by Kimberly Woods
As a child, my family would go on many road trips. Being an only child and having no siblings to argue with, my attention turned to my parents. I would constantly ask my father, since he was driving, if we were there yet. My father would glance into the rear view mirror and say, “Kimberly, look out the window. Does it look like we’re there?”
I would see corn fields, grass, and cows, but not our destination. I would then respond with a simple, “No.” To which my dad wisely followed, “If you have to ask, then we aren’t there yet. When we get there, you’ll know.”
While this seems obvious to an adult and not to an impatient child anxiously awaiting a trip to Six Flags St. Louis, I find myself feeling the same way regarding women’s equality in the Church. There are many areas in which we have made great progress on our journey towards inclusion, but we are not there yet.
When it comes to the role of women in the Church, be it as clergy or laity, I have viewed many discrepancies. While not a cradle-born United Methodist, I have been a Christian all of my life and a United Methodist for almost seven years now. In that time, I have witnessed many areas where equality should exist, but simply doesn’t.
I have heard many stories from female clergy about how they struggle to be accepted in the pulpit, especially in certain parts of the state of Illinois. When my spouse was appointed to a parish in Southern Illinois, one of his three churches was essentially a matriarchy. However, when the time came for my spouse to be appointed to a new church, this matriarchal “small family church” stated that people would leave if they had another female in the pulpit, as my spouse’s predecessor was. I was shocked to think that a church comprised primarily of women would so openly reject the idea of being led by a woman. I have also heard of many women in the candidacy process in different parts of our conference being told to “just be laity” because pursuing ordination had been “too difficult” in the past for women and that many churches still don’t accept female clergy.
However, I feel that in the pursuit of equality, we can be guilty of over-correcting for our past errors. As someone who is pursuing ordination as a deacon, I have heard often that I don’t need to be ordained to follow God’s call in my life. I have also heard that I should not pursue deacon’s orders because “women don’t have to settle for being deacons anymore.” In a few instances, while seeking employment as a youth minister in a local church, I have been asked if I can handle the boys in youth group, since I’m a woman and “can’t relate to them.” I have also been told by a church that they would not hire me because “my husband’s itinerancy” meant they had no guarantee that I could keep the position long-term and they worried that hiring me would “impede his ministry,” with no mention of my ministry, my passions, or God’s call on my heart to work with youth. I have even been told by people that my call is “clearly to support my husband’s ministry,” that I am called to be “a good pastor’s wife” and to “support him, like God wants me to do.” In some senses, I recognize that the church has a tendency to favor elders over deacons or men over women because of its past preferences, but when we over-correct and push female deacons away from their call or put the ministry of a one spouse over that of another, clergy couple or not, we are merely setting ourselves up for failure.
While I am sure many have experienced gender issues in the Church, I don’t want to dismiss all the work we have done. Many advances have been made for full inclusion of women in the Church over the years. To even have women serving as elders, deacons, district superintendents, and bishops shows remarkable steps in the right direction. We can see a number of women, lay and clergy, being elected to General and Jurisdictional conferences, myself included. I even know of young women who have entered into the ministry or even just set foot in a church for the first time because of a female pastor or mentor who served as their role model, an example of what could be achieved. That does not mean, however, that our journey is over. As one of my favorite poets, Robert Frost, penned: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep/ But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep.”
We are on an incredible and lovely journey towards women’s inclusion in the Church. But if we have to ask if we are there yet, I implore you to look around. We are still in the woods and while the view is beautiful, there is still a journey ahead. We cannot rest fully because there is more to be done for us to reach that destination. So let us press onward, let us walk together on this journey, and let us ask ourselves how many more miles we have to go and what can we do to get there?
Kimberly Woods is a twenty-six year old pursuing ministry for Deacon’s Orders in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, teacher’s aide in resource/special education and a pastor’s spouse. She finished courses at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary & will receive my master’s in Christian education this May. She is a General/Jurisdictional Conference lay delegate, passionate about social justice, and enjoys working with children and youth in a variety of settings, including through teaching & writing.