Hidden Dynamics Block Women’s Access to Pulpits

by Ruth Brandon Minter

Ms. Minter, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, is director of parish programs for the Shenandoah and Catoctin Associations of the Central Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ. She lives in Frederick, Maryland.

This article appeared in the Christian Century August 29-September 5, 1984, p. 805. 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 problems stem from the realities of human sexuality and of the hunger for power. These hungers are experienced differently by women and men, nevertheless, they are deep psychological realities.

I have known women clergy all my life. Although men outnumbered women in the profession in Vermont, where I grew up, I always knew at least two or three women who were serving churches. Therefore, I did not feel terribly unusual when I decided to go to seminary and become a minister.

However, women have served as pastors in Vermont churches partly because many of those churches are small, rural and low-paying. Retired clergy, men just out of seminary and women are more apt to accept these parishes than are experienced men at the height of their careers -- unless they have chosen small-church ministry as their specialty. The pragmatic Vermonters took whoever was available. As a result, many Vermont churches that are “small” by national standards have had outstanding leadership over the years -- particularly from women and from newly retired men. As a product of such a church, I hesitate to drain competent pastors away from small parishes by transforming the system.

Nonetheless, women ministers should have access to any pulpit for which they qualify. But churches that have always been served by men frequently do not seriously consider women ministers. This is not primarily for theological reasons, nor merely because the members of such churches are creatures of habit, nor really because they believe women to be less competent, caring or holy than men. If it were, the task would be easier.

We can educate parishioners about the role of women in the Bible, and about Jesus’ habit of breaking down barriers between the sexes and treating women in new ways. We can affirm that God gives gifts to all people, and declare how wonderful it is that women are finally claiming and using their God-given talents in the area of ministry. We can lift up examples of outstanding women preachers, teachers, counselors or administrators. We can make competent women visible in new roles so that people can understand existentially that these roles need not be reserved for men. We can train conference and association ministers to help local search committees understand the need to be equal-opportunity employers, and to promote the consideration of women’s profiles.

All of this can help, but it will not address the root problem.

The problem is not just with male attitudes or interpretations of Scripture. We have all heard the assertion that “the women on the committee are more opposed than the men” to having a woman pastor. Although both women and men may find it difficult to accept women as their ministers, the issue is different for each sex. Both have problems that usually have been taboo topics in the polite and holy circles of our churches. It is time that they surfaced. The problems, in brief, stem from the realities of human sexuality and of the hunger for power.

Although most women’s feelings remain unconscious and unarticulated, their very sexuality, their emotions as persons who are women, are one source of their unwillingness to accept a woman as pastor. This is most evident in the interaction between a male pastor and older women, particularly those who have been widowed or who for other reasons live alone and socialize primarily with, other women. As one such woman told me. “Look at that widow’s row. They go weeks on end with no male touch except that of the minister. His grasping their hands in both of his, or his arm around them, or a hug are very important to them.” This ‘‘safe” male touch helps such women to continue to glow with a sense of self-worth, to feel that they are still women. They know that their women friends accept them; they need reassurance that men still do.

Male ministers serve a similar function even with younger and happily married women. When such women need a “safe’’ male friend or confidante, or someone to counter the male “put-downs” that may have hurt them, a male minister who is good at giving pastoral support may be just the right person. If he is good-looking, personable and fun to be with, so much the better. To be affirmed by such a person can be particularly heady and strengthening. It is common for women to need a supportive male friend to balance the many times that men have treated them badly.

Indeed, women may find church attendance easier than men do in part because of the basic pleasure they get from gazing at and listening to an attractive man. Such pleasure is generally innocent and frequently not even conscious. But deriving pleasure from being with -- or observing -- an attractive man is part of being human and of being a woman.

