Women in Ministry
Note from the Editor
This edition of @ This Point, on women in ministry, contains a range of “snapshots” from its contributors, whose hard-fought wisdom graces us all and whose wounds remind us of how far we have to go. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, Professor of Theology at Bellarmine University, leads off this edition with a collection of insightful and incisive reflections on the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that women in ministry continue to face obstacles that none of their male counterparts face. Responding to Hinson-Hasty’s lead essay, Prof. Katie Geneva Cannon of Union Presbyterian Seminary, Prof. E. Elizabeth Johnson, who serves as Columbia’s own J. Davison Phillips Professor of New Testament, and current CTS DMin student Rev. Lindsay Armstrong add their own insights garnered from personal experience and close attention to the cultures in which they work. (Full disclosure: I’m fortunate to be Rev. Armstrong’s spouse. She says very kind things about me in her response; were I nearly so good a partner as she suggests, I would reciprocate here.). To their contributions add a very helpful set of curricula designed by recent CTS MDiv graduate and current head of staff at Rehoboth Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Rev. Rachael Whaley-Pate.
To their snapshots, I would add a few small ones from my own experiences with churches:
- After a dynamic female minister took a congregation through a much-needed administrative overhaul and a long-overdue, fully funded, and successful multimillion dollar renovation, one church elder in the parking lot was overheard telling another that after all these changes, “we just need a male pastor in his 50’s to come in and give us some stability.”
- A successful female associate pastor in a large church was told by the pastor nominating committee of a church in the same denomination that they would not accept her application for an open head of staff position. Not that they were unlikely to call her, mind you: that they wouldn’t include her within their pool of candidates. They “weren’t ready for that conversation.”
- An engaging though not overly flamboyant female minister I know who has received multiple awards for her preaching/sermons regularly hears more compliments about her shoes, her earrings, her hair, or her fingernails than her sermons at the back door after services.
These are simply a few anecdotes and, perhaps, as the oft-quoted and apocryphal meme reminds us, “the plural ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.” Maybe they’re not data (but if not, what are they?) but such anecdotes—especially when combined with all the snapshots and data that our contributors bring—are certainly signs that demand our interpretation.
As I read through these essays and reflect on my own experiences and observations, I am struck by the degree to which the move to recognize the full equality of women in ministry has been complicated not only by gender but by generation. That is, I wonder whether women have also faced a generation of mainline denominational clergy whose verbal support for women in ministry has not necessarily been matched by their actions.
- Failing to recognize the way multiple power differentials (between heads of staff and associates; between men and women in the contemporary United States; between persons of different races; etc.) impact staff relationships, a generation of male heads of staff (including those who defend the ordination of women) has nevertheless protected its power. Since there were almost no women in equivalent roles in the church, not only was women’s ability to break through the “stained glass ceiling” significantly hampered, but the positions women have tended to get out of seminary placed them in ecclesiastically inferior relations to men. As a result, new female clergy entered the ministry learning practices that either left them less prepared for bigger pulpits (and, therefore, significantly less likely to be called to such positions) or, worse, drove them out of ministry in frustration. To be clear: these heads of staff weren’t intentionally misogynistic; they were simply interested in maintaining and using power, the effects of which disproportionately hurt women. Looking back on my own seminary class from the mid-90’s, I can count many gifted female classmates who have left the ministry after dealing with nominally “pro-woman” heads of staff whose leadership style repeatedly placed them in positions in which they could choose only between accepting subservience or facing the wrath of a challenged head of staff.
- Hoping to pass on their wisdom to younger clergy, some established male clergy have sought to mentor younger women in the ways of ministry without recognizing: (a) that the mentor/mentee relationship is, itself, based on complicated power differentials which are then reinforced by complex gender dynamics; (b) that the women they’ve attempted to mentor are often more aware of the way changing social and ecclesial systems make the wisdom of past generations less relevant than are their mentors; and, (c) that many of these women would be better supported by public advocacy on their behalf than by private mentoring. In many instances, younger female clergy didn’t need to learn “wisdom from the master” so much as have someone with authority publicly recognize their potential to be heads of staff themselves. Obviously, mentoring can serve important purposes, for both male and female clergy. But often mentoring isn’t nearly as beneficial as some mentors would like to believe and I continue to think that advocacy in the face of such power differentials is more likely to lead to systematic change.
- In a church beset by divisions and increasingly defined by schisms—including, especially, over matters of sexuality—many established male ministers have made difficult decisions about which battles to fight and have chosen battles not directly related to the full equality of women in ministry. This is understandable: time and energy are in limited supply, especially when church members can demand so much and contemporary cultures grow increasingly complicated and contentious. Nevertheless, these decisions about which battles to fight consistently under-regard the fact that the vast majority of Christians in the United States attend churches in which women cannot serve as ministers and priests and that these denominations establish cultural norms for the rest of us. Against such a backdrop, even the pews of mainline women-ordaining Protestant denominations hold some members who are suspicious of women in ministry (and read the Bible to support their position) and many who, if asked to close their eyes and imagine a generic “minister,” think of a man. In an almost yearly ritual, I watch (white) male MDiv seniors be called to church positions before equally (and, often, more) gifted women in their class are called, usually because they “look or sound like pastors.”
There is, clearly, an irony in all this. The same generation against which I am railing is the generation that opened doors for women to serve in all the offices of the church. Such, perhaps, is the ambiguity of all change. There is, however, also hope. The generation that opened doors for women in ministry is being replaced by men and women who are used to walking through doors together. The church—including, perhaps especially, the mainline Protestant women-ordaining church—will still struggle with inequality in ministry. But maybe the struggle will take place on slightly more level ground. And as long as there are women like the writers for this edition of @ This Point willing to share their wisdom, the outcome of that struggle will be of benefit to women and, therein, to the whole church.