Skip Navigation

#MeToo and The United Methodist Church

Courtesy photo of The Rev. Cathy Hall Stengel.

Courtesy photo of The Rev. Cathy Hall Stengel.

Let me begin by saying that this is not my #MeToo story. I choose not to make my personal experience the focus here. My personal story is deep and powerful; I am a resurrection story.  This is OUR #MeToo story. I write because the current outpouring of stories awakens the unspoken, unheard, unreconciled parts that too many of us carry with us.

My first pastor, now a famous author, sent me off to seminary with these words: “If you become a macho, militant, man-hating feminist, I will have to drag you home by your hair.” I smiled and accepted what he said. 

The United States is reeling with one of the most powerful and disruptive media storms in recent history, known as the #MeToo campaign. Time Magazine named the Silence Breakers as the “Person” of the Year for 2017. As this has unfolded, I feel compelled to speak.

As an elder in The United Methodist Church for over 35 years, I hear the silence. You see, I came from a generation of young women who grew up in that season of silence that is still so loud. As I write this, I am aware that my words must be measured and careful. I can say #MeToo, and yet know the consequences of being a silence breaker. Men are confused; women are divided. What are we to do? It’s uncomfortable, it’s dangerous, and it changes the way people look at one another. And so the stories are held, close, and hurting still. As the media provides a platform for those who have experienced harassment and abuse, I hear quiet in the church.    

Clergywomen in The United Methodist Church have faced harassment, abuse, inappropriate treatment and discrimination. It’s a fact — not a rumor, not a question — fact.  Times have changed, and I thank God. Some of us have been pioneers. But the stories still hang there, just under the surface. 

In ordination interviews in closed rooms, women candidates have been surrounded too closely by clergymen, all men, who wanted to know about our marriages, whether we were married or not. Men challenged our ability to have families, be parents and still be effective professional clergy. Women called into ordained ministry were told, and convinced that maybe Christian education was a better match because, you know, you are a woman.

Men, clergymen, would whistle and catcall when we disrobed after ordination services or other denominational events. There were men that we were taught to be afraid of — grateful to be taught — but wondering who we didn’t know about.  I saw clergywomen disappear into the background, some leaving ministry entirely after being pursued inappropriately. No such thing happened to the men who pursued them because no one could speak.  

Pregnant clergywomen get touched without their permission. Clergywomen occasionally share transgressions, uncomfortable situations with those in authority, and sometimes they laugh. It isn’t funny. It’s hard and uncomfortable. 

As a United Methodist clergywoman, I have had a wonderful career and still serve full time in ministry I love. I have experienced the wonders of relationships across the town and across the world, relationships made available through my profession. I have been a local church pastor, part of a seminary faculty, a district superintendent, a candidate for the episcopacy, a delegate to General and Jurisdictional Conferences. Some would call that successful — I would call it faithfulness and discipleship, and blessed. 

If professions across the spectrum of life are going to grapple with the willingness and courage of women to speak out — then I believe it’s time to tell the church that it’s time to speak up. It’s time that those who were and continue to be silenced are given voice.  Many of the perpetrators cannot be accused or put on trial or lose their credentials — because the years that have passed have given them a pass or they have died.

We are divided in our denomination over different views around human sexuality — who can get married in our churches by our pastors, and who cannot. We call it a time of accountability to biblical authority, or we call it a time for justice and freedom. And yet we remain silent, and we remain silencing. We argue about clergy disobedience. We literally argue about clergy disobedience, and yet the grievous disobedience that has cost women emotionally, physically, spiritually and professionally is uncomfortable and not spoken of. 

Men and women have stood by, just like on TV, knowing that something was going on, seeing, suspecting and yet not speaking. I served churches where some of the young women who were victims attended — the damage was immeasurable. 

Sexual misconduct is unattractive and unpopular to talk about in the church world. We’ve made huge progress in working with churches that have been victims of clergy misconduct — but the clergywomen who had to wade through sexual misconduct— to gain a seat at the table… we don’t want to talk about that. Even as I write and consider this I am mindful of opinions that would change, ways that I might be looked upon differently, possibly less professionally, and how uncomfortable my male colleagues might be. 

How then, if we are so uncomfortable with the opinions of our colleagues, those who are in authority over us, or these we are in ministry with, how then can we say #MeToo other than in the relative anonymity of a social media storm? Both in my service on the cabinet and since then, I have asked: “Who do people go to when the people in authority are the perpetrators of harm?” Who? The answer continues to be, admittedly, I don’t know. Even in coaching people to speak truth to power, the voices of power have sometimes been crushing. 

I want to return to our current reality. We are preparing for General Conference 2019. Our work will be to hear how the bishops are discerning our future. We are preparing to make big choices based on our understanding of biblical authority, clergy disobedience and theological alignment. 

For almost 36 years, I have worked next to and around clergy who have demonstrated disobedience to my understanding of our United Methodist Discipline, and more than that, disobedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ. There were no sides taken in the story of sexual misconduct, no theological preferences or political alliances. It was and continues to be a grievous sin, the one to which we have not responded or acknowledged.

In closing, let me say that I am grateful that I have not served my career as an angry woman, hardened by what has been my story and what is our story.  I am deeply in love with God, and I deeply love The United Methodist Church (most days), and serving God as a pastor in this United Methodist Church has been a part of my resurrection story, and given me the privilege to be a part of the resurrection stories of others.  

We cannot say #MeToo in The United Methodist Church when we are not speaking and not being heard.

The Rev. Cathy Hall Stengel is the senior pastor of Rush United Methodist Church in Rush, New York, and she has a doctorate in pastoral supervision. She is a reserve delegate from the Upper New York Conference to the special General Conference in 2019.