Women Clergy: How Their Presence Is Changing the Church

by A Symposium

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 7-14, 1979, p 122. 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.


Five knowledgeable women from as many denominations were asked to share their perspectives on the present reality and future prospects of women in the ordained ministry. These five offer their insights on the impact women clergy are having and will have on the church.

Though women clergy constitute a very small minority of the ordained clergy in most denominations, current seminary enrollments -- in some cases more than 40 per cent women -- suggest that the next few years will see sudden and dramatic increases in the numbers of women entering parish ministries and other clergy positions.

What, we must ask, will happen as churches move beyond tokenism in ordaining and employing women? What changes are now being wrought in seminaries because of women faculty and students? What are the prospects for placement of women graduates? Will the influx of women somehow change the profession? Do women’s styles of ministry and leadership differ from traditional models?

To address such questions as these, we asked five knowledgeable women from as many denominations to share their perspectives on the present reality and future prospects of women in the ordained ministry. Suzanne Watt was one of the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church. Beverly Anderson, a black seminarian, will be seeking ordination in the United Methodist Church. Nancy Hardesty, a laywoman from an evangelical tradition, and Barbara Brown Zikmund, a United Church of Christ minister, are both church historians. And theologian Letty Russell, a United Presbyterian, had extensive parish ministry experience before coming to her present seminary post. These five offer their insights on the impact women clergy are having and will have on the church.

Women and the Seminaries

By Nancy Hardesty

(Dr. Hardesty is assistant professor of American church history at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. She is coauthor [with Letha Scanzoni] of All We’re Meant to Be.)


The relationship of women to seminaries -- initially all-male bastions for the education of the clergy, an all-male profession -- seems to evolve through four stages. Movement toward the fourth stage may Constitute progress.

(1) Initially a few women are grateful for the opportunity to study in seminaries. They hope to find some form of ministry on the fringes of the church to satisfy the inescapable call from God they feel in their hearts. Male students, unthreatened, are friendly and patronizing; male faculty members are solicitously paternal.

(2) As small groups of women gather in a seminary context, their consciousnesses are raised. They get in touch with the sexism of church and society and with their own anger. They form an embattled women’s caucus, knowing that the skirmishes they fight in seminary are preliminary rounds for the battles they will fight for their right to full ministry in the church. Their stance evokes hostility from their male peers, resistance from the faculty. Demands are met by concessions.

(3) As more women students arrive, the fervor of women and the fever of the situation dissipate. Changes are being made; the atmosphere is different. Several women are on the faculty; a few “feminist theology” or “women in ministry” courses are added to the curriculum. New students wonder what the problem is. Younger ones have encountered few difficulties thus far in their education or church experience. They have seen female role models in the parish, and they see themselves as being no different from their male peers. They compare notes on church politics and plan for their own parishes. Faculty and student men have learned to speak nonsexist,” and so a modicum of harmony reigns.

(4) Eventually women come to appreciate past struggles and gains while being realistic about the depths of prejudice and the difficulties remaining. Women faculty members are no longer marginal but integral to the faculty. An awareness of feminist, black and liberation theologies informs the critique of all theology and biblical hermeneutic. History courses include material about all segments of church life -- clerical and lay, white and black, men and women, bishops and Sunday schools, General Conference decisions and the work of the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society. Men and women choose, and the church affirms, forms of ministry for which the individuals are gifted, whether parish work or more specialized endeavors. Couples find support for flexible solutions to the complex issues raised by egalitarian marriages and family rearing.

As I look at the spectrum of seminary life today, I find institutions and individuals at all four stages. Some fundamentalist and traditionalist institutions are still at stage one. Evangelical and denominational seminaries are moving from two to three. Perhaps some independent seminaries are approaching the fourth level.

Though I have seen considerable progress in the three years I have been a part of seminary life, hard work remains to be done. As women, we have been welcomed and accepted. Now we must create and model for our students new ways of theologizing and ministering as whole people.


Womanstyle: Eyes to See the Gifts in Others

By Beverly J. Anderson

(Ms. Anderson is a second-year, second-career student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.)

A new dawning for the church is heralded by the escalation in the numbers of women entering the ordained ministry. As traditionally accepted modes of ministering are being expanded and reshaped out of women’s experiences and history, what may initially appear to be radically threatening changes can be seen as signs of resurrection.

Women who have responded to God’s call to the ordained ministry bring a wealth of previous experience and involvement in the local church -- experience which serves to enhance their ministry with the laity in diverse ways. Many ordained women bring not only their Christian understanding of relationship to God and neighbor, but the particularized dimensions of feminist and other liberation theologies as well. The linking of these fundamental life postures prepares the way for the gifts and graces of all women, men and children to be affirmed, utilized and developed in mutual sharing in response to the gospel.

