Clergywomen and Senior Pastorates

by Carole Carlson

Ms. Carlson is conference minister on the Conference Ministry Team of the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ.

This article appeared in the Christian Century January 6-13, 1988, p. 15. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Women have obvious difficulties carrying out ministry in church structures which are still heavily patriarchal. Women often see the large church, with its traditional male model of organization and decision-making, as the embodiment of all that is frustrating for them in parish ministry.

It is a pleasant spring evening in New England. The first meeting of the newly appointed search committee of the Shelbyville Congregational Church (UCC) has been called to order. Because I am the conference minister who relates to this church, I have joined the group to explain the placement process in the United Church of Christ. Shelbyville is a typical northern New England church: a small congregation of 120 members located in a town with 1,000 residents; many of the members are elderly, and finances are a constant concern.

After I review the placement process, I discuss the Conference policies regarding fairness in employment opportunity. I remind the committee members that we expect them to evaluate all candidates on the basis of experience, skills and competence in ministry, not on the basis of such factors as age, sex, race, marital status or handicapping conditions.

At this point, several people begin to make comments about female candidates. One man says, ‘I like the way Elizabeth McKinney preaches when she fills in for John during vacations.’ Another committee member adds, "The woman pastor in Drummond has been wonderful with our teachers and children during joint vacation church school." A third person quickly interjects, "My sister says that the members of the Parker Church are not happy with the woman they hired."

The remarks about clergywomen give rise to questions:

Question: "How many women will apply for our position’?"

Answer: "Approximately 40 to 45 per cent of the applicants will probably be women.

Question: "What do we say to people in the church who have already told us they will be upset if we recommend hiring a woman?"

Answer: "How do you think you should respond?" (Lengthy discussion)

Question: What about the men? Will they want to participate in a church with a woman minister?"

Answer: "Why don’t you ask them?" (More discussion)

The members then go on to speak of their fear of conflict and their desire to choose a candidate who will please everyone in the church. Most of them take time to process their concerns and feelings. Eventually we move on to the remaining agenda items and then conclude the meeting. When I leave, I sense that this search committee will struggle to be as fair as possible in its dealings with women candidates.

The next evening I am scheduled to meet with another search committee. Located in one of New England’s small cities, the Woodbury Church, which has 725 members, is considered to be a "prestigious" congregation. Most of the members are professional people. The church owns an attractive, historic downtown building which is supported by a substantial endowment. The senior pastor recently resigned to accept a call from a denominational agency. There are three other members of the professional staff: a young man called two years prior as associate pastor, administrative assistant and a 30-hour-per-week director of music.

Again I explain the placement process, and again I discuss the Conference policy concerning fairness in employment. But the response is different from that of the previous evening. There is a general reluctance to discuss the topic of clergy-women, and the committee members do not have personal stories to share. Two of them have heard women preach; otherwise, the group has had very little contact with female clergy. The members acknowledge that women serve as associate pastors in churches similar to theirs; they are aware that women serve as sole pastors in neighboring towns. But it is clear that concepts of "clergywoman" and "senior pastor" are mutually exclusive; the topic does not merit serious or lengthy discussion.

When I try to probe the subject again, I receive a businesslike response. Several members work in professions where they are required to follow fair employment guidelines; they understand about "those rules." They assure me that they intend to treat all candidates fairly.

I leave this meeting discouraged. No honest feelings about women in ministry have been expressed. Correct and polite comments have been shared in place of a more serious engagement with the issue of sexism. I know there is little possibility that this church will call a woman.

Negative attitudes toward the idea of women as senior pastors are well documented in Edward C. Lehman, Jr.’s, sociological study Women Clergy: Breaking Through Gender Barriers (Transaction, 1985) The author analyzed detailed responses from 1,720 Presbyterian lay-people and 1,143 Presbyterian clergy concerning a wide range of attitudes toward women in ministry. He found that both groups strongly prefer a male as head of a church staff. In addition, the resistance to clergywomen performing supervisory/administrative functions is even stronger than that to their performing worship/sacramental functions. The research leads to the clear conclusion that the more highly a church values management skills, the greater the likelihood of its strong preference for male pastors. When Lehman isolated individual factors, he found that members of large, wealthy multiple-staff churches were more resistant to clergywomen than were members of small churches (which were experiencing financial difficulty).

What Lehman quantifies with his research, clergywomen and denominational placement officers confirm from personal experience: small churches are more open to women pastors. It is unfortunate that some small, struggling churches have selected clergywomen because they thought they could pay them less; this issue of justice has made it more difficult to define the real differences in attitudes between the members of small and large churches. In small congregations which pay all benefits, which meet all salary guidelines, and which are not exploitative, the fact remains that there is more openness to the leadership of women than is found in large churches.

One aspect of this difference can be explained by the value the wider society continues to place on male leadership. The greater status associated with a position -- in educational or religious institutions, in business, government or industry -- the greater the likelihood that the position will be filled by a male. The more a church is identified as "important" or "prestigious," the greater the likelihood that its members will expect and assume that its senior pastor will be a male.

