Free Range Priests solve traditional church problems
An Episcopal “clergypreneur” innovates a new model of pastoral care in which congregations run their own churches and contract with her for services such as worship, Christian education and leadership formation.
A few weeks ago after Sunday worship, I was drinking coffee with parishioners at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salisbury, North Carolina.
We were talking about how happy they are with how things are going in the congregation.
They mentioned how easily they laugh and socialize together. They talked about their deepening theology, how they are being challenged to think about their relationship with God in new ways.
They mentioned how many of them are designated lay ministers of some kind -- they read and assist during Eucharist; they officiate at morning prayer; they bring communion and visit with those who cannot make it to church.
We spoke at length about a beloved parishioner who had recently died after a grueling illness. Nearly everyone from the congregation had helped provide care for him and his wife, with visits, meals, prayers and gifts. At the funeral and after, they were present and prayerful with his grieving family, giving extraordinary care both to them and to each other.
By almost any measure, St. Paul’s is an exceptional and flourishing congregation.
Except one: size.
The total membership of St. Paul’s is about 30, though they have seen a solid 10 percent growth over the past two years. Three new members have become very active during that time. One is now in the choir, and another is on the vestry. St. Paul’s is a congregation of modest size and modest means, yet they are thriving spiritually.
I know this because I am their “Free Range Priest.”
My relationship with St. Paul’s is part of my overall ministry as a “clergypreneur,” a term coined by my friend the Rev. Jay McNeal. I work in a variety of ways and places, online and in person, with congregations and individuals, to make one vocation from a variety of jobs.
Basically, I am like an Uber driver for your spiritual experience.
At St. Paul’s, I serve two Sundays per month for a flat fee, plus they pay me hourly for pastoral care, Christian education and leadership formation, and other services as needed. I am not a “Sunday supply” priest -- basically, a substitute clergyperson -- because I have an ongoing relationship with this community. Yet I am also not their official pastor.
I am not in charge of the congregation, I do not attend their leadership meetings, and I do not represent them. The congregation runs the church, and their ministry keeps it going. They contract with me for my own ministry, where and when it works best for them, and for me.
My ministry at St. Paul’s, and my wider Free Range Priest ministry -- which includes Sunday supply, mentoring, coaching and more -- is born out of necessity. St. Paul’s, and many churches like it (close to 20 percent of Episcopal churches the last time I checked), can no longer afford even a very part-time clergy salary. Only about half of mainline Christian clergy are currently being paid for full-time work. Many clergy work full time -- or more -- but are not getting paid for that work.
Both congregations and clergy are facing the reality of dwindling numbers, which creates a lot of tension for both. Clearly, we need to find creative solutions for congregations to continue to thrive and for clergy to continue to serve. The new vocation of Free Range Priest gives the congregations and the clergy the creative space to flourish.
Sometimes, people are put off by the title “Free Range.”
“Like the chicken?” they ask.
Well, sort of.
“Free Range” might imply that I have no accountability or responsibility for what I do, but that could not be further from the truth. Like the chicken (and the lamb), I am still part of the flock. Nothing I do is outside the realm of how an ordained clergyperson serves -- bearing the sacraments, traditions and Scripture of the faith into the world. I am still fully responsible and accountable -- to both St. Paul’s and the Episcopal Church -- for all that I do. The only thing that is different for me is where, how and with whom I do this.
As a Free Range Priest, I support congregations as they currently are, not as they wish they could be or once were. This is why my work with St. Paul’s is so important. I am free to serve them in a way that supports the other parts of my ministry. And they are free to have ordained ministry that they can afford, without having to worry about how to pay a clergy salary.
“You have freed us from having ‘NPAS,’” one parishioner told me. “That means ‘no-priest anxiety syndrome.’”
Many congregations have this syndrome, because they fear they can’t pay a salary and thus might lose their priest.
Priests (and other ordained ministers) have this fear, too. Lots of ordained clergy have no idea how they would support themselves and their families if they lost their full- or part-time clergy salaries. Many are looking for secular work, because ministry no longer pays the bills -- or the seminary student debt.
Lots of clergy -- more than 1 in 10, according to one study -- work without any compensation, because they love the church and want to serve God and God’s people even if congregations can’t pay them. But this is not sustainable for clergy or congregations. If we keep moving toward clergy not being paid, we will soon have no ordained ministry at all.