The most publicly visible changes that women bring to the ministry are in the area of leadership style. Two phrases that characterize this particular departure from tradition are ‘‘shared involvement’’ and “mutual pilgrimage.” Because women themselves have had to struggle to arrive at ordained ministry, they often bring a heightened awareness of the dehumanizing experience of being “shut out.” Women can draw on their own pilgrimage as a resource as they invite and enable others to affirm and value their own uniqueness, gifts and resources.

It is apparent, from the profile of women who attended the second Consultation of United Methodist Clergywomen in January, that the majority of women now in the ordained ministry have self-consciously dialogued with, have struggled in, and have been aided by one or another of the liberation movements, be it Third World, feminist, civil rights or human potential. As a result, women are modeling a style of leadership that acknowledges the pain of ignored talents, dual standards and narrowly defined roles. It appears then that women clergy can be more open to exploring leadership styles that are less hierarchical and more fluid than those of the majority of their male colleagues, who have been admitted to the system as a matter of fact, expectation and privilege.

I am convinced that the task and role of clergy leadership are greatly enhanced by the presence of women in the ministry, many of whom are bringing a new understanding and style to the church. Women who are penetrating the previously walled bastions of male leadership have observed and felt the effects of the closed system. The Christian faith whose essence calls each person to ministry, the continuing reminders of wounds incurred in the personal and corporate struggle for affirmation, and the learned gift of reconciliation -- these have conspired to force women to create and refine alternative modes of leadership. The traditional disparity between leader and follower, powerful and powerless, skilled and unskilled, is being challenged, while the concept of a shared ministry between clergy and laity is being tested and embraced as women enter positions of clergy leadership.

The open style of church administration, which appears to be more characteristic of women (though not to the total exclusion of some men), is bound to be perceived by those who have functioned primarily in leader-follower systems as not only weak, by traditional standards, but also ineffective. Sizable numbers of persons continue to espouse the myth that leaders are born and not made, and therefore do not believe that they have valuable leadership skills that can be “grown,” enhanced and utilized. Many persons will view the clergywoman as “shirking her responsibilities” and lacking the basic knowledge of “how to get things done” as she encourages and enables a mode of shared leadership and resources. This shift in leadership style is strikingly contrasted by M. S. Knowles in his paper “Some Characteristics of Static vs. Innovative Organizations.” Within his dimensions of structure, atmosphere, management philosophy, decision- and policy-making and communication, there is considerable correspondence to women’s emerging model of leadership style.

It is disheartening to observe that a good many of Knowles’s characteristics of “static” organizations are emphasized as effective corporate, upward-mobility skills in the popularized books for women in Leadership. It soon becomes clear that these books promise instant management success at the expense of others, encouraging the perpetuation of the closed, low-risk pyramidal organizational structure -- the very antithesis of the characteristics necessary to effective and enabling church leadership.

One of the primary keys to a mutually shared ministry is having the eyes to see. More specifically, this means searching for talents and skills in other people. Women are in a unique position to provide training grounds for skills assessment and development for other pilgrims in ministry, precisely because their own historical journey has prepared them to “tune in” to the self-denial and pain of role rigidity of others.

The church has historically been a setting in which some people have been given the opportunity to try on” leadership behavior. Indeed, history reveals the church to be the only public setting available to some groups barred from participation in other public arenas. Moreover, the church has also miraculously withstood and supported that often ill-fitting garb, as members adjusted, changed and rearranged their unfamiliar leadership wardrobe.

The church can continue to be the supportive setting in which persons can “get the feel” of visible leadership in a variety of roles, as it affirms the presence of gifts and provides opportunities for their use. Often persons feel stuck in certain roles in other contexts, but the variety of tasks needing to be cared for in the church offers a continuum along which persons can move as they develop and focus their leadership qualities.

From my point of view, this understanding is what gives meaning and purpose to a mutual pilgrimage. Ordained persons are entrusted to develop and use their gifts along with and on behalf of the whole community of believers -- and at the same time, to enable others to use and develop their gifts, skills and graces. This means continually urging the members to “plug in” at some point on the continuum, so as to use their visible skills and nurture those that are dormant.

Christ has been experienced as the comforter, the clarifier and the confronter. Likewise, in raising up other co-pilgrims, the clergy and the church have the responsibility to comfort and nurture, to clarify and focus, to confront and question its members in love, so that women, men and children may flourish in their journey toward wholeness in all its dimensions.

