One of the five freedoms of the Free Methodist Church denomination is to ordain women into ministry. Historically it has been a value of the FMC theology statement and rooted in the teachings of John Wesley and later carried on to the FMC by its funder B.T Roberts. Since its birth, women, called into ministry by the Holy Spirit, have served in the Free Methodist Church. As early as 1861, when the church was just one year old, the minutes of the Genesee Convention report the discussion of women preaching. Bishop B.T. Roberts believed strongly in the equality of men and women.
He argued that women should be working side by side with men in building the kingdom of God. His vision was to lead the denomination toward the ordination of women. In spite of the long-rooted history of this practice, there is still a strong pouch toward the core value of the denomination by some members of the clergy. There is also a new diversity in the membership that comes from many cultural backgrounds such as patriarchy and machismo. That alone added more weight to the long tradition that we are now trying to redefine in practice.
As a denomination leader I was invited to be part of a task force composed of men, women, lay, and clergy that would help Free Methodist women engage more in the ministry opportunities, to speak into leadership conversations, and to change the culture that women face on the opposition from local congregations who have not resolved objections to women ministers. Many steps have been taken to resolve this problem, which is, to a significant degree, one of lack of education, exposure, and experience.
In an independent study of the Free Methodist USA, one of our ministers, Beth Armstrong, found that only 5 percent of females are in higher levels of leadership. Many of the women choose to work part-time because childcare is needed in the home, and also because the pay of their husbands is insufficient. Women are more likely to be willing to take no pay to do ministry work than men because they feel called to do ministry. The bottom line in Armstrong’s findings is that there is not a lack of desire for leadership, but a lack of opportunity for women in leadership in our denomination. Of the 5 percent in the highest level of leadership, all of them had benevolent male advocates. The males’ voices matter. The men were very supportive of them getting to that level of leadership, but when they did get the position, the men typically felt threatened and removed their advocacy.
In 1974, our general conference passed a resolution “giving women equal status with men in the ministry of the church.” You would expect that this time a resolution of this kind would resolve the issue in the minds of everyone, however, forty-two years later the denomination’s position has not changed. On the other hand, outside the denomination, the opposing women in ministry and limiting the leadership roles of women in the local church have become more authoritarian.
A growing concern in our denomination is over women having full access to ordination in the church, but it is also fair to state that few women are in high levels of leadership positions. In a male-dominated ministry culture, women in leadership are increasing rapidly. However, among Free Methodist pastors, it is not growing as would be expected.
I would like to address the following questions in observations that may help us explore how to change the culture. First of all, what has your denomination done well in advancing women in ministry? And what are the roadblocks that have kept women out of ministry? The senior leadership structure of a solo pastor model may not be healthy for a male or female. How do we creatively imagine how a senior or lead role would look like if a lead pastor were healthy with his or her time? We need to look for a more sustainable model that is not so hierarchical. Where there are issues of codependency, overwork, and over-functioning, it is important to be intentional about a deferent type of formation or mentoring.
Is the current model of church easier because there is an appointed person to lead? It may be easer between male-to-male and female-to-female relationships. Current church culture tends to be fearful of sexual interaction. Males tend to not want to mentor females and the Church needs to discuss this issue, which involves everyone. Mentoring tends to take place between people of the same culture, ethnicity, and gender.
There needs to be a creative forum to discuss new and innovative ideas without judgment or pressure. Congregants in this scenario do not know what it is like to be part of the church. They expect senior pastors or any member of the pastoral staff to always be available and work constantly. There are a lot of resources for senior pastors, but not for associates. There should be focused responsibilities for associate pastors.
Finally, Beth Armstrong’s recommendations are:
- Alter Unhealthy Norms: (Ask probing questions)
- Create Alternative Ministry Model (Health over Numbers):
- Amplify Female Voices: (increase church exposure)
- Support Innovation: (create and fund roles for women to serve)
- Implement Women Leadership Initiatives (create practices and opportunities)
- Talk openly about Restrictive Issues Women Face:
- Encourage Women to Visualize Senior Leadership:
- Support Women already deployed in Senior levels:
- Encourage benevolent male advocacy:
Armstrong, Beth K. Executive Summary of “Promoting Clergy Gender Equity: A Mixed- Methods Analysis of an Egalitarian Evangelical Denomination.” January 6, 2016.
Peppiatt, L., & McKnight, Scot. (2019). Rediscovering Scripture’s vision for women: Fresh perspectives on disputed texts. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP.
Roberts, B. T., and Benjamin D. Wayman, New ed. Ordaining Women. Eugene, OR, 2015.
Rhode, D. and Kellerman, eds. Women and Leadership: San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007.
Bates, G., Stonehouse, C, and Ellis, C. Women in Ministry in the Free Methodist Church: Getting the Picture. 1997.
 1890 General Conference Minutes, 131.
 B. T. Roberts, new edition by Benjamin D. Wayman, Ordaining Women (Eugene, OR, 2015), 68-69.
 Beth K. Armstrong, Executive Summary of “Promoting Clergy Gender Equity: A Mixed-Methods Analysis of an Egalitarian Evangelical Denomination” (January 6, 2016), 1.
 (General Conference Minutes, p. 388).
 Armstrong, Executive Summary of “Promoting Clergy Gender Equity: A Mixed-Methods Analysis of an Egalitarian Evangelical Denomination” 6.