As a Free Range Priest, I now know that there is another way.
Congregations can afford to pay for ministry on contract, by the hour. I know, because I do it.
Clergy can find ways to share our ministry -- online and in person -- with those who need to know about the love of God but may not be attending church. I know, because I do it.
For so long, the mainline Christian congregational model has been the only way we could imagine clergy serving our vocation. But today, we have many other ways to consider being the church, and serving the church.
This is my whole ministry. It is healthier to have the freedom to consider how to bring the love of God to the most people -- and get paid for it -- than to have to keep upholding institutional and organizational models of church administration that are no longer working.
My ministry is to model and support what it might look like to serve fully as an ordained clergyperson in unexpected ways and places. In addition to serving St. Paul’s, I serve as Sunday supply for other congregations. I teach and mentor preachers online with Backstory Preaching; I coach and mentor clergy; I work with clergy, congregations and dioceses on challenges facing today’s church, particularly around digital and social media ministry. I also offer “2 Minutes of Good News” every Monday morning on my Facebook page and connect in other ways with those who are not necessarily believers or churchgoers.
Such fresh, adaptive approaches to where, how and whom clergy serve are crucial for the mainline Christian church to thrive in the 21st-century world.
Free Range Priests aim to find ways to make ministry sustainable, and to help share good news in new places and ways. Creative ministry is the future of the living church.
The Dean of Chapel at Spelman College talks about her vocation -- helping form black millennial women in ministry and faith.
The Rev. Dr. Neichelle Guidry takes seriously her job as counselor, coach, motivator and model for the young black women in her sphere of influence.
It has been her life’s work -- through the website shepreaches, which she founded to support black millennial women preachers, or her dual roles as dean of Sisters Chapel and director of the Women in Spiritual Discernment of Ministry (WISDOM) Center at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia.
“It really encourages me to work with students who recognize that God calls us in so many ways and to so many things,” she said. “At the chapel and at the WISDOM Center, that work is leading the vocational journey through this lens of sisterhood.
“I’m trying to demolish the idea that you can get to where God intends for you to go on your own -- this patriarchal idea that we can thrive in individuality, that we can do ministry without the strength and the fortification of other women.”
Guidry, who has been recognized as a national faith leader by Time, Ebony and Sojourners magazines, is a graduate of Clark Atlanta University and Yale Divinity School. She has a Ph.D. from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
She spoke to Faith & Leadership about her work with young black women at Spelman and about where she sees exciting things happening in ministry. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: How do you see your work at Spelman fitting into your larger vocation?
I’m still pretty new to my role at Spelman. I’m still trying to discern and to feel out what this role is going to mean for me.
A big part of my preparation to fit into the role was having conversations with different people about what it means to be a dean at a chapel on a historically black campus. One of my most critical conversation partners was my direct predecessor, the Rev. Dr. Lisa Rhodes.
The role is part pastoral, part spiritual counselor. And this other part of the work that I find incredibly intriguing is coaching, motivating and modeling for my students how to integrate their intellect with their faith.
How to live comfortably in the tension that can arise from faith, which is the substance of things unseen, and your ability to deconstruct and to ask probing questions -- and the agency that the Spirit gives us to do that.
One of my predecessors in Sisters Chapel was Howard Thurman, and Howard Thurman is famous for writing many things. But one of his works is called “With Head and Heart,” and in that he talks about stewarding our intellectual capacities and nurturing our questions as acts of stewardship of faith. I’ve taken that really seriously, and I’m constantly reminded as I’m doing my work at Spelman about my own journey.
I was educated at Clark Atlanta, right next door, and I took a class at Spelman when I was an undergrad. Between my religious studies at Clark Atlanta and this course I took at Spelman with Dr. Cecil Cone, the brother of Dr. James Cone, I became deeply interested in the exercise and the process of mining my faith and intellectually deconstructing it. I felt really grateful that I had the best training from black theologians in doing that.
Part of my work as the dean of the chapel is to invite the students to do the work that maybe they were not permitted to do before. That is, to ask God questions -- even, in some sense, indict God. God’s big enough for that. In fact, so big -- look at all these books that have been written by our ancestors and our predecessors! Look at all the work that they have produced as acts of faith, as acts of obedience, because this was their calling.
In addition to being the dean of Sisters Chapel, I am the director of what’s called the WISDOM Center. It is an intentional living community that’s grounded by a yearlong curriculum of vocational discernment.
Some of them might be studying religion, but it seems like pretty consistently they’re the minority. It’s not a foreign concept inside the WISDOM Center to see being an educator or being a doctor or being a lawmaker as ministry.
It really encourages me to work with students who recognize that God calls us in so many ways and to so many things.
In 2012, when I started shepreaches, I started that work out of feeling a little isolated. I was working at a church at that time, and I was the youngest person on staff and I was also a woman. [It was] my first job out of seminary, and I really wanted to throw myself into that work. What was missing was a profound sense of collegiality by people who were a common age, in a common place in our careers and lives.
I see this work at Spelman as almost like a new iteration of the same work. Because here I am in this premier institution for the education of African-American women. At the chapel and at the WISDOM Center, that work is leading the vocational journey through this lens of sisterhood.
I’m trying to demolish the idea that you can get to where God intends for you to go on your own -- this patriarchal idea that we can thrive in individuality, that we can do ministry without the strength and the fortification of other women.
It’s also an interesting experience to live out this #MeToo movement in this context. All of a sudden, I don’t have to do the work of explaining what patriarchy means and the fact that it is rampant in the church like it is everywhere else. People are convinced of that now, even though so many women have been crying from the rooftops for generations that the church is actually quite problematic in this way.
So I find that there are people at Spelman, and now all over the country, who are willing to have some really uncomfortable but necessary conversations about gender and sexism and sexuality and misogyny as all being theologically sanctioned and practiced regularly in our churches.
Q: You wrote this piece for Sojourners, “Can an Institution Built on the Backs of Women Be the One to Liberate Them?” In the position you’re in now, how can you help women who may be considering a call to ministry in the institutional church?
I was having brunch with a colleague yesterday after we both finished preaching, and I was saying that it’s a challenge for me daily to be building close relationships with young women who are pretty sure they’re going to be doing some kind of ministry in a church.
And I swear, I’m trying to bite my tongue, because I don’t want to be the one to dissuade them. I don’t want to be the one to destroy their fantasy. I don’t want to be the one to demystify the call of God to do congregational ministry.
But I do feel called to be really truthful with my students: “There are going to be things that you’re going to face in these churches as young black women that you will not be educated on how to handle when you go to divinity school.” So in some way, shape or form, I pray and I hope that I can have some kind of conversation or give some kind of insight, foresight, into how to navigate racist and sexist spaces while keeping your sanity, while knowing that God still approves and affirms and loves you.
Because I have my doubts that the church will liberate women. I believe that women of faith can liberate women. I believe that strong women will liberate women. I believe that churchlike things can save and liberate people, right? I think about womanist churches that are popping up. I think about even the sacraments -- outside the structure of the church politic, the sacraments are so powerful for liberating people. But these churches being ridden with the politics that they are, I don’t see a lot of hope there. Maybe that’s God’s ongoing work that has to be done in my life.
Q: As you look around the landscape now, are there experiments or innovations, either within the institutional church or outside it, that you find particularly inspiring?
Two of my really good friends, Andrew Wilkes and Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes, are planting a church in Brooklyn called the Double Love Experience. I’m so excited that they’ve chosen to create an intentional community for people who have felt marginalized in churches.
They have such a heart for justice and such a heart for Christ, and so I’m excited to see how they build a ministry right in that intersection.
I’ll tell you a couple of people who have me excited about what God is doing. One of my girlfriends, Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, is one of these people who represent that black women have a right to be frustrated but that frustration is sacred and it’s holy -- her articulation of not just how churches have failed black women but how black women have remained faithful to it. I love her work.
I love The Millennial Womanism Project spearheaded by Liz Alexander and Melanie Jones. They created this project that mined the whole country for black women under 40 using womanism as a framework for living out their callings. Maybe once a month, they have this thing they do called Millennial Womanists to Watch. And I wait every month for that to drop just so I can learn about some new sister who’s doing really creative ministry and activism.
I’m constantly circling back right now in my work to this book called “Just Mercy,” by Bryan Stevenson. Reading that book and visiting The Legacy Museum and the lynching memorial -- those have really blown on me with Spirit breath, causing me to really sit and think about, “How am I conceptualizing my call in this context of violence?”
As many books as I have read and people I have met and encountered, I don’t know that I have read a vocational discernment text that had me question, “Have I really discerned my call?” I love the way that that took me back to the drawing board and took me face to face with God.
