hero default image

Women as Equals: the Need for Continuing Change

On a beautiful sunny day with clear blue skies, I walked out of the Princeton Chapel and down its sandstone steps with my seminary diploma in hand and a call to a congregation in Virginia to be their Pastor. As I took my first unsteady steps on the journey, I could have started as an Associate Pastor, but I didn’t have too. I had options. The hard work of generations before meant that opportunity spread in front of me like a vast ocean—or at least like a large lake.

Excited, I was also acutely aware that women pastors were relatively new to most people and that they were not uniformly welcome. Several months prior to moving in, the largest, most prominent church in the town where I would be serving voted to revoke the call of their Associate Pastor. Why? Their Associate Pastor was female and therefore should not serve in a pastoral capacity. A few short months later, I was nervous and under a great deal of scrutiny as I began as Pastor of the neighboring church. While shaking hands at the door after worship on my first Sunday, an elegant older woman extended her delicate, white gloved hand, leaned in and whispered (for all to hear), “you don’t have to preach that well every week.” She then straightened up and walked out on the arm of her adult son. It was a gift given to this young pastor. While I wanted to preach that well and even better every Sunday, she acknowledged my hard work and talent, and she also graced me with freedom, acceptance and welcome, all wrapped up in that simple statement. It is one example among many of the ways church members and leaders open doors and let the fresh breeze of women’s pastoral leadership begin to blow through the church.

Yes, some women are better off than ever, but equality eludes us. Fifty years after the ordination of Rachel Henderlite as the first female Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), women’s career trajectories still look very different than men’s. By and large, women are the associate, part time and/or solo pastors while men are the tall steeple preachers. The stained glass ceiling is real, and women are hitting their heads on a ceiling that their male peers do not face. The numbers speak for themselves. As Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty details,

Today, mainline seminaries report that the majority of their students are women. In the PC(USA), however, women are not equally represented among leaders on all levels of ministry in the church. Nearly 80% of pastors and co-pastors are men. Women make up only 4.7% of ministers installed in senior pastor positions in congregations with over 1000 or more members. Most women serve in congregations of fewer than 300 members.

In many church cultures, hiring a man is still default. If churches do not pay attention, think hard and tend wisely the experience of women in ministry, it is not just the women who lose. It is the families and friends who live alongside unrecognized leaders who lose. It is the church that does not hear certain voices. It is the church that risks losing some of its best clergy. It is the larger world in which we make our witness that loses, as we remain unconnected to the envisioned future that God has planned for all creation. As we use the talents of all of God’s children, our institutions will be more productive, our homes will be happier, the children growing up in those homes will no longer be held back by narrow stereotypes, and all people may live with the joy of being able to imagine, believe and live into what God intends to do through their lives.

Consequently, I write to add to the scrapbook – or even better, the Pinterest board – Dr. Hinson-Hasty has begun. While women are created with a variety of calls and gifts to be celebrated and lifted up, I provide a few more snapshots that deepen our understanding of obstacles that female Presbyterian Church (USA) teaching elders who believe themselves called to large (or larger) pulpits face. Naturally, they are not the only obstacles or even the biggest ones; they simply need to be noted and navigated for the blessing and benefit of all creation and for the glory of God.

Snapshot #1 – Poor Biblical Exegesis and Theology

We’ve come a long way, but discrimination in the PCUSA is still bolstered by lingering theological bias. I grew up in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) where women are denied opportunity to lead. My childhood church had rules about women not being permitted to teach adults or any children sixth grade or older. The church had clearly stated teachings about women as the weaker sex. As a seventh grader wondering about her own call, the pastor of my church assured me that it was understandable that I might be interested in being a pastor because, as female, part of my natural disposition is to grasp for more than I am created to have. As Eve was tempted to pluck forbidden fruit in the garden, I too will be tempted to overreach but need to resist. Or so I was told.