Starting and sustaining persons on their journey toward self-affirmation and the use of their God-given gifts for God -- that is the task that belongs to the church. It is my conviction that women clergy are at a unique juncture in history to enable that affirmation in others and in themselves, as the whole church becomes increasingly self-conscious about its calling to “birth” co-pilgrims who can be Christ’s effective and enabling ambassadors wherever they may be.


Do We Have an Advocate?

By Suzanne R. Hiatt

(Dr. Hiatt, an Episcopal priest, is an associate professor of pastoral theology at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.)

At present there are equal numbers of black and women clergy in the Episcopal Church -- slightly more than 300 of each, with an overlap of about four black women. The two groups have separate (but equal) employment problems. While there are “black” parishes looking for black rectors, there are no “woman” parishes looking for women rectors; on the other hand, the large pool of “assistant” jobs in suburban parishes is more available to women than to blacks, though it is wide open only to white males. Rectorships of large white or mixed parishes are equally closed to blacks and to women.

In all the complicated analysis of the “job problem,” an aspect of that problem impeding . both women and blacks seems to be routinely overlooked. That is the unwillingness of congregations to choose as their leader any person who is seen as “exceptional.” Some time ago I asked a woman minister of the United Church of Christ who had been in a small-town congregation for about a year how things were going. A person with long ministerial experience, she responded brightly that things were going very well and that the parishioners “had just about worked through their grief.” Curious as to what calamitous parochial tragedy could have required a year’s grieving, I inquired further. The grief to which my sister referred was, I discovered, the grief the congregation felt at having sunk so low in the company of parishes that it had been forced to hire as its pastor a woman, rather than a “real” minister -- i.e., a man.

It seems to me that the reluctance of congregations to hire an “exceptional” person such as a woman as their chief pastor is rooted in their fear of “losing face” among the parishes. That curious human dynamic, appearing here on the corporate level, needs to be recognized. It cannot simply be dealt with pastorally as that valiant UCC minister was doing; it also needs to be looked at theologically. Of course a parish wants a pastor who is immediately acceptable in the world of ecclesiastics. But doesn’t the gospel have something to say for the leadership of one who is “despised and rejected of men” ?

Few, if any, of the ecclesiastical authorities who help parishes decide whom to hire are strong advocates for “exceptional” people. Bishops, superintendents, synod executives all want their congregations to be contented with their clergy -- a congregation “working through its grief” must be an ecclesiastic’s nightmare. Yet until such men (and they are, almost without exception, men) become strong, theologically motivated advocates for the “exceptional” pastor, female and/or racial minority member, the current grim situation will not improve.

In the past when we have spoken of church leaders who were “for” the ordination of women, we meant those who were not opposed to it. It is time that “being for” minorities began to mean active advocacy -- insisting that parishes interview women and blacks and actively promoting the candidacy of specific female and black persons for specific positions. Women and blacks do not “win” acceptance simply by doing excellent work and thereby converting the skeptical. Congregations will not “hear about” our talent and clamor for our ministries. We need special help from our brother clergy, and congregations need special help in dealing with the good news “exceptional” people can bring them.

Since nearly half our present seminarians are female, the urgency of the situation should be clear to denominational leaders. As we project that factor institutionally, it becomes obvious that either congregations will accept and prosper with female leadership, or we will one day have approximately half the congregations we have now. If women and blacks continue not to be accepted and go elsewhere, the current clergy oversupply will soon become a serious clergy shortage.

Those responsible for the development of professional leadership in the churches must begin to see the deep reluctance of congregations to hire “exceptional” people as the serious theological and institutional problem it is. The difficulty lies with the churches -- it is not a “women’s problem” or a “black problem.” God is certainly calling all these exceptional people to ministry. Church leaders must take seriously the problem of our Christian brothers and sisters who cannot hear that call.


Clerical Ministry as a Female Profession

By Letty M. Russell

(Dr. Russell, a United Presbyterian minister, is associate professor of theology at Yale University divinity school)

Along with the general ferment and change affecting social roles in all of society today, we find that the roles of women and men in ministry are also changing. Some of these changes are already happening as women enter the clerical ministry in increasing numbers. With more clergy couples looking for part-time or shared positions, there is an increased demand for the revision of ecclesiastical policies so that part-time and team ministries are possible. With women choosing ministry as a second career and entering seminaries in midlife, there is a growing recognition that both men and women frequently change their professions today. This realization in turn puts pressure on church bodies to recognize ministries of shorter duration, and to make it possible for persons to leave as well as to enter professional ministry without stigma or loss of pension.