And so these are a few things that have me feeling really excited and really hopeful.
Q: What do you see as most important in supporting and encouraging young women as they explore their vocation?
I think what’s most important -- to me, at least, at this time -- is encouraging them to think about what gives them a sense of excitement and a sense of passion coming alive. Howard Thurman talks about this as well: “The world needs people who have come alive.”
I really want to encourage them, as they’re thinking about ministry, as they’re thinking about vocation, [to consider] this question: “If you didn’t have an ordination process to accommodate and if you didn’t have to champion yourself and prove that you were called in some way, what would you do?”
I want to impress upon them to think creatively about their approach to ministry and also to think about what it means to come in a line, in a succession of people, black people, black women, who have had to -- in so many ways, shapes and forms and places across time and generations -- have had to pioneer their own spaces and create their opportunities to live into the call of God. And I want to impress upon them, “Don’t be afraid to do that.”
The WISDOM Center is grounded in this yearlong vocational discernment program, and one of the resources that we use for that is a collection of readings, and there are a couple from Daughters of Thunder. I selected these readings very intentionally, because they were all about women who started their own churches, who started their own denominations -- black women in the early 20th and 21st centuries.
And finally, I think it’s very important to me to introduce them to an African-American hermeneutic and a womanist hermeneutic for interpreting the world, interpreting their faith, interpreting the Bible and even interpreting their own lives, and once again seeing themselves as beneficiaries of the sacrifices and the lives of our ancestors.
I wholeheartedly believe that any of us, any African-American, black woman who has the privilege of sitting in an institution of higher education, is there because some ancestor made the journey across the Atlantic. Some ancestor was hung. Some ancestor was lynched. Some ancestor couldn’t vote. And far be it from us to not live and work in homage to them.
Part of what’s been my three-year plan, what I want to accomplish in my first three years, is connecting the curriculum of the WISDOM Center to different sites throughout Atlanta, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi that are integral to black history. My students and I are going to be taking trips, sojourns, to different sites where our ancestors made some kind of history for us, thinking about, “What does that mean for me?”
Maya Angelou talks about us being the dreams and the hopes of the slaves. In light of their dreams and their hopes, what does it mean for me, as a beneficiary of their lives and their sacrifices, to come after them? And so connecting vocation to the narrative of black people in America, to the narrative of black women in the United States, even to the narrative of black folks in diaspora -- that is very, very critical.
Because I think that it’s a completely different point of departure. It’s a completely different starting point when you’re thinking about the fact that I’m actually not starting anything. I’m just continuing work that was started far before I was even born.
“I’m trying to demolish the idea that you can get to where God intends for you to go on your own -- this patriarchal idea that we can thrive in individuality, that we can do ministry without the strength and the fortification of other women.”
Overcoming stereotypes and assumptions has been difficult for a female minister in a historic African-American church. But, she writes, she was not serving the people by trying to be what others wanted her to be.
I love serving at a historic church with a storied past. I thought about this on Resurrection Sunday morning, when I stood alongside my clergy colleagues and looked around.
The mass choir, all dressed in white, sang, “He decided to die just to save me.” Choir members filled the length of our ornate altar draped in white fabric, while the ministers lined the pulpit behind them, also in white robes.
It reminded me of how African-American churches are often depicted in movies. The moment may have looked completely scripted, yet I know that the joyful shouts of praise and exuberant worship were unquestionably authentic.
I love the fact that my church’s narratives include a rich legacy of both lay and clergy who have served through the years. Typical of many midsize churches, ours is a family church. Most of the members are related, by blood or by marriage, to others in the congregation. Many were born into this worshipping community.
They can point to generations of family members who faithfully served before them and have raised their children to continue that legacy -- something I’m proud to be a part of.
Yet serving a historic church also comes with its challenges, particularly for a woman in ministry.
I know I’m not alone in this -- a video produced by United Methodist pastor Stephanie Arnold documents what many ordained women experience.
But my intersectional experience as both African-American and woman includes an additional layer of frustration, because of our cultural norms.
African-Americans are known to place high value on age and the wisdom of experience, and in the black church, we hold our clergy in high esteem. But that esteem sometimes doesn’t extend to me, because I don’t fit the expectation of what an African-American pastor looks like.
Although our staff has consistently been gender balanced, I’ve been told on numerous occasions that we need more male clergy.
