What Might Heraclitus Think? : Some Thoughts on Our New Female Episcopal Leaders

by Rev. Leigh Goodrich

Heraclitus was a pre-Socratic philosopher from Ephesus, famous for his insistence that change is an always present and fundamental quality of the universe. He is famous for two sayings. The first, “No man [sic] ever steps in the same river twice.” The second saying reflects the unity of opposites, “the path up and down are one and the same”.  It seems the results of the recent episcopal elections in The United Methodist Church in the United States would not come as a surprise to our friend Heraclitus.for leigh bishop blog

After two relatively static quadrennia, a change in the gender composition of the Council of Bishops might seem overdue. From 2008 to 2012, 28% of our episcopal leaders in the United States were women, and from 2012 to 2016 that percentage dropped four points to 24%. While this number roughly reflects the percentage of women serving in ordained ministry in the U.S., it does not come close to representing the nearly 58% of women who call themselves United Methodists in this country.

However, the recent episcopal elections promise to change the landscape of the United States’ representatives on the Council of Bishops. The addition of seven new female bishops to the nine female bishops remaining after retirements, brings the total number of women bishops to 16 for the next quadrennium. This means that the percentage of US women bishops on the Council of Bishops jumps from 24% to 35% for the next four years. This is a significant increase in female episcopal leadership both nationally, and in the five U.S. Colleges of Bishops.

The Western Jurisdiction continues to lead all jurisdictions in percentages of female bishops, moving from 40% to 60% with the election of one woman. The Northeast follows, electing two women, and jumping from 33% to 44% female bishops. The Southeast also elected two women, moving up from 23% to 38% women bishops.   The North Central Jurisdiction also elected two women, jumping from 22% to 33%. Only the South Central College experienced a decline in female episcopal leadership, moving from 22% to 10% with the retirement of Bishop Huie. In terms of raw numbers, the Southeastern Jurisdiction has the most female bishops with 5, followed by the Northeast with 4, North Central and Western with 3, and South Central with 1.

Perhaps the greatest change will be seen at the Annual Conference level. At the local level, a new female bishop can provide a model and foundation on which other talented women, both lay and clergy, might develop skills, find a mentor and discover their unique voice in their Annual Conference and beyond. All of our bishops, regardless of gender, have the potential to significantly impact the future of the Church, since their choices of District Superintendents and Directors of Connectional Ministries, as well as appointments to large churches, often prepare clergy for the episcopacy, while their suggestions and promotion of jurisdictional and general church board members create new opportunities for both lay and clergy. It will be interesting to see the influence of women clergy in this process. Will it vary significantly from their male counterparts? Will their influence change the overall demographics of United Methodist leadership?

photo of Leigh

Rev. Leigh Goodrich

Our philosopher friend Heraclitus would probably say yes. From the perspective of 2,500 years, he might tell us that the one thing about life that never changes is change. The river continues to flow, morphing into a new river with each passing second, complete with new life and new streams. So it is with our Church, which moves and changes into something new regularly, although it may seem barely discernible to some. Heraclitus would also remind us that the path up is the same as the path down. The future of The United Methodist Church rests on the willingness of our episcopal leaders to groom talented people in their Annual Conferences for leadership positions, just as they were groomed.

We will have to wait and see the impact of more women on the Council of Bishops and the Colleges of Bishops. However, it is our hope that these significant shifts will continue to guide us on the journey toward “the full and equal responsibility and participation of women in the total life and mission of the Church, sharing fully in the power and policy-making at all levels of the Church’s life.” May it be so.

Leigh Goodrich is Sr. Dir. Of Leadership and Education, and the newest member of the GCSRW team.  She is a second-career clergyperson from the New England Annual Conference, and frequent blogger for GCSRW.  You can read more about her here or email her at lgoodrich@gcsrw.org. 

Equipping Advocates

by Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede

On the Sunday prior to a General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW) Board meeting, I always ask the congregation I serve to pray for us, saying something like, “There’s less than 20 of us, we meet just twice a year, and we are charged with ending sexism in The United Methodist Church so it’s hard work, knowing you have a short time together to figure out how to deal with a systemic issue that crosses vast cultural differences and time zones.” It might be hard work, but it is also good work – and as we near the end of the quadrennium, I am pleased to share some of that good work with you.


Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede

This past quadrennium I’ve chaired the Justice for Women committee, the program committee of GCSRW that provides resources and training that deal directly with advocacy for women on issues other than sexual misconduct. Our focus these past four years have been on how best to leverage our resources to maximize the ability of local churches and Annual Conferences to provide meaningful programs and appropriate training so that more people can be involved in the important, life-changing, Spirit-filled work of advocating for women.

One piece of this work you can find under the Resources tab on the GCSRW website. You will first find a new Bible study, commissioned by GCSRW, entitled God of the Bible, which explores metaphors for God. This study is free and downloadable and includes both a participant and leaders guide. This study was written after GCSRW staff and board members received numerous requests for a new, downloadable resource for local churches to use on expansive language.

Next you will see a link to Women Called to Ministry, which is now available in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese.  This six-session study was originally written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s ordination in the UMC and is consistently our most-requested resource. This quadrennium we committed to expanding the number of translations, posting both student and leaders guides online, and working to continue to add to our list of translations as funds are available.

The above tools and more are examples of how GCSRW can use the strength of a small agency to be available day and night to women and men around the world to provide resources to advocate for women in the Church. Which brings me to a piece of legislation coming to General Conference from GCSRW which I think will also help facilitate advocacy for women at the local level.

We’ve reached a point in our organizational history where Annual Conferences have some freedom in configuring their ministry structures. This means that the work that used to be done locally in parallel to GCSRW is now sometimes split between several groups or combined into one larger ministry group. In that process, we have found that sometimes the specifics of what advocacy for women at the local level can get lost. Which brings me to Petition 60265-IC-R9999-G, “Functions of an Annual Conference COSROW or Related Committee.” It is a long title that could be paraphrased as, “here is a check list of what would be great to include in some entity in your Annual Conference to commit and care in the course of the year to accomplish this short list of advocacy for women tasks.” I guess my title is even longer! Placing this list in the Book of Resolutions makes it accessible to clergy and lay people, staff and volunteers, any time of day or night. The point is, advocacy work is hard yet rewarding – let’s at least make the starting point easy to find to help people move towards the reward of doing this good work.

The GCSRW Board members have worked hard these last four years to listen so we can be the best advocates we can, and in turn, provide resources so others can be the best advocates they can. Our staff have worked even harder, and we know that there are thousands of volunteers at the local level who have done so as well. It’s been a good four years. I am thankful for this time of listening and learning – and look forward to continuing to advocate for women in the Church and in the world, however I can.

Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede is pastor of South Gate United Methodist in Lincoln Nebraska, where she is Chair of the local Ten Thousand Villages Board. Ahlschwede is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School. Look for her at General Conference with the Great Plains delegation.  

Dominos and Equity

by Rev. Leigh Goodrich

It wasn’t a surprise.  In fact, it was as predictable as watching a line of dominos fall in succession: the recent research findings from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics regarding women’s compensation, particularly clergy women.  First, the statistics were released, telling the world what many of us already knew: women still make a fraction of what men make in the same occupations and the discrepancy for clergywomen was among the highest.  Then the anecdotal evidence began pouring in.  Large numbers of female clergy began telling their stories of being compensated at levels well below their male predecessors in a particular church, being appointed to churches already scheduled to close, or being denied other benefits identified in the Book of Discipline.  Each story became as foreseeable as the one before it, only the names and places changed.  A long line of anecdotal dominos falling in rapid succession.

photo of Leigh

Rev. Leigh Goodrich

We all have stories to tell: our own stories or the stories of our friends.  Sad tales of long meetings with Staff Parish Relations Committees, Finance Committees and Administrative Boards.  Nasty comments and letters exchanged by people who haven’t read our United Methodist Discipline, or maybe even the Bible.  The stories are common, predictable and painful.  Dominos in the form of hurt feelings and painful experiences lying everywhere.