In addition to general cultural dynamics, there are other reasons why large churches are more resistant to women’s leadership; these reasons are related to some of the basic differences between small and large churches. The differences are evident both in the congregations as a whole and in the working styles of search committees. In a small congregation, relationships resemble those in a family. People know one another too well to worry about impressing each other. There is a willingness to argue and struggle together, and people are not guarded in expressing opinions. All of these characteristics influence the work of a search committee in a small church. Because personal relationships are so important, the members take the time necessary to deal with difficult issues so that there is some sense of resolution. Ample time is devoted to exploring every aspect of a controversial topic such as calling a woman pastor.

In a large church, less emphasis is placed on personal relationships. People tend to be connected with subgroups rather than with the whole faith community. Committee work is focused on the task rather than on relationships between persons, and fulfilling an agenda often takes precedence over processing individual concerns. In the search-committee setting, people often come together initially as strangers -- people who do not know one another well enough to discuss complex and sensitive issues such as sexism. The tendency to be more businesslike often means there is less room for deep exploration of feelings.

Members of large churches are at an added disadvantage because they have generally had less exposure to clergy-women. Within our denominations, we have allowed a peculiar kind of elitism to develop around the senior pastorate. There has been a separation (whether clearly identified or not) between senior pastors and "other parish ministers." Clergy who serve as heads of multiple-staff churches form a separate group, one in which only others in similar situations are seen as true peers. The women who belong to "the Senior Pastors’ Club" are so few in number that they are effectively dismissed as tokens. Senior pastorates are still modeled on a working assumption that the "real" minister is male.

Furthermore, we cannot assume that this situation will change automatically as clergywomen experience more ministerial longevity. In denominational systems which rely on placement appointments, an increase in the number of women in senior pastorates is slowly beginning to occur; but in systems which rely on a call from a congregation, the availability of highly qualified and experienced clergywomen has made little difference in the tendency of large churches to call male ministers.

Justice is never achieved automatically. Nor do attitudes of either laity or clergy change easily. Such change will occur only through diligent work and intense consciousness raising efforts. If we are to move toward a more just placement system for women, there are three groups of persons who can play an important role in bringing about such change: the men who currently serve as senior pastors, the men and women who serve as denominational placement officers, and the clergywomen themselves.

Clergymen who occupy senior pastorates have an unusual opportunity to advocate on behalf of women, and a small number have chosen to use their positions to do just that. Attitudes have begun to change in churches where the senior pastors have made a regular and conscientious effort to use clergywomen as supply preachers, as workshop leaders and speakers, and as substitutes during pastoral emergencies or vacation times. Demonstrating sensitivity to language is another way in which male senior pastors can identify themselves with one of the major concerns of clergywomen. Learning to refer generally to pastors as "she" as well as "he" can make a big difference.

Lehman’s research indicates that the hiring of a clergywoman as an interim pastor can be helpful in terms of attitude change among the laity. Senior pastors who are resigning or retiring can encourage that possibility by advising church leaders to explore the names of ordained women as potential candidates for filling the positions.

Placement officers face a different challenge, that of developing a pool of female interim pastors as well as one of clergywomen who wish to apply for senior pastorates. Before that can happen, women candidates need unequivocal assurance that their candidacies for such positions will be taken seriously. In addition, if placement officers are to be advocates for a more open and fair process, they must create opportunities for search committees seriously to confront the topic of sexism. Committee members will not be able to be honest and to share feelings and fears (thereby, one hopes, resolving them) unless a basic sense of trust is cultivated.

Finally, women in ministry must begin talking with one another more seriously about the reservations they sometimes have concerning senior pastorates. Many clergywomen are ambivalent about applying for such positions. Keenly aware of the placement realities and barriers, they do not wish to expose themselves to virtually certain rejection. Until they experience stronger support from one another. from denominational officials, and from male clergy colleagues, many will continue to be tentative about such positions.

Some highly skilled and talented clergywomen have actually made conscious vocational choices never to apply to a large church. Women have obvious difficulties carrying out ministry in church structures which are still heavily patriarchal. Women often see the large church, with its traditional male model of organization and decision-making, as the embodiment of all that is frustrating for them in parish ministry. They feel an understandable reluctance to apply for positions that will entail painfully difficult work. Small churches, with their typically more cooperative style of governance and greater emphasis on community, provide opportunities more congruent with the priorities of many clergywomen.

A small group of clergywomen is beginning to accept the challenge of analyzing feminist styles of working and seeking to relate them to the large-church setting. Feminist theology requires that we reflect on all that is dehumanizing and oppressive, everything that stands in the way of the liberation of all people. For women who have chosen to serve in parish ministry, such reflection must include careful scrutiny of the large church. We must, with utter seriousness, address the question of whether it is possible to be an agent of transformation in such a setting. As part of that exploration, we must begin to talk about new styles of church management, styles which emphasize partnership rather than hierarchy. We must be creative and share our dreams and visions for ministry.

It has taken a number of years for women to realize that to be a "good preacher" does not mean preaching "like a man." We have finally claimed our own unique and authentic styles of preaching, by which countless church members have found their lives enriched. Women have equally strong skills and gifts in the areas of church management, finance, administration and supervision; many of us have been reluctant to exercise those skills or claim those gifts because they may differ from male leadership styles. It is time for clergywomen to claim their places as strong candidates for senior pastorates. And it is time for large churches to open their pulpits to those women, whose new and dynamic styles of leadership can enhance the faith experiences of Christians.