That’s because the prevailing stereotype of ordained leadership is still male and/or older than 50 -- and I am the only minister on staff who does not fall into one of these two categories.
I’ve endured invasive questions about why my husband and I don’t have children. On Father’s Day, several people commented that they thought my husband would be in church -- even though he is not a member and has never visited.
Despite being in my mid-40s, highly credentialed and ordained for more than a decade, I am often not viewed as a competent leader. Many members are more comfortable seeing me as daughter, little sister or girlfriend. These are roles I vehemently reject, particularly since our ministerial training discourages making the church your social circle.
It has even been suggested that I stop covering my gray hair or become less personable if I want to be respected in my role.
Outside partners such as community leaders often assume I am the pastor’s assistant and have on occasion referred to me as “good help.” Funeral directors are often surprised to find that I’m the officiating minister and will sometimes make that known with a sweet but condescending “bless your heart.”
I have found that there is not a lot of support in my context for defying these stereotypes.
Often, the issues facing black women clergy get overshadowed because we are expected to align ourselves with the fight for racial equality and social justice. Consequently, gender discrimination within our churches and denomination does not get addressed, and it becomes much harder to change people’s mindsets.
Being a clergywoman in a traditional setting can make you doubt your own worth. Early on, I downplayed my contributions and achievements so others would be more comfortable with my presence. I tried not to make mention of my doctoral studies and felt apologetic when I did. I opted to be called Rev. Gadson or even Rev. Natasha to blend in with my colleagues.
I even felt uneasy correcting members who simply called me by my first name, even though informally addressing clergy is considered inappropriate in African-American church culture.
But I quickly realized I was not serving the people, nor was I being my authentic self, by trying to be who I felt others wanted me to be. My moment of clarity came when it became part of my role to approve and deny the ministry plans of ministry leaders. Some were surprised and even frustrated by decisions I made, because they confused my friendliness with my authority.
I ultimately had to decide that being respected was more important than being well liked.
I embraced the understanding that my call is to serve and provide leadership, not to be well liked or accepted.
I immediately made some adjustments by setting boundaries and getting clear about what I believed to be my assignment. For example, I don’t allow myself to be coerced into participating in youth events -- another assumption about women in ministry -- or other things outside my scope of responsibility.
More importantly, I embraced the understanding that my call is to serve and provide leadership, not to be well liked or accepted. To my senior pastor’s credit, he consistently supports and affirms my leadership, even in the smallest of ways -- such as addressing me as “Dr. Gadson.”
Although I still struggle sometimes, I’ve become a lot less apologetic about how I choose to walk in my ministerial identity. This has allowed me a new level of freedom -- and even humility -- in my service that I never expected to find.
I laugh to myself sometimes as I pour water, carry face towels and do other things for my pastor that might incense my womanist foremothers. But I can do these things because I know exactly who I am, and I’m no longer afraid to let others know as well.
Our ordination vows instruct us, among other things, to “take thou authority.” I am grateful to have found that the courage and willingness to embrace my authority is as much an act of surrender each day as when I said yes to this call.
Q&A with James Bowers and Kimberly Alexander
What do Pentecostal women ministers want? Opportunities to lead, two Church of God scholars say.
Women in Pentecostal ministry overwhelmingly believe that they should be able to serve at all levels of church leadership, said James Bowers and Kim Alexander, two Church of God scholars.
“And they don’t just believe it; they feel qualified and capable of doing so,” Alexander said.
Although women in Pentecostal denominations have long been preachers, missionaries and even pastors, they generally have not been allowed to serve in denominational leadership positions. In 2012, Bowers and Alexander surveyed women in Pentecostal ministry and found that they want such leadership opportunities and believe they get little support in their current ministries.
“These women have a very definite, passionate sense of call,” Bowers said. “They said, ‘I know I’m called of God,’ and they struggle through the barriers to be faithful to that call.”
Bowers is vice president for institutional development at William Seymour College and a former professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary, and Alexander is associate professor of the history of Christianity at Regent University.
They reported their findings last summer in the book “What Women Want: Pentecostal Women Ministers Speak for Themselves.”
Bowers and Alexander spoke with Faith & Leadership recently about their study and women in Pentecostal ministry. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Give us an overview of the history of Pentecostal women in ministry.
Alexander: As a rule, preaching has not been an issue, and neither has women being missionaries or evangelists or even pastors. Overall, about 3 or 4 percent of our congregations have women pastors.
