Friday, March 1, 2019

Dana L. Robert: The “Other” Issue of Gender: What Happens to United Methodist Women Leaders?

Today's blog post is written by Dr. Dana L. Robert. Dr. Robert is the Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Missions and Director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at the Boston University School of Theology.

The recent General Conference was a very public fight over the identity and direction of the United Methodist Church, with regard to LGBTQ issues of ordination and marriage.  Without minimizing the pain of LGBTQ sisters and brothers, as a women’s historian, I need to raise the issue of collateral damage—that of the ministry and leadership of women. As a spirit-filled Wesleyan “centrist” who is more interested in mission than dogma, I offer these observations in dismay and sorrow.

Anyone who watched the live streaming of the conference saw women bishops in the chair, and a disproportionately large number of women supporting flexibility and inclusion. This combination was no coincidence. The United Methodist Church has more women bishops, more ordained women, more women seminary professors, more deaconesses, and more women in charge of church agencies than any other church in the world. When I travel in southern Africa, I often meet women who tell me that their education and empowerment have come directly through the mission of the United Methodist Church. To dismantle it--as was so casually discussed--is a body blow against women’s leadership in the church.

Every women’s historian knows that fights over restructuring undercut the ministry of women. Progress in gender relations is never certain. Women keep fighting to minister, to teach theology, and to serve a God who has called diverse people into ministry. In 1880, northern Methodist women lost their licenses to preach. In 1884, Methodist and Presbyterian officials attacked their women’s missionary societies, and four years later women delegates were denied seats at the Methodist General Conference. In 1910, men in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, forcibly merged women’s organizations. Lacking voice and vote, southern Methodist women began fighting for laity rights. In 1923, during the fundamentalist-modernist controversies, the Presbyterian women lost their national agency overnight. It was not until 1956 that Presbyterian and Methodist women got full ordination rights.

Back in the late 1970s, when I was in graduate school, I knew women whose male classmates walked out of the classroom when they gave presentations because they did not think women should teach theology. Women in the graduate religion program just a few years ahead of me talked about how they had to serve refreshments to their fellow male students at departmental get-togethers. As a young southern woman on her first day of graduate school, an older male student—upon learning I had attended Louisiana State University rather than an elite private school—asked me, “How did you get in here? Did you know somebody?” As the first tenured woman in the venerable Boston University School of Theology, I carry memories of struggles that today’s seminarians think happened only in the 19th century. Only one generation ago, Southern Baptist women were ejected from seminaries and lost their right to preach. Even the memory of Lottie Moon was hijacked by fundamentalists, who crushed women’s ministries while they told women to “graciously submit” to their husbands.

In the past few years, freestanding mainline seminaries like Bangor, Episcopal Divinity School, Andover-Newton, San Francisco, Pacific School of Religion, St. Paul’s, and Claremont have collapsed or been forced to merge with other institutions. Today there are fewer seminaries in which women can teach theological disciplines than forty years ago. Emory, Duke, Boston University. . . what happens when these United Methodist university-based seminaries lose the support of a fractured church? The universities that host them will not look kindly on being yoked to fundamentalist-type readings of scripture that prop up exclusion. The fight to the death over LGBTQ rights will continue to shrink spaces in which women can teach theology. And where women cannot teach, LGBTQ students will not be welcome either.

Women’s high visibility at the recent General Conference demonstrated that the tradition of John Wesley has been the most welcoming to women’s leadership in the history of Protestantism.  In global perspective, fundamentalist biblical interpretation yoked with punitive sanctions against LGBTQ persons undercuts that tradition. In effect, the recent General Conference was a stealth attack against women in ministry. The agony of the excluded LGBTQ youth was the agony of the women who have mentored them, and who experience the pain of their own struggles all over again.


  1. Thanks Dana for pointing clearly to one of the impacts we need to confront. Blessings on you and your ministry leadership!

  2. The theological foundation of the UM traditionalist understanding of sex and gender is inevitably hierarchical and complementarian. Because any reading of a 1st century c.e. into the modern context will be hierarchical and complementarian. The same is true of any effort to conform the contemporary church to "what the church has always and everywhere taught." Because the church always and everywhere taught the suppression of women's voices and the exclusion of women from leadership.

    The threat isn't just in the United States. In countries in Latin America that had robust ecumenical seminaries training both men and women we see now Methodist bishops, encouraged and funded by US Methodist traditionalists, building Methodist seminaries that exclude women explicitly. Women in Africa face strong cultural headwinds if they wish to go into ministry, and the inevitable weakening of African theological schools will affect them more that men.

    Finally, the now dying UMC honored ecumenical commitments and worked in tandem in theological education institutions that included women. The new UMC is in the hands of leaders who have long eschewed ecumenism, in particular rejecting cooperation with "liberal" denominations that ordain women. We will see more and more strictly Methodist, strictly male, seminaries in the future and thus a retreat from the partnerships that could make us stronger in support of those most marginalized and oppressed in their respective societies.

    1. I have no idea how the UMC cannot see this coming next. If your theology includes exclusion, then successfully excluding LGBTQ folk just means you have to move to the next group you're going to throw under the bus.

      I've probably helped to train 30 youth lay speakers/lay servants, and something like 25 of them were women. Most of them could preach circles around me. Why would we put limits on God and on gifted Christians in this way???

  3. We Methodists have a long history. I think The Methodist Protestant Church began ordaining women in 1820. The Methodist Episcopal Church did not, and when they divided i 1838 over slavery women still could not be ordained. The ME and ME, South Churches merged in 1939 to become The Methodist Church the Methodist Protestants voted to join them. But their women pastors LOST their ordination! Some stayed in as Deaconesses, a 'clergy' status, but without sacramental authority. It took seventeen years before the Methodist Church 'started' ordaining women. In the 1968 merger with the Evangelical United Brethren there was a fight again, but continuing ordination of women prevailed. However, the two Women's lay organizations were combined. They were later able to get the funds of United Methodist Women and our Women's Division independent from the General Church, and establish that no local church UMW unit was to pay funds into the local church's treasury. This wise financial division has served us well, I think. Except that the Women's organizations in local churches tend to do most of the 'missions'funding of the church, as apportionment payment percentage has eroded.

  4. Thoughtful article and a good heads-up about unintended consequences. Or perhaps intended. However I want to point out as a graduate of Pacific School of Religion that despite this article’s assertion, PSR is not dead or merged and still thrives in Berkeley training leaders for the present and future church and world.

  5. Dana, thank you. It's a history (and present reality) that we need to keep telling over and over. Regarding the recent GC2019, let's just call it what it is: a reaffirmation of patriarchy.