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The Feminine Mystique and the Ministry

by G. Lloyd Rediger

Dr. Rediger is director of the Wisconsin Conference of Churches’ Office of Pastoral services. This article appeared in the Christian Century July 4-11, 1979, p. 699. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The mystique of the pastoral role is well known. There has always been a masculine mystique in the ordained ministry, but now, with the sudden influx of hundreds of women into the profession, it is logical to ask whether there is also a feminine ministerial mystique. If such a mystique exists, what is it like? What does it tell us about the church and about the profession of ministry?

What has long been a male-dominated, female-influenced profession is now becoming a male-majority, female-minority profession. Some male denominational executives and ecclesiastical functionaries predict disaster. They are outvoted, however, by those who assume a relatively easy transition to a dual-gender profession and those who see no logical or theological basis for excluding women.

Scant Data

The outcome is not likely to be disastrous. In fact, some benefits are already evident. On the other hand, the transition will probably not be as easy as some seem to think; more than our theology of a male clergy is being challenged by this gender shift.

As director of a confidential ecumenical counseling service for Wisconsin clergy and their families, I have had the opportunity to specialize in clergy issues and to hear those issues articulated across the full range of theological stances. My years of experience with male and female clergy suggest some answers to the aforementioned questions. And though there is not yet a great deal of data on women in the clergy, there is enough to suggest some trends. No, there is not a feminine mystique in the ministry -- yet. So far, female clergy are in that typical developmental stage of imitating the majority of their peers -- who happen to be male. The message in these tentative conclusions is that women have not yet consolidated the female experience of professional ministry. There will be some floundering before clarification of roles occurs. The church has not yet dealt with the full reality of the female presence in the clergy, nor has the profession.

Having gleaned same insights during my own years of ministry and in counseling both male and female clergy, I can offer some tentative deductions from the new and scant data on women in the clergy and from my own files on the personal and professional concerns of several hundred clergy of both sexes.

The oversimplified answers to the three earlier questions concerning the presence of a feminine mystique in the ministry require further discussion. I want to compare the typical male career track with the one emerging for women. Then we can note some typical issues that have surfaced in my counseling of women pastors, and finally we can risk some projections concerning future implications of the gender shift.

Rites of Passage

The typical career track for male clergy is shaped by five professional “rites of passage.” The first is the internal experience of the “call” to ministry. Here the young man acts out of an inner experience of some kind or accepts the suggestions of significant adults that he should enter training to become a pastor. He usually has or finds one or more model pastors to imitate. He proceeds through the normal steps of seminary training, ordination and denominational placement in his first pastorate. In this first church (Or the second one, if the first pastorate is brief) he undergoes the next professional rite of passage. He begins to experience the difference between his idealistic notions of the institutional church and its everyday realities. How he comes through this disenchanting experience often determines the style and attitude of his ministry.

Assuming that the young pastor settles into an appropriate and satisfying professional style, he comes to the third rite of passage about 12 or 15 years into his career. He now wonders whether this is the way he wants to spend the rest of his life. If he decides affirmatively, he must find new reasons and commitments, or reaffirm the old ones.

About ten years before retirement, he encounters a fourth rite. He must cope with the accumulation of years and worry about being downgraded in his church moves. Or he may make maximum use of accumulated experience and skills, if he finds suitable professional opportunities. But in this role he must identify positively or negatively with midlife issues and project this identity successfully to peers and parishioners.

Passage through rite number four points the pastor toward the final one, the change from full-time to part-time or retired status, with all its incumbent demons and rewards.

There are variations in the oversimplified career track noted above, but my purpose is to show the

similarities and variations evident so far as women traverse these professional rites of passage. They may develop significant passage points quite different from those of their male colleagues.

The Feminine Career Track

The experience of the first rite of passage for the women clergy I have talked with varies from the male experience in the following ways: The young woman is likely to have a similar inner experience of a mystical “call,” or in some other way feel led to make a conscious decision to train for the ministry. But her role model and her experience of verification from significant adults usually vary from that of her male counterpart. There are not many female pastors yet. Therefore, the aspiring female minister’s model is often a woman who has fought (or is fighting) the battle for acceptance, or she identifies with a nongender generalized model of the pastor. She is not nearly so likely to receive encouragement from a number of adults in her pursuit of the ordained ministry. She must essentially initiate and sustain the early motivation within herself. If she persists in this career dream, she can now move rather easily through seminary and, in a growing number of denominations, through ordination and placement or the receiving of a call.

