Rev. Barbara Phifer first felt her call to ministry while attending Cornell College in the early 1970s. When she later attended seminary at Saint Paul School of Theology and took a fieldwork course, she knew what she was called to do.
“In the time I grew up, no women led,” Phifer says. “It was difficult to discern how I could fit into a church. The sense of calling I had was so far out there.”
Jurisdictionally, the Missouri Conference leads the way in gender diversity. Fall 2016 statistics show that 55% of district superintendents in Missouri are female; The jurisdictional average is 34%.
But that’s only the beginning. The Missouri Conference has more women church planters than any other conference in the South Central Jurisdiction. Eleven of the 20 Mission Council members are women. Women make up half of the extended cabinet.
Now more than ever, women have a voice in the Missouri Conference, but it wasn’t always this way.
Rev. Marie Hyatt, ordained in 1971, and Rev. Mary Ellen Meyer, ordained in 1976, were the first women to become elders in the Missouri West and East conferences, respectively. The Missouri Conference was charting new territory about the time when Phifer sought ordination.
“People would ask, ‘Do you intend to have kids? How can you possibly have kids and be a pastor?’” Phifer says.
After a difficult appointment process, Phifer received her first full-time assignment in Cape Girardeau-Farmington District with a 5-month-old in tow. “Even though it was really difficult in the early days because I was breaking the mold, there was freedom in that,” Phifer says. “A lot of the rules were off the table because I was different.”
Fast-forward five years: The number of women clergy had jumped. Phifer says she left Missouri to do mission in Uruguay in 1983 as the only woman clergy member in her district. Upon her return, there were six other women.
Since then, the number has only multiplied. Today, 279 active women clergy serve Missouri.
“In the Missouri Conference, we’ve been really intentional about opportunities for women,” Rev. Robyn Miller says. “I’m fortunate to be in a conference where my gifts and graces are seen instead of my gender.”
Unlike Phifer, Miller had a woman pastor growing up in North Carolina. She was in youth group when she first felt her call, but she drifted away from the church when she went to college.
When she returned to the church and her call in the early 2000s, Miller found an environment dominated by men.
“As challenging as it sometimes can be, it was so much simpler for me because of the women before who fought tooth and nail,” Miller says.
Even still, Miller has encountered comments levied only to women at the pulpit: quick judgements made about hair and clothes; shock and dismay from clergy from other denominations.
In one instance, Miller, a single mom at the time, performed a funeral at a local funeral home. She later returned for another funeral only to have the funeral director try to set her up with one of his employees.
But Miller doesn’t let others’ opinions get to her. She says her strong call keeps her vision out in front of her.
“It’s like walking a tightrope, when you’re focused out front on your call and vision, you can’t let others make you look down and fall,” Miller says.
Following the example of the women who went before them, Miller, Phifer and the other women clergy in the Missouri Conference continue to lead by doing.
Miller cites the women in her covenant group who demonstrated living with a servant’s heart. Phifer says the wonderful and gracious Mary Ellen Meyer influenced her ministry heavily as did Bishop Ann Sherer-Simpson along with other women in ministry. They all served as confidants, sounding boards and a place for real, honest discussion.
Phifer recalls one time when a woman was assigned to her for exploration, and Phifer invited her over. Phifer’s kids were crawling around while they met, setting the example that being a mom and being a pastor is possible.
Today, many young girls know a world where it isn’t unusual for a woman to preach.
Ask any women clergy member in our Conference today if they’ve had a young girl approach them, telling them they too want to pursue a life in ministry. Chances are the answer is yes.
“I just feel tremendously privileged,” Phifer says. “Ministry is a joy. I’ve been a pastor for almost 40 years because of the joy and privilege it is to share Jesus in the church and world.”