Women of the cloth

Before she began interviewing Protestant clergywomen, Adair Lummis had a number of preconceptions about the roles and challenges of women in religion. ''We'd heard that women were having a terrible time, that people were saying horrible things to them, that it was very difficult to get ordained, much less get a job.''

Dr. Lummis, a research associate at Hartford Seminary, is one of three authors of a book due to be published this fall, ''Women of the Cloth: An Alternative for Churches'' (New York: Harper & Row). In the past two years, she has talked with more than 600 clergywomen and sifted through questionnaires filled out by some 700 clergymen and 700 lAy people. The result? Some unexpected success stories: ''Some women are sailing through ordination, and many are finding inclusive language used in their services. They're generally successful in preaching and worship, and they say they're having no more problems with the laity than clergymen who'vM been out there for 10 or 15 years.''

At the same time, Dr. Lummis reports that many clergywomen who were among the first to be ordained in the early 1970s see hard times atyxyhO seminary graduates of the 1980s. ''They say that women coming through the seminaries today are less feminist, less activist, that they have forgotten the struggle. And they're afraid that these women are going to rest on their laurels - that when they get out of school and into their own pulpits, they will be so naive that they won't have the gumption to hold on as the first clergywomen had to.''

The Ford Foundation study of clergywomen was headed by Dr. Jackson W. Carroll , director of the Center for Social and Religious Research at Hartford Seminary. It also involved Dr. Barbara W. Hargrove of the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. It is the first of its kind and scope in this country, and points to a number of issues that concern many Protestant churches today.

The number of women enrolled in seminaries has more than tripled in the past decade, to a point where they now make up almost 50 percent of the overall student population. Many faculty members say that their female students are far superior to their male students, that more women are graduating cum laude, more are taking honors, and more are being elected as graduation speakers than men.

But despite their acceptance and honors on seminary campuses, women are far less visible in pulpits, where they account for less than 10 percent of the clergy of the nine mainline Protestant denominations that ordain women (American Baptist, American Lutheran Church, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal Church, Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church US, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, United Presbyterian Church).

In addition, some seminaries refuse to admit women students, some denominations have approved so-called ''conscience clauses'' that leave ordination of women to the discretion of each diocese, and many sizable denominations still withhold ordination from women, including the Mormon Church and the Orthodox churches. In the Roman Catholic Church, representatives of the Women's Ordination Conference have been meeting with American bishops for several years, and the final report of their dialogues is expected to be made public this summer.

The situation for women in Judaism is about the same as for Protestant clergywomen. Women now make up one-third of the student body of the Reform movement's rabbinical school, and those women rabbis who have graduated to their own solo pulpits are doing ''superbly,'' according to the rabbi who chairs Reform Judaism's Task Force on Women in the Rabbinate.

''We only began ordaining women 10 years ago, but after a slow start things have been growing geometrically,'' says Rabbi Neil Kominsky. ''What has happened in most situations is that congregations have not set out to hire a woman rabbi. But when they have looked at the rabbis available, they have invariably discovered that the women candidates are the most qualified.''

However, Rabbi Kominsky's enthusiasm is somewhat tempered by the fact that only the Reform movement and the much smaller Reconstructionist movement today ordain women. There could be a breakthrough in the Conservative movement, where the issue has been heatedly debated for several years, but there is no expectation that the Orthodox movement will ever admit women to the rabbinate.

As women in the clergy and rabbinate assess the effect they're having in organized religion, they cite a number of personal and institutional successes - and look ahead to the challenges to come. Leadership style

One particularly significant finding of the Hartford Seminary study is that the Protestant laity generally rate clergywomen as highly as clergymen, and in some instances more highly, especially in such visible roles as preaching and leading worship. Where their ministries differ from those of their male colleagues, say many ordained women, is in their approach and relationship to their congregations.

Sandra Boyd, priest associate at Christ Church in Cambridge, Mass., and assistant librarian at the Episcopal Divinity School, points out that parish work can lend itself to isolation. ''You're expected to be all things for all people, and there's a tendency to be seduced into believing that you're somehow superior to the people, holier than they are.'' Clergymen, she says, have been trained to operate in a hierarchical, authoritarian style that can set them apart from the congregation. But clergywomen, who in the past have not been authority figures, ''throw a different dynamic'' into the church. ''Their style is more relaxed. . . . They work hard to empower lay people to use their gifts, whereas men find that very difficult to do.'' The effect on laity

As a group, women rabbis are ''having an effect on all of Judaism,'' says Rabbi Debra Hachen, because they're ''waking up a lot of women and helping them to confirm their own religious feelings, the feelings that they can take public religious roles.''

The real changes taking place in Judaism today are not happening in terms of women rabbis, she continues. ''They're happening on the temple boards where we're beginning to see women having an equal role with men instead of serving in their own auxiliary societies.'' Mobility

Mobility sums up many of the challenges ahead for women in religion:

Participants in the Hartford Seminary study reported that although there were no significant differences among clergymen and clergywomen in the size or location of their first parish jobs, salaries often differed substantially. What's more, clergywomen usually have greater difficulty in finding a second assignment.

''We're very good at getting first jobs,'' says the Rev. Jean Curtis, ''because it's au courant for churches to have a woman on their staff.'' She adds that the first question a clergywoman needs to ask is whether she can easily move up the ladder, from assistant minister to associate minister to senior pastor. ''Many women find that they are in terminal positions, and therefore a congregation is only trained to see a woman . . . at the bottom rung of the ladder. This does not help the congregation deal with its own male idolatry of the man in the pulpit.''

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