By Renee Elder
In Breaking Through the Stained Glass Ceiling: Women Pastoring Large Churches, editors the Reverends HiRho Y. Park and Susan Willhauck bring together a series of essays that offer a rare glimpse into the daily lives and spiritual journeys of trailblazing clergywomen.
Published by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the book’s contributors all have served as lead pastors in congregations with 1,000 or more members.
“These trailblazers’ stories are intriguing and full of wisdom, passion, and grace as they strive to perform top-level executive leadership while at the same time juggling spirituality, work, family, and their personal life,” Park said. “I hope their experiences will shed light on a new paradigm of ministry leadership and inform the future pedagogical practice of theological education.”
A frankly assessment of the opportunities and obstacles in church leadership for women, the essays are accompanied by study data from the Lead Women Pastors Project, carried out by Park, GBHEM’s director of Clergy Lifelong Learning, and Willhauck, associate professor of Pastoral Theology at Atlantic School of Theology.
Among the study’s intriguing findings: the denomination’s 100 largest churches are still led by male clergy with one exception – Glide Memorial UMC; women clergy serve more preliminary appointments than men before leading a large congregation; and large churches led by women report higher membership numbers and worship attendance.
Willhauck said the essay collection is an extension of the work begun by the Lead Women Pastors Project in 2008.
“Through interviews, a survey, retreats, and online dialogues, we learned how women are leading big churches in increasing numbers with grace and aplomb, setting an example for pastoral leadership in The United Methodist Church, indeed shattering the glass ceiling,” Willhauck said.
Bishop Violet L. Fisher (retired) praised the book’s use of qualitative research to support the insights of the essayists.
“There are many books on leadership, but few address it from the lead women pastor experience or as simply and critically,” Fisher said. “This work is the beginning of needed conversations.”
One of those conversations should be about diversity among lead women pastors. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, the leading feminist biblical scholar who wrote the foreword for the book, pointed out that only one racial-ethnic clergywoman served a large United Methodist church. “The ‘glass’ ceiling metaphor is best understood as a ‘class’ ceiling which in society and church allows breakthroughs for highly educated white and upperclass women, but not for the majority of women. Why does the ceiling still hold in society and church, despite the many successful attempts at cracking it?” she said.
The Rev. Robin Crews Wilson, co-senior pastor of Dauphine Way United Methodist Church in Mobile, Ala., described the writers’ voices as full of “honesty, humor, and wisdom.”
“These lead women pastors call us to confront our own preconceived notions of what it means for women to be created in the image of God and gifted to lead large congregations,” Wilson said.
Laceye Warner, executive vice dean and associate professor of the Practice of Evangelism and Methodist Studies at Duke University, the Divinity School, called the work “rare and valuable.”
“The editors and contributors speak honestly with wisdom and candor, offering encouragement and insight to their sisters—and brothers—in Christ as we serve God’s church in the twenty-first century,” Dr. Warner said.
The editors and essayists together make a convincing case that sharing stories and supporting one another’s pastoral leadership roles through educational and coaching resources can help empower women working in large churches.
“I believe this project will help the church raise up a new generation of women leaders for such a time as this,” Willhauck said.
Breaking Through the Stained Glass Ceiling: Women Pastoring Large Churches, available as an E-book only, can be ordered online through Cokesbury, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes.