Choosing the Seminary At a Difficult Time


By Barbara Brown Zikmund, Adair T. Lummis, and Patricia Mei Yin Chang

Westminster John Knox Press

199 pp., $20

By the time she was in eighth grade, Barbara Brown knew she had a religious calling. It hadn't come as a bolt out of the blue. She came from a church-going Presbyterian family and had lots of Jewish friends. That meant, she says, she had to explore early on who Jesus was, and she was full of questions whenever her youth fellowship met. When she headed off to high school, she was pretty certain she would some day go on to seminary.

Today Barbara Brown Zikmund is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, has a doctorate in American religious history, and is the first woman president of a major interdenominational seminary - Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn. She has also jointly written a new study on women ministers called "Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling."

In a recent interview, Dr. Zikmund discussed how the growing number of women ministers are faring, as well as her own perspectives on America's changing religious experience.

Whether they had an inkling early on, as she did, or felt the call much later in their lives, thousands of American women have entered the ministry since the 1970s, when the women's movement helped open doors to several professions. Fifty percent of the students in some seminaries are now women. (It is about 30 percent overall, including Roman Catholic institutions, where women enroll even though ordination is denied them.)

Women are choosing the ministry at a difficult time. "There is a general disillusionment among clergy," Zikmund says. Being a member of the clergy was once a prestigious position. "It didn't pay a lot of money, but it had a lot of value in society, and men and women looked up to clergy," she says. "That is no longer the case. There is a secularization of our society, a lack of appreciation for religious practice." And, she adds, clergy misconduct uncovered in recent years has made the public cynical.

Among the almost 5,000 ordained women and men surveyed for the study, published in June, 32 percent of the women and 28 percent of the men had considered leaving the ministry in the past year.

Yet "women still view becoming clergy as a plus rather than as a minus," she says. Ordained women interviewed for the study speak of their deep commitment to the calling and of many ways in which their experience is satisfying. The study found women were running up against persistent challenges: lengthy delays in finding jobs, being shuttled into associate or part-time pastor jobs or positions in remote areas, and being significantly underpaid relative to men.

"Basically, it seems that God calls and the church stalls," said one clergywoman about difficulties in finding placements.

Even as women ministers are becoming more and more accepted, "gender still does make a difference," the study found.

Faced with what many call "the stained-glass ceiling," clergywomen are exploring options, moving in greater numbers than men are into "specialized ministries" - religious education; youth ministries; chaplaincy in prisons, hospitals, or the military - or into nonparish work with social service agencies counseling troubled youths and families. In fact, women clergy are nudging Protestant denominations into an expanded sense of ministry, the study suggests, using their different career tracks to "reinvent" the work of the ministry.

"I can get optimistic or pessimistic," Zikmund says. "You can read the data we have gotten and ask, 'Is this another story of disastrous situations for women, or have they made a silk purse out of a sow's ear?' We chose the latter conclusion after many interviews with these women convinced us they were not as discouraged as some survey data suggested," she adds. "And you talk to many people who have women pastors and they love them."

Zikmund, who pursued teaching, hasn't come up against quite the same walls as many women pastors. Her first full-time position, though, developed in an extraordinary way. After putting her name in a "women in religion" job listing in the 1970s and signing up for its newsletter, she saw an ad that fit her perfectly.

When she sent her rsum, she heard from an abashed seminary student who apologized, saying the ad was for a fictitious position. A women's caucus at Chicago Theological Seminary had been lobbying for a woman faculty member, but been told there were none qualified. So they put out bogus ads and collected rsums from women with the qualifications. A year and a half later, the dean at CTS called Zikmund and said, "I don't know where I got your rsum, but we are looking for someone to teach American religious history this fall." She taught the course and was then hired fulltime.

She later served on the faculty and as dean for 10 years at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. And in 1990, Hartford Seminary (the first to admit women students back in 1889) came to call, wanting to make her the first woman president of a mainstream seminary.

She has thrived in the job, working to strengthen the faculty and being "particularly committed to interfaith relations." The interfaith encounters of her youth, which helped set her on her way, still serve her well. Hartford was the first seminary with a center for Muslim-Christian relations.

"In the 21st century, two issues will be crucial" for churches, she says - the issues of sexuality and of interfaith engagement. "Churches are being torn apart over issues of homosexuality and abortion. You have factions within every denomination, and there is going to be a regrouping."

At the same time, "increasingly, men and women of faith are not following a single tradition. They move around the country and go where their kids like the Sunday school or the music, or they like the preacher. Denominational loyalties are decreasing, and some churches don't even have affiliations.

"As a historian, I think that's a problem, in that there's a sense of rootlessness, a real ignorance about some fundamentals about the Bible and history. But it's good in the sense that people are not hung up on doctrinaire catechisms and creeds. There's a new freedom and openness to religious perspectives."

But to avoid a superficial spirituality, we really need to engage each other about our beliefs, she says. And that means engage difference, not just how we are similar. "The best analogy for me is language study. I didn't really understand the English language until I studied French. Then I began to really see how my own language worked and to appreciate its strengths.

"The same thing happens in interfaith encounter. We become clearer about ourselves and the witness we have. When we do it deeply and intentionally, we become stronger. I'm a better Christian because Muslims forced me to answer questions about my religious commitment."

Even as many today pick and choose from various faiths, some denominations are merging. This demands great flexibility, she says, and women clergy are particularly good at dealing with diversity.

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