Her encounter with the second rite likewise varies from the male’s. If she had difficulty finding a parish or placement, she had to abandon some of her idealism early. And if she had to fight hard, she may soon be asking the question of the third rite of passage: “Do I want to spend the rest of my life in this career?”

The data so far indicate that a woman who gets this far tends to stay for an appreciable period of time -- probably because she had to be self-motivated to begin with. Since she was attracted by the challenge of the ministry, she is not quite so fearful of conflict as her male counterpart tends to be. But, given the minority psychology of this new phenomenon, it is possible that she may be staying because her feminine presence is still exciting to male peers, because she is needed as a “token female” by denominational executives, and because lay backlash is not yet threatening.

Women pastors have not yet been around long enough for us to note any pattern in their handling of midcareer issues. It is likely that they will encounter the same self-doubts and resentment as do male clergy at pejorative assumptions about chronological age. And it seems likely that they will have already assumed the easy grace of age or a tough-minded stance toward conflict, depending on whether their career paths were smooth or difficult, and on their personality type.

If a woman pastor arrives at retirement age with her pastoral identity intact, she will likely become a revered model for the next generation of women clergy.

Issues Unique to Women Clergy

Now let me turn to some counseling issues I have encountered with women clergy. It is apparent that they must deal with the typical challenges which men also face in this profession. They must deal with the inordinate need for approval clergy seem to have. They must cope with unusual schedules and the reactions of husband or family to the demands of the job. They must handle the issues of intimacy with parishioners. They must find a style and purpose for their ministry. They must discover a personal and corporate faith that nourishes their ministry. And they must cope with institutional politics. Beyond these typical challenges, several are emerging as unique to women clergy. It is not yet apparent whether these are socially conditioned, a function of female personality types, or a combination of the two.

The unique issue that surfaces most clearly is the need for a “mentor.” Gail Sheehey in her book Passages points out that women often feel a need for a mentor to support their entry into a professional field. We find that women clergy, especially young ones, seek approval from a significant male. They need to have him explain the rules of the game for the profession and to experience his guidance and support until they feel confident in themselves. The social and psychological implications of this process require more years of data for thorough study and examination.

The second unique issue is the dual-career phenomenon. A married woman’s career is still often regarded as secondary to her husband’s. The crisis comes when her career demands run counter to his: when weekly schedules conflict; when it comes time for her to move to another church and he is not ready to move; when child-care arrangements must be worked out. Similar problems arise with male clergy, but the male career has more often been assumed to be primary. Another variation occurs when both spouses are ministers,

The role of sexual ‘behavior’ in the clergywoman’s career also has some unique dimensions. If she is physically attractive or has a style which men experience as sexually attractive, she is likely to feel that she is being treated as a “sex object.” With the permissive direction in sexual ethics now in vogue, she must succumb or have convincing reasons to resist such pressure. We have not yet come to terms with sexual intimacies among peers in the clergy. The advent of women clergy requires re-evaluation of policies and theology regarding sexual behavior between the sexes and with the same sex. Old implied standards are either poorly understood or inadequate for the intimate intermingling of clergy peers.

Somewhat related is an issue faced by unmarried women pastors. Men often feel threatened by the intellectual and authority roles of these women and by their ability as pastors, and therefore are reluctant to initiate or share a close relationship. The woman who is strongly attached to her profession may angrily ask: “How can a career so important to me have such a penalty attached?”

The woman pastor also faces the challenge of role identity. Should she simply emulate her male colleagues? Will she find approval if she acts like the male clergy? Is there a unique female version of ministry? Can laity accept female pastors? The pressure of this issue is evident as men and women, clergy and laity, ask gender questions about the profession. So far we have found that women clergy are tending to imitate the male tradition.

