The Local Church Leadership Challenge

Modern American society has often used the phrase ‘the glass-ceiling,’ referencing the idea that women seem unable to get past a certain point in their career because a so-called glass ceiling seems to be blocking them.   In many cases, this is still true.  There seems to be some invisible barrier that prevents women from reaching the top of their field.  And this is certainly still true for women leading in the local church.

“Even as U.S. congregation become more ethnically diverse . . . Women hold only a small minority of those faith communities top leadership positions.  Women serve as senior or solo pastoral leaders of just 11 percent of U.S. congregations — indicating essentially no overall increase from when the study was first done in 1998. These women-led communities contain only about 6 percent of the people who attend the nation’s religious services.”[1] 

As you move to larger and larger congregations, the number of lead or solo women pastors radically decreases.  Of the top 100 United Methodist churches in 2017, only four are led by women (Mary Jan Davis of Central in Fayetteville, AR, Jennifer Stiles-Williams at St Luke’s in Orlando; Robyn Miller at Woods Chapel in Lee’s Summit, MO; and Jessica Moffatt at First in Tulsa . . . again 2017 data).[2]  A similar phenomenon applies in the Virginia United Methodist Conference.  Of the top 100 churches as determined by average worship attendance (AWA), 12 are led by women. Contrast that with the fact that about 41 of the 100 churches with the lowest average attendance, that have a full-time pastor are led by women (this is using the 2017 Appointment Workbook, for more information see The Stats.)

There is a higher percentage of women in the roles of Bishops and District Superintendents, but this comes with its own set of challenges, as the author of the blog “Hacking Christianity” states in a 2014 article,

“The UMC does have a significant percentage of female Bishops: 15 out of 60 worldwide active Bishops (25%) are female. I don’t know of a single Annual Conference without some female DSes– even my small conference has 50% women. Do the best women clergy become District Superintendents and Bishops instead of large church pastors? Do we trust them more with being managers more than leaders of our biggest pulpits? I hope our Bishops consider training women to take the pulpits of our largest churches when transition comes naturally or is needed rather than pushing them to become Bishops instead.”[3] 

And Rev. Carylon Moore, in a article from 2015 states,

“Because bishops and district superintendents as a whole have a high level of acceptance, there may not be a conscious acceptance of the challenges women still face.  To say, ‘We love you and you’re doing a great job’ isn’t always the most helpful thing. Women also need advocates who will acknowledge the barriers that still exist and help coach past them.”[4]

Within the structure of the United Methodist Church, there are many layers of leadership. The bishops, district superintendents, extension ministers, conference staff and General Board leaders have high levels of institutional power.  Institutional power is defined as power within a system because of one’s place or status within the system.  Institutional leadership helps to shape and form the structure and vision of the church.  They also uphold that rules of the church.  Within the conference structure, the bishop, with the help of the district superintendents, works through the appointment of clergy within the system.  The conference leadership helps to shape and carry out ordination guidelines and requirements.  These are large areas of power that affect every aspect of the church and clergy.  The institutional leaders also help to cast the large vision for the church and put into place systems to see how each church is doing at carrying out and implementing that vision.  These are necessary and important jobs in the body of Christ.  They form the structure and support for the work of the clergy in the local church.  Women have been accepted into these places of leadership.

While the institutional leaders create and uphold the framework of the larger church, the work of the church at the local level is under the direction of the lead or solo pastor of the church; therefore, within the church, the most influential leadership is done by the pastor.  It is in this area that women are significantly lagging.  According to the 2017 Appointment Workbook for the Virginia Conference, approximately a quarter of full-time lead or solo pastors are women.  They are paid significantly less than their male counterparts, they tend to be younger, and they ordinarily pastor smaller churches.

Women seem to be finding their way to institutional leadership, but they still remain blocked to local church leadership.  The data seems to point to two different areas of conflict for women.  First, they are not staying in local church leadership as long as their male counterpoints.  Women are leaving the local church to be associate pastors (and therefore under someone else’s leadership and not the primary leader), they are becoming institutional leaders or extension ministers, or they are leaving the ministry entirely.  Second, women are not experiencing the same level of success in the local church.  I have defined success as leading a larger church as defined by the AWA and receiving a larger salary.  Within the framework of our current system, the bishop will seek to appoint a pastor who is doing well to a larger worshipping congregation, which in most cases will pay a larger salary.  This is not a perfect measure of success, but it draws from readily quantifiable data.  Both of these areas of conflict are tied together.  Analysis of the data shows that the greatest predictor of appointment to a larger church, as defined by the AWA and/or higher salary, is number of years under appointment.  This highlights the fact that women’s ability to remain in the ministry directly correlates to leadership of a larger church that pays a higher salary.

Across the board, the data suggest that a ceiling is in place preventing most women from reaching the top of their field in the local church.  Here in Virginia, we have a female bishop and female District Superintendents, in addition to many conference level female leaders.  I am by no means suggesting that we should reduce our female institutional leaders, but that we also need female leaders in the local church, especially in our larger AWA local churches.   This, of course, draws more questions, how do we train our younger women, so that they will be prepared to step into our larger churches?  How do we care for our female clergy so that they will stay in local church leadership?


[1] Heather Hahn, “How thick is the stained-glass ceiling?” December 10, 2015,

[2] Len Wilson, “Top 25 Fastest Growing Large United Methodist Churches, 2017 Edition,” Len Wilson, January 13, 2017, accessed January 12, 2018.

[3] Jeremy Smith, “Why do the largest #UMC’s not have female pastors?” Hacking Christianity, December 10, 2014, accessed January 12, 2018,

[4] Hahn, “How thick is the stained-glass ceiling?”

Gage HuntComment