`SIR'' is no longer a safe way to address a local minister. About 15 years ago, it was almost always a ``he'' - but now things are different. Since the late '70s, an increasing number of women have become ordained ministers in many denominations across the country.
According to the ``Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches for 1987,'' in 1972 women made up 10.2 percent of the students in North American seminaries. By 1986, they made up 26.4 percent. Scholars and ministers interviewed by the Monitor estimate that in a number of northeastern seminaries women make up 50 percent of the student body.
As more American women become ministers, clergy and parishioners are taking a look at their impact.
In preaching, for example, clergywomen often bring innovative styles and methods and emphasize themes that men have given less attention to, says Ann Dubois, chairperson of the Professional Church Leadership Committee of the National Council of Churches and an administrator in the Presbyterian church- themes like relationships, family, and injustice.
Theological issues such as ``inclusive language'' - the substitution of neutral terms for the male references to God in the Scriptures - are also commonly found in the sermons of women, say some of the ministers interviewed.
Margaret Wiborg, director of the Anna Howard Shaw Center - a women's research and resource center at Boston University's School of Theology - agrees that the preaching done by women is distinctive. The two most innovative characteristics, she says, are the emphasis on examples from their personal lives and the dramatization of sermons.
The Rev. Mrs. Dubois links the use of personal examples in sermons to a tradition of storytelling that women have had a big part in maintaining.
While men as well as women use the technique, ``the emphasis on storytelling is largely attributable to the entrance of women into the seminaries and the pulpit,'' she says. ``The power of the story is that it makes a sermon more relevant'' by helping people understand abstractions.
Rev. Frances P. Swartz is a female minister who uses personal experience to illustrate her sermons. One parishioner recalls how Mrs. Swartz used the story of her decision not to color her graying hair to illustrate a scriptural passage about humility. She also draws on her own experience when explaining Bible stories.
``I've taught a class on women in the Bible to a group of young mothers,'' she says. ``I can relate to them since I'm a mother, and I can relate to their problems with children.''
Similarly, Imani Sheila Newsome preached a sermon on the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well, telling it from the woman's point of view [see article, next page].
Some scholars, however, are not quick to accept the idea that sermons preached by women are necessarily more innovative.
Edward Lehman, professor of sociology at New York State College at Brockport, says such claims ``are assertions and arguments, but there isn't much data.'' The assertions come from ``the rhetoric of religious feminists trying to open up the ministry. That doesn't, however, mean [they] are not true.''
David Butrick, a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, disagrees with many of the assertions, too.
``Men are also using more personal experiences,'' he says.``Women may be more expressive, but not necessarily more dramatic.''
In any case, women are choosing the pulpit in growing numbers and their impact will be felt. In the accompanying profiles below and on the following page, two women talk about their decisions to become ministers and what they're trying to accomplish through their ministry.