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.

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.

Still, even when she took up her latest position, some people left the synagogue because she was a woman. While the difficulties over the years have led her to consider leaving the job several times, "I'm so glad I stuck it out, because now I'm thrilled with the pulpit," she adds.

Jaqueline Ellenson, director of the Women's Rabbinic Network in the Reform Jewish movement, also points to progress. The more liberal Reform denomination was the first, in 1972, to ordain a woman rabbi – the recently retired Sally Priesand. Now 450 women constitute about a quarter of the 1,800 Reform rabbis.

"The walls are down in terms of attitudes toward women rabbis in the movement – getting jobs is no longer an issue," she says. But other challenges remain, particularly bringing about pay and ben- efit equity. "And women are not moving up in the congregational hierarchy at the same speed as men," she says. Only about a dozen women serve as senior rabbis in large congregations.

Yet women are having an impact on "conversations about prayer and spirituality, interpretations of text, and recovering of history," she adds. For instance, the project to produce the soon-to-be published revision of the Reform prayer book was headed by a woman.

In Christianity, women's ordination has a long history. American women have pioneered new churches, including Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Christian Science church, which publishes this newspaper; evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, the Foursquare Church; and Ellen White, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

Still, the continuing debate (among Protestants) over New Testament language about women and the fact that Jesus' disciples were men (for Catholics) shores up the resistance to women leaders.

As Anglicans in the Church of England continue to address the question of women bishops, for example, one Oxford clergyman has written on the distinction between having women priests and bishops. Referring to Genesis, he writes: "God made man in his own image; in the image of God created he male and female ... God's order is that the man is first in order and the woman second (equal in dignity but not in order)."

Ms. Rankin, with 23 years' experience as a pastor and district superintendent in the United Methodist Church, has encountered similar views. In a career that's been "an amazing ride," she has particularly loved preaching and helping nurture disciples. Yet she ponders whether there is a backlash under way.

In her most recent post as senior pastor of a 2,200-member church, she was surprised to "run into walls" over her role with some young congregants. "To see that among a conservative element of a new generation is disheartening," says the mother whose family has been very supportive over the years.

The ministry "is the hardest thing in the world to do and the most rewarding," she adds. "There's been pain and hurtful things, but also glorious moments. I can't imagine doing anything else."

Younger pastors have benefited from the work of such pioneers. Reverend Kershner attended Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Ga., where 50 percent of students were women. "I was affirmed in ways that were empowering," she says. After her 1999 ordination, she found an associate pastor post and became a senior pastor before she was 30. That remarkable event occurred in the conservative Texas Bible belt, no less, and after she attended the interview with her newborn baby. Yet she and the Presbyterian congregation of about 325 families seemed to agree her leadership role was what God had in mind.

"No one left as a result of me coming, and actually some folks came because it was something different," Kershner says.

The job has been challenging for a young mother of two (though her husband is a willing stay-at-home dad), who didn't expect the inherent loneliness or the constant emotional weight. "I carry these people around with me all the time, in my head and in my heart," she says. Still, she adds, "I consider it a privilege."

Kershner even takes a bit of mischievous delight in wearing her collar to ecumenical gatherings with conservative Baptists, where it always sparks discussion.

"There are some people concerned with the state of our souls," she says, "but we are OK with that."

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