The United Methodist Church has ordained women since 1956, but Bishop Peggy Johnson still gets the occasional admonition when she prepares to appoint a minister to a new church: "Don't you send us a woman."
The request is a stinging reminder that although female clergy are finally pushing against the stained-glass ceiling, resistance still lingers, said Johnson, leader of the denomination's Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.
The bishop, who supervises congregations in 16 counties, was one of 400 United Methodist clergywomen who met this week in Lancaster to celebrate the obstacles they have overcome and to confront the ones that remain.
"When I [was ordained] in the late '70s, there were so few of us that we had to stick together, and we had meetings to encourage and support each other," said the Rev. Michele Bartlow, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church of Germantown. "Now, it does my soul good to see all these women. The church needs to continue to break down barriers."
Clergywomen from Maine to the District of Columbia attended workshops designed to encourage the ministers to be "Bodacious and Bold" in their callings. The theme was aligned with the meeting's signature Bible passages, from 2 Corinthians about lifting the veil. The conference ended Wednesday.
The meeting comes at a time when studies show that female clergy in Protestant churches have doubled their ranks among senior pastors from to 5 percent to 10 percent and are a dominant presence in seminaries.
In the United Methodist Church, the number of female clergy has increased from 8,892 in 2006 to 9,135 in 2011. A total of 41,380 ministers serve in the church, the country's third-largest Protestant denomination.
But the strides that have been made are still weighted down by inequality, said the Rev. HiRho Y. Park, the denomination's director of continuing formation for ministry. Female clergy in the United Methodist Church are paid 13 percent less than their male counterparts, Park said.
The Rev. Alicia M. Julia-Stanley, an associate pastor at Emilie United Methodist Church in Levittown, said it took her 20 years to earn a salary above the minimum set by the denomination. Congregations decide to pay above the minimum based on talent, experience, and schooling, Julia-Stanley said. She believes her sex negatively influenced salary decisions.
A 2008 study commission by the denomination found that 90 percent of the female clergy surveyed reported that they were the first woman to lead their churches. Most female clergy are in smaller congregations and receive "less prominent" appointments, Park said.
The meeting also offered seminars on alternative prayer styles, Tai Chi for stress relief, the challenges for disabled and minority ministers, and American Indian spirituality.
Conferences such as "Bodacious and Bold" offer female clergy the chance to share their continuing struggles for parity and consider solutions, said the Rev. Lillian Smith, director of connectional ministries for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.
"Even though there are many more women, we're still dealing with issues like equal pay, churches not wanting you as a woman, and advancement," Smith said.
At the conference's opening worship, three female bishops who are currently serving, and two retired bishops, each talked about a seminal moment of self-discovery in her ministry - and lifting the veil.
For Johnson, it was her decision to run for the office of bishop, a process she said could be "contentious and miserable."
First, Johnson asked people for their opinions. One person laughed in her face. Another said, "You've got to be kidding."
So Johnson fasted and prayed. On the last day of her 21-day fast, a friend came up to her and coincidentally greeted her with "Hello, Bishop."
Johnson said her veil was lifted.