A final unique challenge is that of leadership. I am speaking particularly of what is usually called the “prophetic” role of clergy. Can a woman minister speak Out on sensitive issues in her church and be accepted? Can she command acceptance of her decisions and judgment? Those questions are obviously troublesome enough if the minister is male. Our experience shows that women tend either to avoid potential conflict issues, or to give the sensitive issue a “sexual politics” dimension and therefore gather a loyal group of sympathizers to the cause. The clergy role has always had some so-called “feminine” dimensions (sensitivity, nurturing, etc.). but only men were allowed to fulfill them in clergy roles.

A Variety of Styles

If there is not yet a feminine mystique to the ministry, are there typical feminine styles? It’s probably too soon to identify a female style of ministry, but the indications we have show the following:

1. The Change Agent Style. Women who highlight social justice and sexual politics tend to project a crusader image. If they offend key persons, they are usually categorized as “women’s libbers” or as “bitchy” or “pushy” and relegated to the ranks of other unacceptable stereotypes. If they are fortunate and psychologically astute and professionally competent, they may win grudging or admiring support. But the drain on physical, emotional and spiritual energy often takes its toll. I have encountered several such women pastors who manifest what is called the “burn-out syndrome.” They experience depression, cynicism and loss of confidence, and ask such questions as: “Was all the struggle worth it?” “Where do I go from here?”

2. The Innocent Questioner Style. Such a woman seems genuinely puzzled by the reaction to her being a pastor. She can’t seem to understand why she can’t move easily into a traditionally male role and be accepted.

3. The Tentative Style. Such a woman realizes she is breaking a social taboo, but seems willing to test out the possibilities.

4. The Exhibitionist Style. This style develops for the woman who enjoys the attention of being unusual.

Trends and Possibilities

The ideas I have presented are limited, because of the relatively scant material available and the inadequacy of our male-dominant pattern to assimilate the new possibility. But the data seem to suggest the following projections for the church and our profession:

1. Our random flounderings in the changing milieu will continue for the foreseeable future. We carry an emotional and theological residue from centuries of male-dominated church leadership.

2. Because of male dominance, men as well as women have been limited in their perception of God and the community of faith. Sensitive learning of new modes is essential for both sexes, but this growth will not come easily.

3. It is likely that a storm is brewing in the profession. With the overabundance of clergy, with the church’s current acceptance of the novelty without coming to terms with the reality, and with the likelihood of a backlash from the laity, we can expect to have a large group of angry ordained women in the near future. They will wonder why seminaries gave them easy entrance but failed to prepare them far the struggle. They will be angry with denominational executives who refuse to fight for their placement. They will feel betrayed by male peers. They will be disillusioned by laity who are unaccepting of their ministry. They will struggle with the “queen bee” syndrome among themselves. (The “queen bee” is the woman who achieves her own ambitions and then tries to hold other women back.) And they will be angry at themselves for getting into this bind.

4. Denominational policies and social stereotypes will strain, then adjust to this gender shift. Doctrine and theology will catch up belatedly.

5. The reaction from laity (in the church and in secular settings) will be accepting only to a limited degree. They will likely respond in terms of political and economic biases rather than theological ones, for the theological education of the laity has suffered in recent years. But we can expect laypersons who are informed theologically to come forth with some strong theological statements for and against women clergy, making for a lively debate after the fact. And the lay response will likely lead to some deeper concern about the selection, training and placement of clergy.

6. It is possible that some ordained women will their places beside  male theological giants. That development could assist the church and society in coming to terms with the full meaning of sexuality and caring love in God’s creation.

7. Some clergy couples will find creative solutions and develop enlightened marriage styles (some have already done so). These trends may enable women clergy to make a unique contribution to the pastoral role. If denominational executives and lay leaders are aware of the opportunity, the church will benefit.

These projections are tentative. Some of them may seem frightening. In reality, there is reason to be hopeful: beneficial consequences can be expected when both sexes can make their full contribution to the leadership of the church. And, if we believe our gospel, the church belongs to God and is therefore in good hands, though human leadership may falter.

God is trying to tell the church something with this sudden gender shift in the clergy. It is apparent that we still have difficulty hearing when God says anything new.


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