Note from the Editor: Recently, Wesleyan Accent interviewed Rev. Dr. Roberta Mosier-Peterson, an ordained Elder in the Free Methodist Church (USA) who is currently Senior Pastor of Oakdale Free Methodist Church in Jackson, Kentucky, and contributor to www.juniaproject.com. She completed her D.Min. dissertation at Northeastern Seminary in 2016 on the topic of women in ministry. A documentary, “Lived Experience,” based on the dissertation and featuring the accounts of women in ministry debuted in April 2018.
Wesleyan Accent: This spring, a documentary about women in ministry debuted, based on your dissertation at Northeastern Seminary. What inspired your dissertation?
Roberta Mosier-Peterson: I have always enjoyed listening to life stories. As I was considering topics for research, several people mentioned that most of the themes that interested me came from my own story or the stories of women who serve in ministry. It seems as though I have been informally collecting a lot of these stories even before I researched them. The stories of women in ministry inspire me.
WA: In the past, you’ve noted that, “Our church says beautiful things about being fully affirming of women in all levels of leadership,” but that “women are sometimes treated as less qualified and desirable for church appointments.” Why do you think that is?
RMP: There are a few reasons that women are viewed as less qualified and less desirable for church appointments. One is that a lot of congregations lack exposure to women serving in church leadership. Perception is powerful. It is often said that women do most of the work in church, but that the lead pastor is male. If this is how you picture the church, you automatically assume that this is the way church should be.
Another powerful dynamic is that women often hear and internalize mixed messages about what others expect of them. There are church cultures that define ministry leadership as bold, risk-taking and independent. Women have been told that these are not lady-like. Women who are gifted and graced with this sort of courageous leadership are criticized. As one pastor says, “I can speak – but don’t say it with too much authority.” There is a grievous double-bind that exists.
WA: For your dissertation, you collected life stories from women clergy in the Free Methodist Church. What surprised you about what you found? Were women forthcoming or reluctant to share their experiences?
RMP: All of the women clergy who offered their stories were told that their identities would be protected. They were excited to share their stories and felt free to do so with incredible candor because of the anonymity. The surprise came in sorting through data and sending out requests for participants.
Specifically, I received several enthusiastic responses from women serving in the Midwest. As it turns out, many of these women were in the same age bracket as well. It is often thought that Southern and Midwestern mindsets are set against women in leadership; however, it was not the case with the potential participants that expressed interest in my study. This discovery was helpful because it supports the truth that barriers exist everywhere. The challenges take different forms, but even in areas of the country that seem to be more likely to empower women, there is plenty of work to be done.
WA: You have stated that, “women ‘don’t see sexism as being the big, bad evil unless you get them together and they share their stories’ and find ‘this subtle, unconscious bias that women cannot or should not do certain things.’ What are some examples of bias or sexism shared by the women in your dissertation and documentary?
RMP: The women in the study shared stories about feeling isolated when they were the only woman in districts, conferences, and boards. In such situations, women are burdened with representing their whole gender. There were situations where those in authority felt threatened by women when they were thriving in their area of giftedness. There were times when the women were offered less compensation than others in comparable roles. A few women expressed how diminished they felt when they were not considered a “good fit” for senior leadership roles and were not given any specific reason or feedback. Almost all of the women spoke about the impact of the “mass exodus” when they were appointed in positions of senior leadership. Instead of blaming the inequity that remains in the church, these women often blamed themselves and were blamed by others.
WA: After gaining financial support from the Board of Bishops as well as conferences and individuals, your dissertation has been made into the documentary “Lived Experience,” which debuted at the Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy Conference in Colorado. What do you hope to achieve with this documentary? What do you hope women and men both will take away from seeing it? Has it impacted you in ways you didn’t expect?
RMP: It is my hope that the church can be a place of healing and empowerment for women. It is God’s intention that the church be about the Gospel, which is God saving, healing and restoring the world. I’m praying that from the film, the church will start imagining how we can be more faithful to this essential calling. I’m hoping that women will resonate with the stories told, find the courage to share their stories, and be faithful to what God is calling them to do. I’m hoping that men will see tangible ways to champion the called and gifted women around them; I’m praying that they will commit to empowering these women even when it means self-sacrifice.
The making of the film impacted me in so many ways that it difficult to condense. I may need to write a book! There were some moments when I thought I would lose my nerve, but God gave me confidence that I was called to do it. I was called to do it because I love Jesus and I love the church.
Watch “Lived Experience” below. Because of potential repercussions to the women clergy who honestly shared their experiences, actors were chosen to represent them in order to protect their anonymity. All quotes and statements were given by women clergy active in ministry in the Free Methodist Church (USA).