The Wesleyan Church celebrates a history of supporting women in ministry, a doctrinal position that is strongly demonstrated by current leadership. Annual TWC statistics show that the number of women in ministry is steadily increasing, including women in leadership roles.
And while those statistics show that steady increase to be a slow one, it is having an impact from the local church level up to districts and the General Church.
Rev. Dr. Jo Anne Lyon was elected the first woman General Superintendent in 2012, significant for that fact and that she was the first person to serve as sole GS. In 2016, two women were elected as General Officers: Rev. Dr. Anita Eastlack, executive director of Church Multiplication and Discipleship, and Janelle Vernon, executive director of Communication and Administration. Rev. Johanna Rugh was elected in 2022 as executive director of Education and Clergy Development. Each was the first woman to fill that role.
Prior to their General Officer elections, Rev. Dr. Eastlack served as a co-district superintendent, and Rev. Rugh served as an assistant district superintendent.
Until recently, three women were serving as assistant district superintendents — Rev. Carla Working in Crossroads, Rev. Janet Guthrie in Shenandoah and Rev. Arlynn Ellis in Mountain Plains. On March 1, Rev. Working transitioned to TWC’s headquarters to serve as director of Clergy Care in the Education and Clergy Development Division.
When asked her thoughts on why TWC has had only one female DS in the past, Rev. Working responded: “I don’t believe our lack of female DSs means we are male dominated. The DSs we have today are men that served faithfully during previous decades in other ministry positions. There weren’t as many women serving at that time. As the number of women in ministry increases, we will likely see roles such as DS be filled by both men and women.”
Rev. Working is in a unique position to understand the pressures women in ministry face, and to care for them in her new role because of leading a Women in Ministry cohort, having served in district leadership, and by growing up Baptist and not being allowed to pursue the Lord’s calling at age 16.
Because of her upbringing, Rev. Working assumed she must become a pastor’s wife or missionary. While attending Indiana Wesleyan University, she confided in friends that it would be easier if she were a man because then she could be a pastor. Their response was “Why can’t you be a pastor?” Rev. Working did research to explain why women could not be pastors proving them wrong. But by the end of her research, she proved herself wrong!
She has served as a children and youth pastor, became ordained and co-pastored with her husband. In 2019, God stirred her heart to do more. After speaking with District Superintendent Mark Gorveatte, Rev. Working started assisting with the district board of ministerial development (DBMD) and became assistant DS in September 2022.
Rev. Dr. Gorveatte credits her as being “a gifted communicator with a great heart for God and for people. We’ve been blessed by her leadership among our pastors and with future leaders … We celebrate the expanded ministry role she’ll have as she joins Rev. Johanna Rugh’s team.” (Rev. Working will continue to handle the district’s board of ministerial development duties.)
Shenandoah’s Assistant DS Janet Guthrie’s story is similar in that she started out Baptist and was a group leader with a large interdenominational women’s Bible study. After “having an incredible encounter with Jesus” and falling in love with serving the church, she eventually joined Emanuel Wesleyan in Roanoke, Virginia, before becoming a part-time assistant DS.
Because Rev. Guthrie has had a great support network, she didn’t face many obstacles. “But my heart hurts for some of my sisters in Christ who have met with great resistance.” When she looks around her district and at who is behind a pulpit, she sees that “we’re not even close to breaking down those obstacles. Only the Lord can do that for us.”
As for defending women preachers, Rev. Guthrie says people also first found it hard to adjust to male nurses and flight attendants, and female doctors and pilots. “The Israelites could not accept that the Gentiles were equal to them either,” she says, quoting Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Rev. Guthrie’s heart for people, leadership acumen and professional experience are the reasons DS Timothy Kirkpatrick appointed her. He first asked her to handle the district’s new pastor orientation. Those who took the orientation “heartily suggested” that she be chosen for the assistant DS role. “The fact that she was a female played zero role in my nominating her,” he said.
Rev. Kirkpatrick says the problem is the lack of people in positions of power willing to let those with potential have a seat at the table. He referenced Kadi Cole’s book “Developing Female Leaders” who says there’s a glass ceiling and a sticky floor. “I think we have a real problem with both in the church,” he said.
The third assistant DS, Rev. Arlynn Ellis from the Mountain Plains District, had the added challenge of not speaking English when she moved from Venezuela to the U.S. She first served alongside her husband as a church planter. But that changed when, “I started sensing God asking me, stretching me to step out and prepare for ministry.”
Rev. Ellis is a part-time assistant DS, runs a nonprofit organization she founded eight years ago and leading the TWC Hispanic Connection. Her 19 years of nonprofit leadership experience and gift of problem solving gave her skills she uses today in ministry. “The nonprofit experience parallels many things in the church world … and are a little more flexible with holding people accountable to deadlines and processes,” she said. This compares with management styles at for-profit companies, she said, which helped her see the value of being efficient.
Mountain Plains DS Billy Wilson says that Rev. Ellis is “simply one of the best, most hardworking leaders I’ve ever worked with. She has been a highly effective leader in every arena — business, nonprofit and church.”
Rev. Ellis believes it can be difficult for women at the local church level, and especially in the Hispanic community. While her district has been “a champion for women in ministry” and she’s pleased with the “consistent and purposeful effort” from TWC to encourage and promote women, the obstacles remain.
If she were to be confronted by someone strongly against women behind the pulpit, Rev. Ellis says she would refer to Acts 21 where it says that Phillip had four daughters gifted in prophecy. “I can’t believe that they were forbidden from proclaiming the Word of God. The Lord has a place for women in the ministry as well as women who feel called to proclaim the Word.”
“I look at the leaders God is raising up in The Wesleyan Church, women and men, and rejoice at how our emerging Kingdom Force will continue to transform lives, churches and communities,” said General Superintendent Wayne Schmidt.
Jennifer Jones is the district administrator for the South Carolina District of The Wesleyan Church.
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