Despite considerable resistance from the theological and ecclesiastical status quo, seminaries are responding to financial pressures and developing a variety of educational models. So that a wider group of persons may be reached, education is sometimes related to actual life experience and offered as a continuing process available to those who are also working. Women and Third World groups are especially interested in ways of pursuing theological education while continuing their ministries at home, in the church or in society. All groups are interested in the prestige of an added degree, and many younger students are beginning their careers with joint professional degrees in theology and another discipline -- education, law, medicine, social work, etc.

Women are entering seminaries in greater numbers while the number of men does not increase as rapidly. From 1972 to 1977 the enrollment of women increased 118.9 per cent and that of men only 20.2 per cent (“Women Ministers in 1977: A Report,” by C. H. Jacquet [National Council of Churches, 1978], p. 13). The entrance of large numbers of women into ordained ministry may cause it to become a “female profession” like nursing or primary school teaching. Sexism causes work done by women to be devalued in society; when large numbers of them enter a field, the men tend to leave; prestige and salaries drop. If this prejudice continues, it may cause ordained ministry, which is already associated with the private sphere and with feminine cultural characteristics of being loving and kind, to become not only “feminized” but also  “female.” This development might, however, have a side benefit: an ever-increasing erosion of clergy status would diminish the line of separation between clergy and laity.

Clerical ministry as a female profession is by no means the only alternate scenario, but it is important to notice the trends Pointing in this direction in order to work for a more balanced professional ministry that neither keeps women out because of sexism nor turns over jobs to women because of sexism, but recognizes the gifts of both women and men in a partnership of ministry (The Future of Partnership, by Letty M. Russell [Westminster, 1979], chapter 6, “Flight from Ministry”).

If the trends in seminary continue, in ten or 15 years the churches will have to ordain and employ women in large numbers if they are to have sufficient numbers of educated clergy. Sex-role stereotypes are such in our society that women are very much attracted to caring and nurturing roles such as those of clerical and nonclerical ministry. Women are entering the job market in unprecedented numbers and now constitute 40.7 per cent of the labor force (New York Times, September 12, 1976, section I). They are attracted to jobs in the church when such jobs are open to them. The present state of the economy indicates that less money will likely be available to hire church staff. Women, who at first were laid off as extra workers, or not hired at all, may eventually be hired in larger numbers because they may be more willing to work part-time and for lower pay.

Given the sexist attitudes of church and society, the influx of women into seminaries and (possibly) into clergy jobs may have a “blockbusting effect.” Just as whites flee urban centers and then blame blacks for taking them over, men are likely to flee the “declining” ministerial profession, abandoning it to women, and then accuse women of taking over. The clerical profession, already highly feminized in the roles played by most clergy, and captive to the private sector of women and children, may become snared in the cage that religion helped to build (From Machismo to Mutuality, by Eugene C. Bianchi and Rosemary Ruether [Paulist, 1976], p. 20). Having sanctified the inferiority of women, it is faced with the possibility of falling victim to its own trap.

Perhaps women will seriously challenge the clerical hierarchy of the church by bringing with them new ideas about cooperative ministry. However, many will probably buy into the old idea of clerical prestige if they find an opportunity to be other than marginal in church structures. The net result may be the dissolution of a largely male caste system: it will no longer make sense to maintain such a caste if it includes everyone!

In the area of theological education women have made only a small impact on the curriculum and power structure of the white male establishment. Despite the interest of many women in relating theory to experience in the educational process, there continues to be a firm commitment to the status quo with stress on academic disciplines. This commitment grows ever more firm as budget cuts leave the largely white, male tenured faculty as the “righteous remnant.” Such a policy may produce a very wide gap between faculty and students. In the long run seminaries may become obsolete. The expenses are tremendously high, and funds more difficult to raise as the profession becomes less prestigious or less needed. Students may be less willing to incur debts if the certification isn’t worth much, even in pride. Churches may find it cheaper to provide training schools for women like those for nurses or secretaries, or to work with lay training courses for nonprofessional ministers as is the case in the Roman Catholic Church with male deacons. Additional needs might be met by the universities, as they have been in the past or in other nations.

Clerical ministry as a largely female profession is not the only possible alternative future. Nor is it a desirable future. Women do not want to take over the ministry, but they may one day discover that it has been dumped in their laps because of the social forces of discrimination in church and society. The only way to avoid such a scenario is to work now to overcome the sex-role stereotypes that could contribute to such an outcome. Sexism in the church has kept women out of the professional ministry and continues to do so in more than half of the major U.S. churches (Jacquet, op. cit., p. 6). Sexism may also victimize those who succeed in entering the professional ministry unless we begin to root out our attitudes and prejudices that continue to devalue the gifts of more than one-half the people of God.