A side-effect of this reality is that women may urge the hiring of male ministers not only for their own innocent pleasure (conscious or unconscious), but also because they do not trust their men. They fear their husbands’ reactions to a similar stimulus from an attractive woman minister. This fear is especially likely to be activated if a man on the search committee makes a “cute’’ remark--for example, that he really wouldn’t mind watching some pretty legs on Sunday morning. Women ministers cringe at such comments because they find them belittling and sexist. but they represent more than a particular man’s chauvinism. They are part of a core dynamic that sometimes makes it easier to convince men than women seriously to consider women ministerial candidates.

Although men’s interest in female clergy could be expected to parallel women’s interest in male ministers, it is not as important for them as for women. In our culture, men have many and varied opportunities to be with or to be visually stimulated by women. A woman pastor, therefore, is not especially needed by men to meet this need.

Men have problems of their own with accepting women pastors, however. In most churches, women outnumber men in attendance and in membership. Women dominate the choirs and the Sunday schools. Women are apt to be the leaders and the prodders of the church’s social conscience. Women’s organizations continue to raise major portions of many churches’ benevolence giving. Women form the volunteer core in the church’s outreach ministries, As men also begin to share more and more of the church offices with women, they feel beleaguered. They begin to feel that the church does not need them -- indeed has no place for them.

Men, much more than women, derive their identity-- rightly or wrongly -- from positions in which they have power. Some find this in their jobs. others in their families. Still others hold such self-affirming power in a club or in the church. Their self-esteem comes not from simply being part of, or related to, something that is good, but from having had some influence on or power over that good. Indeed, for some, whether the result is good, bad or mediocre is less important than that they had an important role in bringing it about.

Unless they can find an alternate source of security and self-esteem, such men will resist changes that decrease their power. Secure men know that they can always play a satisfying role somewhere. They do not feel as threatened, therefore, when women share opportunities for leadership. But less secure men feel threatened indeed. They have no alternate sources of self-affirmation, no other places where they feel such importance. If sharing jobs with women lowers the likelihood that they themselves will be asked to assume responsibility, they are hurt. They resist the loss of power and influence because it feels like a loss of self.

Identifying himself as one of the decision-makers, or potential decision-makers, is easier for a man when the top leaders are men. Men in the pews know that they compete with other men for power, and they adjust to not being on top when the top person is “one of them.” In some churches, where the minister has traditionally been a strong, dominant figure with significant power and influence over all decisions affecting the church, many men feel extremely threatened by a woman holding that degree of power and influence over church life. They feel diminished -- as if they were once again young boys required by their mothers to carry out the trash or set the table. In their need to assert – “maturity,’’ “competence” and “manhood,” such men will unconsciously resist getting into situations where they feel subordinate to women. Having a woman “at the top” sometimes makes even men who are usually liberal and open feel small.

Sexuality and the need for power and influence -- experienced differently by women and men -- are deep psychological realities. Women’s need for male pastors who can be “safe” male friends is an indictment of a society in which the skills for friendship with persons of both sexes are rarely taught, and in which few people expect to have close friends of both sexes, especially after they marry. Indeed, all too often even a spouse is not really a “friend,” yet there may be no others whose friendship is more than superficial. Men’s need for power in order to feel self-worth is likewise a challenge to our culture. Cannot men and women both learn the rewards and worth of shared adventures and cooperative projects?

To some extent, the effort to get search committees sincerely to consider women candidates for pastorates can be helped simply by bringing these psychological dynamics out in the open. Once they are consciously acknowledged, these special interests can be dealt with along with such realities as that Mr. S. has a preference for graduates of his alma mater. Known personal interests can be evaluated and set aside. But unconscious personal interests will continue to sabotage the selection process.

In the long run, however, churches will ignore a candidate’s gender only if our faith communities become substantially more involved in nurturing the whole humanity of both their women and their men. The church must nourish sources of friendship and support and expand the possibilities for developing feelings of self-esteem and self-worth -- for both sexes and all ages. Then, secure in the community of faith, the children of God will be able to see God’s gifts in each other and to share tasks according to those gifts, without allowing hidden psychological needs to block their understanding of where the Holy Spirit would have them move.