Women clergy bring a new sensibility to an old calling
The "stained-glass ceiling" was breached in dramatic fashion this summer, when bishops of the US Episcopal Church unexpectedly elected Katharine Jefferts Schori to be the church's leader for the next nine years.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet that glass ceiling remains relatively intact, even though the ranks of women clergy and their impact on religious communities continue to grow. It's perhaps no surprise that women's leadership remains controversial, since the two largest Christian denominations in the US – Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists – reject women as pastors. So do Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, some Evangelicals, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews.
Still, thousands of clergywomen are filling rewarding and increasingly influential roles as ministers, priests, bishops, and rabbis. And it's not the numbers or even the level of acceptance that's at the heart of the issue, many say – it's a divine calling.
"God called me, and I have such a sense of that, that it's the defining thing," says the Rev. Nancy Rankin, twice a senior pastor and now director of congregational development for the United Methodist Church (UMC) in western North Carolina.
The UMC and the Presbyterian Church (USA) are currently celebrating 50 years of ordaining women. The Methodists boast some 12,000 clergywomen; and 20 percent of Presbyterian clergy are female. Unitarian Universalists stand out as the one denomination to have a majority of women leaders.
Some Christian and Jewish clergywomen with years of experience – and who've reached the challenging and often-elusive post of senior pastor – say they still encounter resistance. They point to frontiers that remain, but are also encouraged by the strides already made.
"I wanted to be a rabbi long before women could, but I didn't think it would happen in my lifetime," says Rabbi Susan Grossman, who leads Beth Shalom, a Conservative Jewish congregation in Columbia, Md. "There's been more change in women's role in Judaism in the last 30 years than probably all of Jewish history!"
Women of both faiths share the experiences of difficulty in finding jobs, being shunted into smaller, often remote congregations, and receiving lower pay and fewer benefits than their male counterparts, as shown by studies of both Protestant clergy and Conservative Jewish rabbis.
Partly out of necessity and partly out of inclination, women have extended the boundaries of ministry beyond the congregation to serve as both military and hospital chaplains, educators, and counselors for social service agencies, according to a major 1998 study, "Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling."
Studies also show that clergywomen experience more stress than their male counterparts in a demanding occupation. As a result, a number are leaving the pulpit.
At the same time, clergywomen have been credited with being less interested in hierarchy and more in collegiality. They've brought new perspectives into the theological discussion, a more inclusive style, and opened the doors to worshippers who've felt disengaged from institutional religion.
"My mother often said that if there had been women rabbis when she was young, she wouldn't have been alienated from Judaism," says Ms. Grossman.
The role models clergywomen provide are spurring other young women to enter seminaries, where today they make up between 30 and 50 percent of students. "I grew up not ever seeing women in ministry.... The girls in this congregation don't think twice about it," says the Rev. Shannon Kershner, senior pastor at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.
Despite the numerous challenges, many women find the profession immensely satisfying and an opportunity to influence their faith communities.
Grossman was in the first class of ordained Conservative rabbis in 1985 and has been in the pulpit for 17 years. She's in an elite class of women who've become senior rabbis leading large congregations.
What means most to her, she says, is bringing comfort and support to people at meaningful moments in their lives. She also prizes "being able to mobilize the community for interfaith work, for peace work, for countering domestic violence. It's tremendously satisfying to do that authentically as a Jewish leader," she says.
And a leader she has become in the Jewish community. Grossman has served as an editor of the Conservative commentary on Scripture (Torah) and as a member of a committee on Jewish law and standards, which enables her to help make Jewish law "more woman-friendly." Her "rabbinic decision" on women serving as witnesses in Jewish law is now an official Conservative position.