During its annual General Council meeting at the end of May, the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) will discuss a proposed policy change affecting the titles of female leaders. Currently, the denomination does not ordain women, but consecrates and licenses women for ministry and reserves the title of pastor (and elder) for men.
“It’s become clear to me that some of our policies unnecessarily restrict otherwise called and qualified ministers,” CMA President John Stumbo said in a video message to members last month. “I am among those who interpret the Scriptures through the lens of male-only eldership, yet I believe we’ve been inconsistent in our documents and inappropriate in some of our policies.” The end result, he says, is unnecessary limitations on Christian outreach.
To allow time for discussion and prayer, a final decision won’t be made until 2022. “We’re not moving fast, but I do believe we can move together,” Stumbo says. The pandemic caused some delays and complications, but, he says, “We believe that more time for more interaction and for better understanding of the proposals, and perhaps further refinement, will serve the family well.”
Many CMA Members Would Like to Ordain Women
According to surveys of more than 3,000 CMA members, 61% say women should be allowed to be pastors and that no distinction should exist between the labels “ordained” and “consecrated.” However, a majority (58%) also say only men should be elders. Only one in 10 respondents say women currently retain too much leadership within the denomination.
The CMA, founded in 1897, now has about 2,000 churches and 500,000 members in the United States. It has a history of encouraging women to serve in various areas of ministry and missions. The denomination’s two-year ministry-training regimen is the same for both men and women; the only difference is the title bestowed at the end of the process. Women in CMA churches perform baptisms, marriages, funerals, hospital visits, counseling and more.
Wanda Walborn, a professor at Alliance Theological Seminary, tells Christianity Today, “When God calls you, he gives you a place to serve. The rule and reign of God has come, and we’re going to advance his kingdom, and all hands are needed on deck because we’re in a broken world that desperately needs the love of Jesus.”
As director of the leadership-training program Empower, Walborn helps women prepare for ministry careers in a variety of denominations. “The issue is, who are you?” she says. “What has God made you to do? Let’s equip you to do it.”
What’s in a Title?
Some women who are consecrated to serve within the CMA say the policy change will provide much-needed linguistic clarity. When the word pastor is “off-limits, you end up doing verbal gymnastics,” says Jennifer Ashby, who performs extensive ministry duties at Neighborhood Church in Maryland. “Without the commonly understood language around what I do, people don’t understand how I can help them.”
Though titles are just words, Ashby says, they have important “functional implications.” For example, people in the community who request pastoral care may not realize that a woman with a title such as Executive Director of Ministries can assist them.
“The truth is, language matters,” Ashby tells Christianity Today. “Language can telegraph equality and the possibility of calling to young women in Alliance churches. Right now, there are these weird mixed messages.”