These days, most PCUSA churches not only teach but clearly affirm a message of equality. Nonetheless, the church’s former captivity to patriarchal culture still lingers in unexpected places. Five years ago, when I first became an Associate Pastor, I was greeted by a church member who said, “You know I don’t believe women should be pastors, but I really like you.” Just two weeks ago after a Pastor Nominating Committee update was made at our congregational meeting, I was privy to a conversation involving otherwise lovely people who think of themselves as open-minded and welcoming and who even dedicate themselves to important justice issues. One person is a close friend of a former female Associate Pastor, so I was shocked when she and the other two women stated outright that it was better that our new pastor not be a woman as women are generally not strong enough, are unable to juggle everything, and are unlikely to be followed in the same way as our church might follow a man.

It is fashionable for PCUSA churches to have female associate pastors who are loved and valued. It is true that a great many PCUSA leaders and members stand against such bias and inaccuracy. This can give the impression that discrimination is vanishing, but there are church members and leaders who do not believe women are created equal to men or have the same gifts for ministry. They cling to cultural assumptions built on poor understandings of the Bible. They truly believe that to be faithful means taking unpopular stands like upholding a literal read of I Timothy 2:8-15 and standing against “politically correct” views such as women as equals in leadership. We cannot grow quiet on this topic. Decide that the goal matters. While few of us may want to carry the flag for equal treatment, pay and opportunity, we need men and women of faith to regularly address assumptions about men and women and to continue teaching best practices when it comes to studying and understanding the Bible and its authoritative place in our lives. Additionally, men, please know how nice it is when women are not the only ones to prompt the discussion.

Snapshot #2 – Home-Work Balance

Maternal instincts contribute a complicated emotional tug to the balance of home and work life. We want to be great mothers, wives and pastors, but what that looks is hotly debated, internally and externally.

Undoubtedly, decisions made to navigate the emotional tug of war as well as practical demands of motherhood contribute to few women breaking the stained glass ceiling. At the same time, this invites women and men of any profession into a larger lifestyle conversation most recently pressed by Sheryl Sandberg in her book, Lean In. Concurrently, it points to some practical responses to the question of what can be done to help the church see and use the talents of all of its people, including the gifts of the women called to prominently lead. The question is one of how we spend our time.

For me, one of the most important career choices I have made is marrying Mark. He gets up early to fold laundry and walk the dog. He does the grocery shopping in between dropping off and picking up carpool. He typically handles the dry cleaning and is not shy about doing the dishes. He’s also a fabulous cook, specializing in Mexican food of any variety (including the best margarita on the block). Right now, I’m able to write this article because he’s helping our daughter with her homework. I’m not married to a saint, though there are times when Mark might argue for this. I’m also not the only one bringing home a paycheck; we both work full time. Instead, I can lean in as a pastor because he leans in at home and vice versa.

One great way to help crack the stained glass ceiling wide open is to be a person who supports women concretely as they lean in. If you are married, take on half the household responsibilities. In fact, lean farther than half way. As my father-in-law told us when we got married, if you both feel like you’re doing 60% of the work of the household, you’ll be fine.

Regardless of whether or not you share a house and regardless of whether or not you have close women in your life, advocate for decent parental leave in your work place. Expect men to take it too. Make sure diaper changing stations are in the men and women’s restrooms, and do your part to close the pay gap. Hire beyond traditionally female roles, like music and children’s ministry. Whether or not you have a household to share, take your vacation, study leave and days off. Model healthy habits which, when replicated, make it possible for women and their spouses to lean in at work without having to let so much go untended at home. There are conversations some parishioners will only have with a female clergy person; there are perspectives and life experiences that only women speak to. We need women pastors, and we each have a role in helping them make it.

Snapshot #3 – Confidence Gap

The May 2014 issue of The Atlantic carries a fascinating summary of “The Confidence Code” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. The article summarizes research suggesting that men overestimate their abilities and performance, while women underestimate both. At the same time, men and women’s performance does not differ in quality.