The problem with dominos is that someone has to pick them up.  After watching them rush through a rapid tumbling succession, someone has to clean up the mess.  Many would like to see our bishops, with the help of their Cabinets, do this work.  In all fairness, the responsibility for appointments lies squarely at the feet of our bishops.  So yes, in the end, bishops bear much of the obligation and the hope of resolving this problem.  So we count on them to help pick up this particular mess of fallen dominos.  Appointments are a key function of the episcopal office.

There are others who have said that this is an issue of competence and effectiveness.  Of course the implication is clear.  Let me just say it: Women receive lower compensation because they lack competence and effectiveness.  What makes a clergyperson effective?  Getting more people in the pews on Sunday morning?  Reaching out in mission and evangelism to the community and the world?  Paying mission shares?  Building a strong Sunday school?  Motivating a dying church to end its death spiral and either close or renew itself?  I see women clergy doing all of these things in the local church, yet there is still a large disparity in the compensation that women clergy receive compared to men.

While appointments are the responsibility of the bishops, compensation is the obligation of the local church.  Should it surprise us that the same biases about women’s compensation that plague society in general are also found in our parishes?  No, it should not.  However, a clergy woman who earns 76 cents for every dollar a man earns, a gap of 24 cents, experiences a much broader pay disparity than the typical U.S. woman who earns 83 cents for every dollar a man earns, or a gap of 17 cents.  Add to this a long term ripple effect that influences women’s pensions as well.

While the situation may be obvious and the responsibility for its resolution clear, it may be necessary to make our bishops and local churches aware of the severity of the problem and hold them accountable.  Annual Conferences, particularly our Annual Conference COSROWs and Boards of Church and Society, can take clear measures to ask our bishops, district superintendents and local churches to attend to this problem and move it to the top of their priority list.  Resolutions presented at our Annual Conference sessions can raise awareness for the need for equity, describe the current situation in an Annual Conference, and present clear and attainable objectives for correcting the situation.  Anyone can bring a piece of legislation forward.  The GCSRW website contains a sample piece of legislation for you to use as a guideline.

We cannot ignore the problem unfair compensation in our denomination.  It sits at our feet like a set of fallen dominos.  Playing the blame game only allows the problem to persist.  Instead all of us need to work together to honestly confront societal biases about women and move toward a fair method of compensation for all employees in The United Methodist Church.  We need to work together to pick up these fallen dominos and move toward a more just Church and world.

Leigh Goodrich is Sr. Dir. Of Leadership and Education, and the newest member of the GCSRW team.  She is a second-career clergyperson from the New England Annual Conference, and frequent blogger for GCSRW.  You can read more about her here or email her a lgoodrich@gcsrw.org. 

Statistics, Stigma and the Stained-Glass Ceiling

by Rev. Leigh Goodrich

What can elicit a firestorm of stigma, bias and unfair generalizations better than the release of some brand new statistics on the state of the church?  Even more specifically, those that portray women as underrepresented.  The release of the National Congregations Study last week has precipitated just such a milieu of articles and commentary.

photo of Leigh

Rev. Leigh Goodrich

The study shines new light on what has become known as “the stained-glass ceiling”, a term referring to the limits women clergy find regarding their vocational opportunities.  Specifically, it reported that only 11.4% of congregations have a female head clergyperson or leader (p. 47). As a result, good United Methodists are reflecting on our own research that shows that 27% of women are ordained in our UM system and only two women occupy the primary leadership position in our 100 largest churches.

While statistics in our denomination exceed the national averages, it is important to remember that the numbers reported in the NCS include religions and denominations that do not ordain women at all.  The fact that the UMC ordains women is a positive first step that we took in 1956.  However, our progress in supporting and promoting women clergy has seriously stalled over the past twenty years.

Enter “the Stained Glass Ceiling,” a metaphor for the limits placed on women’s call to ministry.  Jeremy Smith’s December 2014 blog, “Why Do the Largest #UMCs Not Have Female Pastors?” provoked a variety of comments.  Sadly, many of them seem to propagate the same stigmas that have held women back for the past 60 years.  Let’s look at a few of them:

Women don’t do new church plants.  My first appointment in the United Methodist Church was to a new church start.  I pastored that church for nine years.  It was one of the most spiritually rewarding times in my career, but new church starts do not always, or even frequently, result in mega churches.  In fact, according to the North American Mission Board, across all denominations, only 68% of new churches survive the first four years.  Do women accept the challenge of starting new churches?  You bet we do! Is that entrepreneurial spirit and faith rewarded?  Rarely.

