The debate that changed the church: 60 years of clergy rights for women

Meeting in Minneapolis, the General Conference granted full clergy rights to Maud Keister Jensen on May 4, 1956, making her the first women to receive such recognition.

Meeting in Minneapolis, the General Conference granted full clergy rights to Maud Keister Jensen on May 4, 1956, making her the first women to receive such recognition.

by Rev. Clayton Childers, GBCS

On May 4, 1956 the General Conference of the (then) Methodist Church meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota did something amazing. It changed the church’s book of Discipline to support full clergy rights for women. And the church has never been the same since.

Despite much resistance and fears about what this might do to our churches, expressed by voices of both men and women, the General Conference, voted down compromise proposals and ended up supporting the boldest position offered  – full clergy rights for women with no exceptions.

This is a personal issue for me.  My wife and I are a clergy couple.  Having been ordained in another denomination, we chose to move into the United Methodist Church largely because of its support for women in leadership. We are proud of our UM Connection and feel privileged to serve as UM clergy.  We are also pleased that we were able to raise our daughters in a Church committed to having Open Hearts, Open Minds and Open Doors.

But how times have changed over the last 60 years.  Reading the transcript from the 1956 General Conference Journal is fascinating. The petition for full clergy rights came out of the Ministry Committee – 84 members with 81 men and 3 women.  Though 8 of the committee members were from beyond the US, none were from Africa.  On the committee there were 4 members representing conferences in the (African American) Central Jurisdictions.

The committee’s majority report favored clergy rights for women but only for non-married women.  The minority report favored no change in the discipline. The majority report passed by 40 -32. Later they proposed allowing married women serve but without any guarantee of an appointment.  Both were voted down.

And then there was debate on the floor.  The presiding bishop, Bishop Willis King, was the Central Jurisdiction (African-American) bishop stationed in New Orleans with an episcopal territory stretching from northern Mississippi to west Texas.

Maud Pauline Keister Jensen was the first woman to receive full clergy rights in the Methodist Church

Maud Pauline Keister Jensen was the first woman to receive full clergy rights in the Methodist Church

One of the first members to stand for full clergy rights was a delegate who served a principal of a Methodist school in Calcutta, India. (Though he speaks in favor, it is about the strangest endorsement speech ever presented).  Another early voice in support was the Rev. Anderson Davis, an African-American pastor from West Virginia.  Nineteen men speak before we finally hear from a woman, Mrs. Henry D. Ebner of New Jersey, but she speaks against the motion, fearing that opening the clerical doors to women will result in fewer women being willing to serve as deaconesses.  Her argument is followed by a bold speech in favor by Mrs. Edwin Anderson, president of the New England Conference Woman’s Society of Christian Service.   She’s backed up by Miss Mary Lou Barnwell of New York (finally a woman not identified by her husband’s name).

Slowly, it seems, the conference comes to realize it might have the votes not for compromise legislation but to do something really bold “full clergy rights for women with no exceptions.”  Who would have thought it?

Just at this key moment in the debate, a delegate rises to make just such a proposal – Dr. Zack Johnson, president of Asbury College in Kentucky (he told those around him he was about to shock everyone there)  – coming to the podium he proposes in simple, clear language, a substitution for the main motion which officially would open the doors of the church to the service of women as full clergy, having the very same rights as men, no exceptions.

Read this transcript of the actual May 4, 1956 proceedings.  Perhaps, even use it your church or Sunday School. This is how General Conference works and on some days it has even surprised itself with the boldness of its actions.

This story was originally published at

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10 Comments on "The debate that changed the church: 60 years of clergy rights for women"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Harold Gardner

This article is an amazing witness to the power of possibility

Clayton Childers

thank you Harold, of course I agree entirely.

Jim Harnish

Two interesting observations:
1) ZT Johnson, who made the final motion, was no flaming liberal. He was, in fact, from the conservative, holiness tradition from a conservative Conference (KY). Sometimes the Spirit surprises.

2) The 2020 GC will meet again in Minneapolis. If not in Portland, perhaps the Spirit of 1956 will be at work again to open ordination to gay sisters and brothers.


Reread this article and take out ‘women’ and insert ‘gays and lesbians’. That’s what I want to read. Hey, General Conference, surprise yourself (again) with the ‘boldness of your actions’ and sit back and watch the church change (for the better) again.


Amen! The saddest day of my life to date was when I heard the call of my God only to be told NO. I’ve never been told NO before and of all times and places!


So, so sorry.

Mamie Alethia Williams
Mamie Alethia Williams

What happened to the name of the late Rev. Emma Pinkney Burrell of the Old Washington Conference in Baltimore, MD? Some records record that she was ordained before Rev. Jansen.

Carmel J.
From what my grandmother seemed to think, it was customary for women to be known as “Mrs. Husband’s Name” in 1956, especially for something formal like an official transcript. So “Miss Her Own Name” wasn’t a “finally known by her own name”, she was merely unmarried. Taking on a husband’s name seemed to be part of the rite of passage into married life (and perhaps, adulthood) for my grandmother. This is merely a custom that has changed over time, and not something that needs to be judged in an otherwise celebratory article. As a reader, I found the change in… Read more »
Phil Bostrom

In 1956, “Mrs. John Smith” was the woman married to John Smith or the widow of John Smith. “Mrs. Mary Smith” was divorced. “Mary Smith” (with no “Mrs.”) could be single, married, widowed, or divorced.

Richard F Hicks

I’m tired of all this “rights” talk. What about using “personal responsibility and accountability?” Begin using this term: radical responsibility radical grace (RRRG). Puts the power into the hands of the person not the clergy union. Hold people to account. What has the last 60 years brought the UMC Inc – health, growth, or decline, death. “By their fruits you will know them.” Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC clergy spouse of an extremely productive woman.

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