History

Women have been called to preach in the United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies since Methodism's earliest days.

In 1749, Sarah Crosby was converted under the preaching of George Whitefield and John Wesley. By 1761, Crosby was publicly exhorting before nearly two hundred people. She consulted Wesley about her exhorting, because some complained that her exhortation looked and sounded like actual preaching. Wesley tells her "...I don't see that you have broken any law. Go on calmly and steadily."

In 1771, Mary Bosanquet wrote Wesley asking for guidance in her work, which some derided because she was a woman. Wesley was clear: "...the whole Work of God termed Methodism is an extraordinary dispensation...I think the strength of the cause rests here, on your having an Extraordinary Call. So, I am persuaded, has every one of our Lay Preachers [male]; otherwise I could not countenance his preaching...in extraordinary cases [Paul] made a few exceptions."

This was the start of Wesley's limited endorsement of women preachers whom he deemed to have an "extraordinary" call to preach. One of those women was Sarah Mallett to whom he issued in 1787 a note from the Methodist Conference in Manchester stating, "We...have no objection to her being a preacher among us," making her the first woman to enter the traveling ministry.

In the United Brethren Church, Charity Opheral became the first woman to receive the commendation to preach. The former White River Annual Conference in Indiana granted her that authority in 1847. The Wabash Annual Conference in Indiana granted Lydia Sexton a license to preach on 1859. The 1889 General Conference of the United Brethren Church approved licensing and ordaining women, and granting them conference membership. Ella Niswonger of the Central Illinois Conference was the first woman ordained in that tradition.

The North Indiana Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church (which united with the Methodist Protestant Church in 1877) ordained Helenor M. Davisson a deacon in 1866.

Although is was believed for many years that Anna Howard Shaw was the first woman ordained an elder in the Methodist Protestant tradition in 1880, research for the 50th anniversary celebration has identified at least two other women who preceeded her. Pauline Martindale was ordained elder in the Kansas Methodist [Protestant] Church in 1875 and Maggie Ritchie Elliott was ordained elder in the Missouri Methodist Protestant Church in 1877. Shaw, however, is certainly the most well-known.

In 1920 the MEC finally granted women the right to receive a license to preach. Another limited step was taken in 1924 when the MEC decided to ordain women as local deacons and local elders.

The Methodist Church voted to give women full clergy rights at its 1956 General Conference. Maude Jensen in the Central Pennsylvania Conference was the first woman to become a full member of an annual conference when she was received on trial shortly after General Conference met. Twenty-six additional women were received on trial that year.

The United Methodist Church has elected 21 women bishops -- 16 active, 4 retired and one deceased. The UM Church was the first mainline Christian denomination to have a woman bishop, Marjorie Swank Matthews, who was elected and consecrated in 1980. Matthews retired in 1984 at age 64 and died two years later.

Another woman, Leontine T. C. Kelly was elected in 1984. She was the first African-American woman elected to the episcopacy, and she remained the only one until three others, Violet Fisher, Linda Lee and Beverly Shamana, were elected in 2000:

Minerva Carcano was the first Hispanic/Latina woman elected bishop, in 2004. In 2005, Rosemary Wenner became the first woman bishop in a Central Conference.

Did you Know?

There are 10,378 clergywomen out of the 44,842 clergy in The United Methodist Church, as of December 2007. As of December 2006, about 27% of the 32,742 active clergy are women. As of May 2007, 1,051 of them are racial-ethnic minority women, and 128 (15%) of the elder clergywomen are serving as district superintendents. This is significantly higher than in 1995, when women represented 15.8%. Of the 26,152 pastors-in-charge, clergywomen serve in 21.5% of these.

In churches with 1,000-plus members, the General Council on Finance and Administration has identified 85 senior female clergy appointed to those churches as of December 2007, while 1,082 male pastors are appointed senior pastors in those largest membership churches.

As of 2005, more than half of the Annual Conferences had 19% or more clergywomen among their total number of clergy. The top five are: West Ohio, Baltimore-Washington, New England, Western North Carolina, and Iowa.

To learn more, read Clergywomen’s Local Church Appointments.

Historical Documents

The report on the 1982 United Methodist Racial-Ethnic Clergywomen’s consultation is available from GBHEM. To obtain this document, which is of historic interest, e-mail your request to hpark@gbhem.org.

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