Shipman, a reporter for ABC News, and Kay, the anchor for BBC World News America, have interviewed some of the most influential women in the United States, and both were surprised to discover the extent to which the most influential women in the nation suffer from self-doubt. In interview after interview, these women interjected comments about “being lucky” to be hired, getting the job because they were simply in the right place at the right time, not really being qualified, feeling like an imposter, and being sure that someone else could do the job better. They discovered powerful, successful, credentialed women watching themselves defer to alpha-male colleagues because they were louder and assumed greater competence and ability to contribute. Shipman and Kay sought out women leaders with deep reservoirs of confidence and instead found evidence of its shortage, highlighted easily in what Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told them a year before her book Lean In was published: “There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”

With an eye toward the question of whether a lack of confidence might be holding women back, Shipman and Kay found substantial, well quantified, and well documented research suggesting that confidence matters as much as competence and that persistent disparity in levels of self-assurance holds women back from achieving at the highest levels. Women regularly estimate that they do more poorly on tests than they actually do. They ask for and expect lower pay than their male colleagues. They don’t answer questions until they are 100% sure of the veracity of their response. They do not turn in reports (or deliver sermons and write newsletter note or articles?) until they have been edited and re-edited to perfection. We fixate on performance. We sign up for sports only when we know we are fitter than is required. We do not consider ourselves as ready for promotions, and we generally underestimate and underrepresent our abilities. Simultaneously, men overestimate and oversell.

You’ll notice the movement in the last paragraph from referring to women as “they” to using the word “we.” The confidence problems are personal. I struggle, and I know plenty of colleagues who do as well. While problems resulting from overconfidence in men can be explored in another venue, it needs to be said that lack of confidence is holding clergy women back. Our own self-doubt is a pane in—and pain of—the stained glass ceiling. While we know women are as able as men, sometimes we determine for ourselves that we are not up to a certain job, speaking engagement, project, etc. and do not try. “Confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into action,” argues Robert Petty, Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University. As a result, inaction is the natural outcome of low confidence. We hesitate. We are unsure. We hold ourselves back, despite the fact that when we do act, what we offer is just as worthwhile as what men offer.

Fortunately, as Shipman and Kay point out, we are resilient, and our brains are pliable. Study after study shows how much our brains can change and be retrained. We can make ourselves more confidence prone. How? By acting. By staying in white hot relationship with the God who calls us, who has things to accomplish through us and who might even invite us to stop thinking so much and just act. Trusting that we are called and equipped, we just do it. The other obstacles to access are too big to let ourselves stay in the way. Get out there and apply, write, network, negotiate, join boards, protest injustice, aspire, visit those in need, contribute, recommend others, recommend yourself and do the thing that scares you. Over time, expanding our thinking, knowing that God is not displeased by our desire to rise, acting as if it were true that God calls women to top church positions and acting as if we should be there, we might even find deep reservoirs of confidence growing within ourselves as we live the lives God asks and has equipped us to live.

Concluding Thoughts:

The days of tokenism where one woman was expected alongside a cache of men are disappearing. Consequently, the conversation is not only about breaking the stained glass ceiling; it’s about moving beyond it. Several of the ideas offered above help with that, and there are many more.

What is true is that God may call, but if family, church, society or even the self-doubting parts of women withhold support, it is hard for women, let alone the church as a whole to believe what God intends to do through their lives. What is true is that women’s default mode of keeping their heads down, playing by the rules and expecting that with enough hard work, their talent will be recognized is not enough. While women do this, men around them get the positions women also feel called to, men are being paid more, and the church is limited by it. What is true is that we are being invited by the Spirit into a better understanding of how both women and men work together to form a more Christ-like community. Thus, grateful for what we have and still celebrating the watershed moment 50 years ago when the Presbyterian Church in the United States ordained its first women as a Minister of Word and Sacrament, we move forward dissatisfied with the status quo and committed to changing it. For generation upon generation, the pulpit has been a symbol of authority, and whatever you think of pulpits, it is time for women to not just look on as their male colleagues stand in those pulpits. It is time to use the gifts of the entire population in leadership of the church. It is time for female pastors to stand in some of the largest pulpits. The hard work of Holy Spirit and of generations before us means that equality is within reach. The time is coming when there will be no women pastors and no female preachers. Just pastors and preachers of every variety. Thanks be to God.