Women will support women.  It is true that some women, placed in powerful positions, will use that power for the good of women, although statistically it would be nearly impossible to measure.  Anecdotally we learn that women who are raised to more influential positions lose their voice, or become part of the existing power dynamic that continues to marginalize those who are already pushed to the sidelines.   It is too easy for those in advantaged positions to lose touch with the struggling.  Rather than give away influence, those with power, even women, tend toward accumulating more, even if it means ignoring their greatest supporters.               

The local church has no bias toward womenOur local churches are full of wonderful, spirit-filled people.  Many of them understand that society has changed dramatically in the last 60 years.  However, even churches who believe they are welcoming to women treat them dramatically different than they do men.  Women are asked about their plans to have children, their income compared to a spouse, their nail polish, shoes and weight and their menstrual cycles.  Churches will even accept a woman pastor for a year or two, with the stipulation that they never be asked to do so again.

Women don’t want to lead.  This may be the biggest stigma of all against women.  Women want to lead and have led in our churches.  Perhaps the bias is that women’s leadership does not look like men’s.  Women bring a new set of skills and methods to the task of leadership.  This may turn the arena of leadership, established by men, on its head.  It might also be uncomfortable for those accustomed to old leadership motifs.  However, it does not mean that women don’t want to lead or can’t lead.

Women across the United Methodist Church are still hitting their heads on the stained-glass ceiling.  It is a painful reality that the Church still discriminates against women.  Yet, Jesus Christ, in the tradition of the prophets before him, implored us to make level the mountains and valleys so all might have equal access to power and influence.  What are the possibilities if we let go of our fears and allowed all people the opportunity to lead in the United Methodist Church?  What might it look like if we acknowledged the statistics, let go of the stigma, and broke through the stained glass ceiling?  Perhaps we might see the kin-dom of God.


Leigh Goodrich is Sr. Dir. Of Leadership and Education, and the newest member of the GCSRW team.  She is a second-career clergyperson from the New England Annual Conference, and contributing editor of this publication.  You can read more about her here.


Alice Finch Lee: Woman of Character, Courage, and Commitment

By Dawn Wiggins Hare

“We’re thankful for Your wonderful Providence in raising up among us those who cast bold visions and who hold grand hopes, who live with unbashful expectations and who seek a better world for all Your children, who rise above petty concerns and who give themselves to noble causes, who pursue high standards of justice and who kindle in all of us the highest and noblest and best…”

Thus began the prayer of the Reverend Doctor Gorman Houston, Jr., when Alice Finch Lee was honored by the Women’s Section of the Alabama Bar Association in 2003.  This month the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women of The United Methodist Church celebrates Women’s History Month by sharing stories of women and men who have made our church and world a better place for all God’s children. We hope that you will follow our blog and be inspired to live a life given for noble causes, pursuing high standards of justice, and kindling in your heart the highest, the noblest, and the best.

GCSRW General Secretary Dawn Wiggins Hare, left, and Miss Alice Finch Lee.

GCSRW General Secretary Dawn Hare, left, and Miss Alice Finch Lee.

Women’s History Month dates back to March 8, 1857, when women from New York City factories staged a protest over working conditions. In 1909, the first International Women’s Day was observed, but more than half a century passed before the United States Congress established National Women’s History Week in 1981.  In 1987, Congress expanded the week to a month. Every year since, Congress has passed a resolution and the President of the United States has issued a proclamation establishing March as Women’s History Month.  In celebration of the worldwide nature of our church, we are expanding this recognition to celebrate inspiring women and men from around the world.

Alice Finch Lee was born September 11, 1911.  She is 102 years old with such a strong work ethic that she continued to practice law until her ninety-ninth year.  She is a wisp of a woman with a brilliant mind who practiced tax and real estate law and worked in her community with the American Red Cross and her local hospital board.  Her greatest love and where she gave the majority of her time, her talents, and her service was to her church, The United Methodist Church.  “Miss Alice” (as she is known) has held every position of lay leadership at the local, district, and conference level of the church, and jokingly says that she has held every position other than that of “preacher.”  Just as Saint Francis of Assisi once said to the monks in his order, “let us go into the city and preach, and we will use words if necessary,” Alice Finch Lee may never have preached, but her sparse words have bellowed like thunder from the mountain top when she has shared them.