The issue has been whether women should be in leadership at the bishop level.
Bowers: When you move into the area of oversight leadership, that’s where the difficulties lie.
It is rare for a woman to be at the upper level of executive leadership, even in Pentecostal denominations that have started to move in that direction.
Also, the General Council for our denomination, Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), which makes decisions on all matters of polity, faith and practice, is all-male. So women are basically locked out of the decision-making process at that level.
Q: How did your study come about? What were you trying to find out?
Alexander: In 2010, the General Assembly, which is like our general conference, voted down a proposal to give women full leadership status. The votes were generally 60/40, so a significant number of male ministers were willing to give women that kind of leadership.
In 2011, at a meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies in Memphis, two Church of God scholars called for a special meeting to discuss what we could do. And at that meeting, Estrelda Alexander, a theologian, asked, “Has anyone asked women what they want?”
The group decided that was important to find out. The discussions have always been at the level of the ordained bishops; it’s essentially been men making decisions about what women should have, and women can’t even express their concern, much less their desire.
The group decided we needed a survey, a study.
So the group asked if I would explore this with our denominational leadership. I was planning to go on sabbatical at Duke the following summer, and their request morphed into a research project for me during my sabbatical, which I did with Dr. Alexander and Dr. Estrelda Alexander and others.
Alexander: We wanted, first, to hear what women wanted. Do they really want to serve at this level? But we also wanted to know about their experience as women ministers, pastors, church planters, etc. We wanted to know about their call.
Bowers: We got email addresses for 2,400 of the 3,100 women credentialed ministers in the U.S. and invited them to participate. Almost 24 percent filled out the survey, which is a whopping sample.
As soon as it went out, my inbox was inundated with emails from women pouring out their stories -- stories of frustration, pain and struggle in ministry.
A few asked why was I stirring up trouble. But the overwhelming response was one of gratitude. It was like we’d opened the floodgate.
It was like, “Thank you for, finally, someone asking us what we think.” It just blew me away.
Alexander: They were difficult to read. We cried over some of them.
Bowers: And that led us to modify the research design. In addition to about 45 survey questions on various issues, we had 10 or 12 open-ended questions, inviting them to tell their stories.
In the book, we interwove those stories with the empirical data. This is about more than facts and figures. This is about real-life stories of women who have been endeavoring to be faithful to their call.
We also sent a similar survey to 1,000 randomly selected ordained bishops, because we wanted to compare the women’s perspective with that of the men who are making decisions about their lives and ministries.
But we have to take those findings with caution, because we had only about a 16 percent response.
When all the data shook out, however, their views were pretty much in line with what we’ve seen reflected in denominational decisions on these issues.
Q: What are the most important findings?
Alexander: One of the first things that we found is that these are not politically liberal women with an agenda -- which is the rhetoric that is often used to try to persuade people that this would be problematic.
These women are conservative. They’re conservative about family values and all that.
Bowers: One of the questions in this whole discussion is, What is behind the resistance to the full empowerment of women? One of the arguments that’s often made is that if you empower women for leadership, you undermine the family, or that this is a part of a larger secular feminist liberal agenda.
Well, that’s not borne out. They are largely conservative, theologically and politically.
I’m not suggesting they all embrace everything that flies under the banner of traditional family values. But I am saying that they distinguish what it means to be a woman in leadership in the church from what it means to be a woman in the home.
When the men were asked if there are reasons other than some scriptural prohibition for women not holding the role of bishop, they spoke about undermining that God-ordained order for the home and the family. Ironically, the bishops do not see a problem with women holding civic leadership positions.
It’s clear that a kind of family-values agenda influences those who are resistant to the full empowerment of women.
Alexander: Also, to get to the central question, they overwhelmingly believe they should be able to serve at all levels of leadership. And they don’t just believe it; they feel qualified and capable of doing so.
Most of these women are bivocational, so their logic is, “I’m already doing this. I’m in leadership in other places. I’m certainly capable of leadership in my denomination.”
Bowers: Also, their compensation was shocking.
As Kim said, they are largely bivocational, and most of them who pastor planted their churches, as opposed to being appointed by a bishop.
About 80 percent make less than $20,000 a year. Most of their churches are small, 75 or so. Some pastor larger congregations, but their compensation is disproportionately lower [than that of men]. Most have no retirement. They get no housing allowance. They are sustaining their own ministries economically.