Upsetting the Assumptions

By Barbara Brown Zikmund

(Dr. Zikmund is assistant professor of church history and director of studies at Chicago Theological Seminary. She is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ.)

I view the increased numbers of women enrolling in theological education and seeking ecclesiastical vocations as a blessing. Although the trends are unclear, these women are raising some basic theological questions about the authority, scope, style and nature of religious leadership and Christian ministry.

First, women are challenging traditional sources of religious authority. Because classic interpretations of Scripture and church history have not accepted many forms of female leadership, the very presence of woman leaders emphasizes the tension between Scripture/tradition and religious knowledge which comes directly from the Holy Spirit. This is not a new development in the history of the church. It was always true that women were able to command religious authority when there was popular confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit (e.g., medieval mystics). Whenever women have moved into visible church leadership, the relative importance of Scripture and tradition has been reduced and the legitimacy of personal religious experience has been enhanced.

In today’s world, where religious institutions and leaders often seem paralyzed by canon and custom, this development has important ramifications. Although there is not a direct correlation between the women’s movement and the charismatic renewal, both developments challenge traditional sources of religious authority and open up possibilities for new forms of leadership.

Second, women are expanding the understanding of religious life. Within church history Christians have often been preoccupied with an artificial dualism between body and spirit. Religious matters were frequently viewed as “things of the spirit.” Only holy men and women, untainted by carnal lust and living celibate lives, could be religious leaders. Eventually only a male priest was allowed to supervise the spiritual journey of the Christian soul. Within this tradition women were generally associated with nonspiritual things. Women’s bodies reminded men of sex and sin. Women were seen as unfit spiritual guides.

The movement of women into religious leadership fundamentally challenges the latent body-spirit dualism within Christianity. When women become religious leaders, they affirm the incarnational message of the gospel in a very direct manner. They proclaim, by who they are, that the church is concerned not simply with “spiritual things” but with all of life. They suggest forms of church leadership which take seriously the spiritual, intellectual, emotional, psychological and physical dimensions of the Christian life.

Third, women are changing the style of religious leadership. Historically women have been denied direct opportunities for leadership in the church. Women’s gifts have been lost behind the scenes, or made auxiliary to male leadership. Women have carved out arenas of service considered unworthy by men. Within the separate spheres of “women’s work,” women have exercised leadership in their own ways.

Because of this history, women seeking leadership in today’s church often bring a new perspective. Although they believe that they can and ought to be allowed to carry any mantle of leadership worn by a man, they are not so quick to embrace conventional styles of church leadership. They are asking questions. They have a deep appreciation for and experience with collaborative, facilitating, shared and communal styles. When women assume positions historically held by men, many refuse to function in the same way. In some cases women are rejecting the role of priest and the prerogatives of clergy to reshape their very understanding of the church itself.

This observation leads to my fourth conviction: that women are calling the churches to a more vital theology of ministry. Women in the church know what it means to be followers, not leaders. In most churches women are the majority of the volunteers, the members, the laity. Women know this place very well, because for many women the church has been the center of their lives.

As a consequence of this experience, many women seminarians and women seeking ordination are approaching traditional church leadership with serious reservations. They are questioning the nature of ordination and its privileges. They are reminding all Christians of the call to ministry inherent in baptism and/or confirmation. A great number of women are suggesting that within Christ’s church, leadership does not follow the ways of the world.

In the early part of the 20th century, ministry focused on the maintenance and development of the institutional church. The model for an effective church leader was eventually labeled the “pastoral director.” When American optimism was dashed by wars and depression, ministry reclaimed its theological task. In recent times there has been a call for clergy to function primarily as theologians, or as agents for social change in a secular world. But theology, as it is usually done, is an extremely intellectual and theoretical task. Some women assert that it is a masculine genre.

I sense that women are reflecting a revised understanding of ministry itself. Today’s Christians do not want a pastoral director, or a grass-roots theologian; they seek a caring community. This view of ministry emphasizes the historic female tasks of nurturing personal growth in order to wean persons from immature dependence on authoritarian leadership. It begins by challenging sources of authority, expanding the concept of religious life, changing existing styles of leadership and suggesting radically egalitarian ways for Christians to support one another in community. And, unlike the privatism usually associated with the celebration of women’s work in the past, this approach to ministry builds upon female experiences of oppression to address the social and political realities of our world.

As a seminary professor, a historian and a clergy-woman, I am too close to these trends to judge their depth or lasting power. I do believe, however, that the theological assumptions behind the training and maintenance of ordained leadership for the contemporary church are being upset by the influx of women. I rejoice at this unrest.