For decades, Miss Alice served as a delegate to the Alabama West-Florida Annual Conference.  During one of these meetings in the mid-1960’s when the rhetoric of racism was loud, a committee report seeking to acknowledge and mend the problems of the racially divided church and society came to the floor of the annual conference.  Amendments were made and debate started.  The advocates of continued racism were poised and ready to drag the church deeper into institutional racism by defeating the committee report.  Before their leader could get to the floor, this wee woman from Monroeville, Alabama, was recognized by the convener and she went to the microphone and uttered the simple phrase, “I move the previous question.”  She then sat down.  The conference applauded, adopted the committee report, and the advocates of racism were left holding their long prepared speeches.  Miss Alice became the hero of the conference and the enemy of the racists.  She has always been a person of few words but “important words said at the right time and the right place.”

Miss Alice’s commitment to justice did not stop at the annual conference level.  She bravely took the same position in her home church.  During the turbulent civil rights era, Miss Alice left a standing order with the ushers at First United Methodist Church in Monroeville, Alabama:  Any African-American who chose to worship at the church was to be seated by her.  Miss Alice was determined that her church be welcoming to all God’s children, no matter what tension waited outside the sanctuary doors.

Miss Alice’s courage and leadership did not go unnoticed.  She was elected as a General Conference delegate in 1976 and 1980, serving as head of the delegation (she was the first woman to do so) and secretary of the Episcopacy Committee for the Southeastern Jurisdiction.

Miss Alice was one of the few women to serve on the Tri-Conference Committee on Merger, which ultimately brought about The United Methodist Church as we know it in the combining of two predominately white and one black denomination.  The problems of racism did not end with this merger.  Miss Alice was a trusted friend and counsel to the bishops through these struggling times.  She told the bishops of the Alabama-West Florida conference in confidence that if any church withheld the salary of its clergy because of the minister’s stand on civil rights, she would raise the difference.  During those years, she did a lot of fund raising behind the scenes and received many calls from the bishops saying “Alice, I need your help.”

In 1984, Huntingdon College gave her an honorary Doctor of Laws and in 1987, a local civic club gave her the “Citizen of the Year” award because the men in the club had not yet admitted women to their membership and could not give her the “Member of the Year” award.  In 1992, the Alabama-West Florida Conference through its Commission on the Status and Role of Women established the Alice Lee Award to honor women who have given outstanding leadership to The United Methodist Church.  Miss Alice has been described as “Atticus Finch in a skirt” because her courage, integrity and ethics are without blemish.  It is fitting that her sister Nelle Harper chose to dedicate her master work to Alice Finch Lee.

So imagine being tapped on the shoulder by a little woman with a great smile and told that you need to take a position of leadership in the church.  That is what my woman of courage did for me.  In 2004, I was elected as a delegate to Jurisdictional Conference, and for the first time, the delegates of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference elected two women to the episcopacy.  Robert Powell, one of the outstanding United Methodist Men leaders for the Alabama-West Florida Conference, ran over to me and said “Dawn, you’ve got to call Alice.  She has got to know that history was made today.”  And I did. Such is the impact of “Miss Alice” on the women and men of The United Methodist Church.

Dawn Wiggins Hare is an attorney, a former judge, and the General Secretary of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.  She served as a delegate to the SEJ in 2004 and to General Conference in 2008 and 2012.  She is the 2012 recipient of the Alice Lee award.


Does your Annual Conference word cloud look this hopeful?

This word cloud from the South Carolina Annual Conference comes courtesy of Twitter user @revmegangray:


We see all kinds of great words like “thankful,” “hopeful,” “love,” “new,” “service” and even “crockpot.”  Are “women” or “diversity” there? Help us search!  What do you see that you like?

And what would your Annual Conference word cloud look like?

Thanks for the great visual and giving us permission to post, @revmegangray.