More than 100 Free Methodists were among the 300 participants in the Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy’s Revive conference April 12–15 at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado. The Free Methodist Church –USA had the largest denominational delegation at the conference, which the FMCUSA co-sponsored with the Brethren in Christ, Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), Church of the Nazarene, and the Wesleyan Church.
Julie Gray, the senior pastor of Aldersgate Free Methodist Church in Indianapolis, became the new president of the organization that supports women in ministry.
“We are about empowering, engaging and equipping women to lead in the church at every level,” said Gray, who is being succeeded by Soo Ji Alvarez — a lead pastor of California Avenue Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California — as the Free Methodist representative to the organization’s board.
Superintendent Alma Thompson gave the conference’s opening message and reminded the women clergy that “we are good figs” (Jeremiah 24) who are loved and called by Jesus.
“I have come to understand that I cannot afford to have a thought in my mind about me that is not in the mind of Christ,” said Thompson, who oversees the Ohio and New South conferences with her husband, Brent, who also participated in Revive.
Revive allowed many opportunities for Free Methodists to connect with members of other denominations, but for two hours April 13, Free Methodists held their own gathering with lunch, an icebreaker activity that led to the sharing of hilarious stories, and a panel discussion that focused on serious challenges that women clergy face.
Thompson, Free Methodist World Missions Latin America Area Director Delia Nüesch-Olver, Genesis Conference Superintendent Pam Braman and River Conference Superintendent-elect Amelia Cleveland-Traylor shared their experiences as women in ministry.
Thompson said she was a pastor’s wife in a church that wanted to start children’s ministries and named her the director. As the children’s ministries grew, she eventually received a paid position and developed her leadership skills.
“It was in that role that I realized that I was called to pastoral ministry, because what I really wanted to do more than anything was to talk to people about Jesus,” Thompson said.
Nüesch-Olver got an unexpected start to pastoral ministry. “When I was single, I accidentally planted a church,” said Nüesch-Olver, who has since served in lead and associate pastoral roles, as a university professor, and in national and international denominational positions.
Braman grew up in a denomination that didn’t ordain women, but she attended seminary. She worked on staff at a large nondenominational church for 11 years, wrestled with her call to pastoral ministry, became a Free Methodist pastor and then was elected as a superintendent.
“The Lord has been so gracious at times when I wanted to pitch it all,” Braman said. “There have been people who have come alongside with words of encouragement — often not knowing how much I needed that.”
Cleveland-Traylor led Bible studies in high school and earned the nickname “Reverend,” but she didn’t see herself in a pastoral role at that time. She pursued a medical career and became an obstetrician-gynecologist.
“I held a lot of leadership positions in medicine,” Cleveland-Traylor said. “I was very comfortable leading there, but at church, I would always shrink back.”
After her husband and fellow medical doctor, Michael, became a pastor, she volunteered to be his associate pastor. “In spite of carrying the weight of the ministry with him, I continued to be his associate for a while, and then when I decided I was ready to be his co-pastor, that’s when we started running into trouble,” she said.
Opposition hasn’t stopped Cleveland-Traylor from realizing she does not have to serve as her husband’s associate, and she will begin serving this month alongside Michael as co-superintendent of the River Conference.
Several Free Methodists led workshops or appeared on workshop panel discussions. Alvarez led an interactive workshop for pastors and worship leaders on the “Worship Toolbox” that helped participants overcome obstacles in their “current area of ministry as well as learn how to cultivate a thriving worship and creative arts ministry that both touches the heart of God and develops and equips future generations of worship leaders to come.”
Deborah Somerville, the lead pastor of the Greenville (Illinois) Free Methodist Church, was one of three pastors offering different perspectives on a passage in the “Preaching Panel Discussion.”
Free Methodist Elder Rita Nussli, the associate director of Soul Formation — a nonprofit organization committed to the spiritual and emotional health of Christian ministry leaders — led the “Soul Care” workshop that helped participants listen together “to God, discerning the Trinity’s invitation for us and those we serve to make space for God’s grace to transform us.”
Gray; Joanna DeWolf, an elder in the East Michigan Conference; and Gloria Roorda, the pastor of family ministry at Northgate Free Methodist Church in Batavia, New York, were three of the four panelists in the “Mentoring” workshop.
Free Methodist educator Karen Longman, the Ph.D. program director and a professor of higher education at Azusa Pacific University and a senior fellow and former vice president of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, led the “Sticky Floors? Stained Glass-Ceilings?” workshop that drew upon her experiences as a woman in executive leadership.
“Anybody that knows the research about organizational effectiveness knows that the more voices age-wise, gender-wise, internationally at the top, the smarter organizations are,” Longman said.
Nüesch-Olver and Pastor Randi Shepherd of Every Day Church in Toledo, Ohio, were two of the four panelists in the “Church Planting” workshop. Nüesch-Olver, who grew up in Argentina, gave more details about her accidental church plant that resulted from connecting with a Cuban woman while serving an internship in Rochester, New York. Nüesch-Olver led the woman and family members to Christ, and they began leading others to Christ. “When we had some 60 new believers, we rented a storefront,” Nüesch-Olver said. “They started calling me pastor.”
Shepherd shared how she and her husband left stable jobs at a church in California to become church planters in Ohio even though she previously had a negative view of church planting.
“We see God’s miracles,” Shepherd said. “If you want to see God do miracles, put yourself in a place where God can do miracles, and put yourself at the end of your rope, or put yourself in a new place where you just say, ‘God, this is all about you.’”
The conference included a screening of the new 37-minute documentary film, “Lived Experience: Female Pastors in the Free Methodist Church.” The documentary is based on the doctoral dissertation of Roberta Mosier-Peterson, the senior pastor of the Oakdale Free Methodist Church in Jackson, Kentucky. The Study Commission on Doctrine commissioned the documentary, which was funded through contributions from the Board of Bishops and other Free Methodist leaders. To protect the identity of women pastors who shared their sometimes painful experiences, filmmakers used actors to share the true stories of female pastors.
After the screening, Mosier-Peterson answered questions from the enthusiastic and appreciative audience. She expressed encouragement about the response from the Free Methodist Global Overseers Team that had watched the film earlier in the week, and she told the audience members — many who serve in other denominations — to share their voices. Questions included the impact of the #metoo movement on women in ministry.
“Your voice will be heard. I think that there are enough men in authority that are actually listening that we have a window of opportunity, and part of it is because of these cultural things that are happening now,” Mosier-Peterson said.
Visit new.fmcusa.org/conversations/lived-experience-of-female-free-methodist-pastors to watch the documentary for free online.
Along with Gray now leading the Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy, other denominational elders are playing key roles. Free Methodists on the Revive Conference Planning Committee included Communications Liaison Beth Cullison, the missionary personnel administrator for Free Methodist World Missions, and Worship Arts Liaison Diana Endicott, an assistant pastor of Northside Community Church in Newberg, Oregon.
But as excited as they are to see Free Methodists taking leadership posts within the clergy organization, Revive participants said they’re even more excited about the increased gender and racial diversity within denominational leader posts as demonstrated at the recent Global Overseers Team meetings in Indiana.
“Something in the atmosphere has changed,” Braman said.