Alexander: They also have little opportunity for advancement. In our denomination, ideally, you go to your first church, you have a successful pastorate and prove yourself, and then you will be appointed to a larger congregation.
Granted, that doesn’t happen for all men, but it overwhelmingly does not happen for women. In fact, the numbers are staggering how many have never been promoted beyond that first church.
We found that there is little or no affirmation of women in their call and in their vocation.
We found that there is little or no affirmation of women in their call and in their vocation.
Bowers: Which you must have if you’re going to advance and have a successful pastoral life. That’s one of the observations [U.S. Congregational Life Survey research director] Cynthia Woolever made in our book -- that these women have limited opportunities to flourish in ministry.
They pretty much have to plant their own church and do it on their own. There aren’t church-planting conferences for women, and typically women are not in view when those are held. It will be all men who talk about planting churches.
These women have a very definite, passionate sense of call.
Alexander: They have to.
Bowers: That’s right. They said, “I know I’m called of God,” and they struggle through the barriers to be faithful to that call.
Q: What are the biggest challenges and issues for Pentecostal women in ministry?
Alexander: I fear that women are languishing. The system is so geared toward male ministers, they have to work very hard to find mentors, friendships and networks to work in.
I’m third-generation Church of God. I don’t like to say things that make my denomination look bad, but there are opportunities for advancement and for flourishing where women are excluded -- ministers’ retreats where they could find fellowship, where they could find networking and all those kinds of things.
The good thing is that these are very strong women. They are finding resources with women ministers in other denominations or networks, but they have to work very hard to do that.
And the other great fear I have is whether there will be any women ministers in the future.
The numbers show that fewer and fewer younger women are opting to become ministers in the denomination. What they say to us is, “Why would I? There are no opportunities.”
So the ones who stay in the Church of God go into chaplaincy or education, but not necessarily theological education. They become teachers. They become counselors or chaplains.
They know that to get appointed to pastor a church is very difficult.
Bowers: What’s troublesome is that while male ministers are being affirmed, supported and resourced, very little has been done to have conversations with women about their ministries and what they’re experiencing.
It’s one thing to say we have these policies and until those are changed we can’t do very much to give women full access. But the more serious issue is the things you’re not doing that you could do to provide support and encouragement and sit down with women and listen to them.
Which is what we wanted this book to do -- to finally give voice to their experience, their perspective, what they believe, what they think. Because their voice has not been heard.
Q: Are there lessons for other denominations?
Alexander: I think so. It can be as simple as inclusive language. When denominational officials use all-male language to refer to ministers, or say something like, “All the ministers and their wives …” it sends a message.
It can be as simple as inclusive language.
We’ve had women denominational leaders from non-Pentecostal denominations who have read the book and said it resonates with them. Even if they have been in leadership positions, they know that’s the case with some women ministers they work with.
Bowers: Another thing that would resonate across denominational lines is the things that women say make it difficult for them to embrace their ministry fully.
They talked about the attitudes of male ministers. They talked about the neglect or lack of affirmation from judicatory or denominational leadership. And they talked about the many congregations that are not receptive to women in ministry, that don’t want a woman pastor.
These women said, “We’re called. We have the gifts. We have the education. We feel competent to lead. But those three obstacles are difficult to navigate -- peers not welcoming us, congregations not welcoming us and denominational leaders not being concerned.”
This is an important issue for the larger church. Women need to be recognized as strategic missional partners in the work of the church. Until that happens, we are impoverished, because we are not embracing the full gifts that God gives the church through women.
Q: How is your book being received, both among Pentecostal leadership and among people in the pews?
Bowers: It’s mixed. Women have received it enthusiastically and are thankful for it. And from the standpoint of leadership, male leadership, there’s been very little response.
Alexander: You’re kind.
Alexander: There has been none. We’ve heard nothing from denominational leaders, especially at the top level. And that is not because they don’t know about it, and it’s not because they don’t know us. They do know us, and they know about the research, but there’s been no word so far.
Bowers: You wonder, is there a willingness even to have a conversation? For various reasons, there’s still not a willingness to embrace this reality that women ministers face. Frankly, it calls for repentance.
Alexander: I’m a church historian. I’m not a credentialed minister. These are not my rights we’re talking about. But when women have expressed this kind of pain and then there is virtually silence, that’s very troubling.