Philippine clergywomen celebrate gains
All photos in this article by M. Garlinda Burton
Hoping for a woman bishop, more opportunity, women pastors in the Philippines ‘lift up, level up and lead on’
When the Rev. Elizabeth (“Pastor Beth”) Bautista began working as a United Methodist pastor in 1984, only two or three clergywomen had answered the call to ministry.
“The clergymen didn’t know what to do with us—and lay people were not sure about women leading their churches,” she recalls. “But look at us today.”
Bautista, superintendent of the Aurora District in the Middle Philippines Annual Conference, was among the 220 women elders, deacons, local pastors and pastors-in-training who gathered Oct. 6-7 in a historic meeting in the Philippines, sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM).
United Methodist clergywomen and laywomen from across the Philippines have held conferences in the past. However this was the largest gathering ever of Filipina pastors convened by the denomination’s agency responsible for clergy oversight and education.
Organizing regional networking
In 2011-2012, GBHEM is sponsoring a series of clergywomen consultations in each of the five U.S. jurisdictions and in Europe/Eurasia, Africa and the Philippines. The Rev. HiRho Park, a staff member of the Nashville-based agency, says the purpose is to celebrate the gains won by women in ordained and licensed ministry and to encourage each region to organize an association of clergywomen for networking, advocacy and mentoring.
Clergywomen, who represent nearly 22 percent of all United Methodist pastors around the world, organized in clusters even before predecessor denominations opened their doors to ordaining and licensing women more than 50 years ago.
The first gathering for U.S. clergywomen of The United Methodist Church was held in 1975. What is new in these regional gatherings is the sheer numbers of women entering ministry. Just 25 years ago, only three or four Filipina’s were ordained; in October, their numbers filled a hotel ballroom to overflowing.
Much of the time at the Philippines gathering—organized under the theme, “Clergywomen: Lift Up, Level up, Lead on!”— was devoted to hugs and celebration. Presenters focused on topics ranging from “strengthening preaching skills” to “self-care and healthy living for stressed-out clergy.”
Participants and presenters also named concerns and issues which, they say, the Philippines’ church—and the entire United Methodist communion—must address if the church is to remain relevant to women in developing communities in Asia and Africa, including:
» Continuing efforts to counter sexism and create opportunities for all people to express their Christian faith;
» Electing a Filipina bishop so that the values and voices of women from the Philippines are represented at the highest levels of church;
» Increasing educational opportunities for clergy, and:
» Allocating more resources and other tangible support for ministries with young adults, youth and children.
Bautista—who has twice been a candidate for bishop—and other women pastors like the Rev. Leslie Dela Cruz of Manila, acknowledge that gender bias still exists in many corners of church and society. Still, they say, barriers to women’s advancement are coming down, and women themselves must become better organized and united in order to accomplish even more.
“If clergywomen and laywomen in the Philippines can come together, we can elect a woman bishop. We can’t just say that men don’t want us; the men I work with support women pastors and they want to see a woman bishop,” says Bautista.
“Women, though, have to unite, get behind the strongest candidates and make that happen,” adds Dela Cruz, who is leads a mission congregation at Gamachile UMC in Manila. “And we also need for United Methodist churchwomen around the world to support the idea of women bishops everywhere!”
The Rev. Nerissa Palafox, the chairperson of the design team, agrees. “Women have been successful in challenging the patriarchal culture in the Philippines, and we are gaining ground, but we still need to work harder at uniting to make lasting changes.”
Deaconesses, laywomen paved the way
Palafox and others also acknowledge the role of laywomen and deaconesses in paving the way for ordained and licensed women pastors. Before the church allowed women to become clergy, consecrated United Methodist laywomen women known as “deaconesses” spread the Gospel and improved the lives of people across the Philippines, teaching Sunday school, instituting preschool and elementary education programs, providing health care and even convening house churches.
Indeed, many of today’s Filipina clergywomen—including Palafox—began their ministries as deaconesses.
And many deaconesses still lead United Methodist congregations in that nation.
Palafox received her early training at United Methodist-related Harris Memorial College, a pioneer in elementary education. Until last June, Palafox served for six years as one of eight women superintendents in the 25 districts of the Baguio Episcopal Area. She says her work as a deaconess and a stint as district superintendent honed her administrative skills and buoyed her confidence to confront gender bias in any ministry setting.
Currently, Palafox is pastor of 500-member Cauayan City UMC, where her husband, the Rev. Beny Palafox, is associate pastor.
“My husband and I work together well, and we are very clear about our roles and responsibilities. He is quick to remind congregants that I am the lead pastor,” says Palafox. “We’re teaching every day about the equality among women and men in ministry.”
Retired Bishop Daniel Arichea of Manila and Baguio Area and Bishop Rodolfo Juan were among those who urged the women to further their education and hone their preaching and teaching skills. Juan celebrated the “sacrifices that women have made to answer God’s call” in serving the church, and encouraged participants to continue their own theological education and to encourage younger women in ministry to fine-tune their preaching, teaching and mission skills.
Juan also committed himself to support clergywomen and to help dismantle institutional sexism in the Philippines and the larger United Methodist Church. Reflecting on an earlier sermon by the Rev. HiRho Park, in which she admitted “the church is often not a friendly place for clergywomen and women of color,” Juan says, “I promise I will not be the source of storms in the lives of clergywomen.”
Ministries with indigenous people
Filipina clergy agreed on the importance of reaching out to youth and young adults, children and indigenous groups, such as the Aetas (known as “black people of the Philippines,” because of their brown skin and curly hair).
The Rev. Angie Pelayo, 24, is a local pastor and an Aeta who serves Baguilan UMC in the West Middle Philippines Annual Conference. Pelayo’s congregation of 20 people has an outreach to 40 children in a low-income Aeta community.
“The United Methodist Church should be a church that walks with the poor and with people who face discrimination,” says Pelayo, a 2010 graduate of United Methodist-related Immanuel Bible School.
“The church that is following Christ is the one that stands with people who are suffering,” adds Pelayo, who attends college classes weekdays and then walks two hours one way to spend the weekend tending her flock Friday through Sunday. The 200 pisos (about $4.50) for a one-way motorcycle-taxi ride is too expensive for the young pastor, who lives on a monthly salary of less than $30.
In an address, M. Garlinda Burton, top staff executive of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women in Chicago, praised the Filipina clergy, adding, “You who are on the front lines of ministries with the poor and still tearing down walls of gender injustice have something to teach the whole United Methodist Church. Make your voices heard and speak truth to power so that we can become a more faithful, more vital, more relevant body of Christ!”
A gathering of clergywomen from across Africa will be held Feb. 1-4, 2012 in Zimbabwe.
Meet more women pastors from the Philippines.