free Methodist denomination all the elected bishops have been male. While these men acknowledged to Smith the profound influence women had on their spiritual development, in the 1980s they didn’t see a woman being elected bishop in the near future. I have hope that in the next 20 years the denomination will have their first female bishop, but for now that’s just a hope, not a fact. Smith noted that women needed increased support for their ministry, increased visibility in their ministerial placement and a focus on denominational education about the Free Methodist’s history of gender equality and women in ministry. Now, this informal study was conducted in 1985. Perhaps a formal denominational study conducted in 1996 would show a different picture?
The denominational study, ordered by the bishops to explore barriers to women pursuing ministry, did illustrate that from 1974 to the 1990s the number of women who pursing official ordination had been steadily increasing. The denomination is now conducting a comparative study which will be released this summer. I’m curious to see if there has been continued growth. However, there are still many barriers to women choosing a career in ministry. Of the women surveyed in 1996 only 16% had paid full-time positions, some served with their spouses and others were only part-time. The women pastors expressed hope that the acceptance of women in ministry would continue to increase. Yet, like the informal study Smith did in the 1980s, this study also noted the need to educate the denomination on the importance of women in ministry.
As I’ve looked through the denominational archives, I’ve been frustrated by the continuing call of women leaders to educate the denomination on the importance of women in ministry and on the importance of knowing and understand the Free Methodist history. The history of the Free Methodist church is a radical example of a denomination that did not back down from their beliefs in complete gender equality. Yet, this message is often forgotten, unknown or not understood by Free Methodists. The louder voice of complimentarian gender roles is the one being heard. If more women are going to respond to the call to ministry then there must be a push back against pop culture Christian psychology which tells women that ministry will take their focus away from their true call – to care for their husband and be a wife and mother. Yet, the call to ministry is perhaps an even higher call than a call to motherhood, and who says the two categories – motherhood and ministry are mutually exclusive? The need for an increase in denominational, cultural and spiritual support to women is immense and must be addressed if the Free Methodist denomination hopes to continue the growth of women in ministry.