Women in Ministry Face the ‘80s

by Barbara Brown Zikmund

Barbara Brown Zigmund is dean of Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California.

This article appeared in the Christian Century February 3-10, 1982, p. 113. 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.


Without necessarily seeking to do so, women clergy are presenting some serious questions about the nature of Christian vocation. In their efforts to gain credibility, to deal with rivalry, and to claim their calling, women ministers raise issues which ought to concern all Christians.


A recent study sponsored by the Ford Foundation reports that female enrollment in the seminaries of nine leading Protestant denominations has jumped dramatically in the past decade. From 1972 to 1980, the number of women in these seminaries grew from 3,358 to 10,830. Many people in theological education readily admit that if it were not for the women, seminaries would be in deep financial trouble. In the mainline Protestant schools women make up 30 to 50 per cent of the student bodies. And although most laypeople in the churches have had little experience with women ministers, the situation is changing rapidly.

People are always asking why this change has come about so quickly. Why do women choose ministry? Why would a woman today seek out a career so obviously dominated by men? Yet it makes sense. As women have moved outside the home to seek employment, the church has offered great appeal. Many women have received excellent educations. In the economy of American Protestant values, when one has a talent or a resource, it is wasteful not to use it. Women are seeking meaningful ways to use the benefits of education. Women are newly aware of their talents. Furthermore, the inflationary spiral has forced many women into the marketplace to supplement shrinking family incomes.

Historically, women have been the backbone of American churches; their volunteer efforts have kept many mainline churches going. Consequently, when women begin looking around the society for employment outside the home, the church is very appealing. Women know the church. They know that they can carry on its ministries effectively, because they have been serving the church as volunteers for years. And when the church preaches a theology that celebrates the gifts of all people, regardless of race and sex, women feel comfortable openly seeking more direct leadership. Women who have never claimed their sense of calling are coming forward to do what they have thought about for years.

Although women are challenging the sexist patterns of the past, most women who choose to prepare for ministry are not on a crusade. They are responding to a genuine call to service. While they are hurt and angry that the church has limited the exercise of women’s talents in the past, they are hopeful that a new era for women’ s ministries is emerging.

Women in seminaries today and women moving out to serve in local churches in increasing numbers have shared some unique experiences. In talks with such women, three common concerns emerge: credibility, rivalry and calling.

Women want to be accepted and effective -- and women ministers, like women in many predominantly male professions, do not have the automatic acceptance and unthinking support which their male colleagues enjoy. Consequently they must spend considerable energy establishing and maintaining their credibility as ministers. It begins with externals.

Because women are often quickly judged in our society by “appearances,” concerns about what to wear and how one’s voice carries cannot be ignored. Women clergy work very consciously on the interrelationship between their private lives and their roles as ministers. How to nourish meaningful relationships with the opposite sex? What to ask of their husbands? Whether to have children? How to balance home responsibilities with the job? These are common concerns for all professional women. In the Protestant ministry, however, these questions have special implications for a woman pastor.

Throughout the history of the American church, the minister’s wife has contributed to her husband’s credibility. She tended his home, supported the women’s program, sang in the choir and generally supplemented his image as a stable family man. In recent years’ this ideal has faded with clergy divorces and clergy wives who take less part in the church. But it remains a special problem for women clergy. Laity worry about the personal happiness of an unmarried female pastor; but if she is married, they have even more trouble knowing what to do with her husband. Sometimes he is unwittingly forced into a pseudo-pastoral role he does not choose. At other times, if he maintains a career and identity outside the church or is not even a church member, his wife’s ministry (and/or the marriage) may be questioned.

If both members of a couple are ministers, it might appear to be easier, but the woman/wife usually has a difficult time gaining credibility as a pastor in her own right. People turn to male leadership first and view her work as secondary; or they squeeze her into the sex-stereotyped ministry of Christian education. Clergy couples find that the double demands of their ministries on one marriage make it especially difficult to separate their private lives from their professional obligations.

When a woman pastor chooses to have a family, the situation gets even more complicated. In today’s economy many mothers work because their families need the money. But as one pregnant minister told me, “People don’t go into ministry for money.” So when she tells people that she has no intention of leaving her position when the baby comes, they cannot understand. Everyone seems to assume that she ought to choose between motherhood and ministry. Somehow a woman’s call to ordained service is thought to be more easily compromised by parenthood.

Yet ironically, when the pastor is a mother, her credibility is often enhanced. One minister recalled an introduction at a regional women’s fellowship meeting. After spelling out the educational and ecclesiastical credentials of the speaker, the woman making the introduction said, “But I know that you will really want to hear what Reverend X has to say, because she is the mother of a two-year-old son.” And in that audience her credibility was increased. For the same reasons, divorced and widowed women clergy sometimes gain credibility from the fact that they once were married (and had/have children).

Credibility is measured in many little things. Women clergy often notice that people are overly concerned with how they sound and how they look. If they are single, they are more vulnerable to matchmaking and overprotective laity. If they are married, their husbands and families are regularly measured by parsonage standards which do not fit. It is a double standard, but until our society becomes less preoccupied with women’s appearances and relationships, female clergy cannot ignore these concerns.

Rivalry is another issue for women moving into ordained ministries. Because ministry is a profession which rewards individual excellence and builds upon unique personal gifts and talents, staff relationships are often difficult. Successful ministers are strong leaders who attract followers, and in many cases they are not skilled team workers.

Yet many seminary graduates, male and female, receive their first appointment or call as the assistant or associate pastor in a large church. Although it is good not to begin one’s ministry all alone, working in team ministry is invariably difficult -- especially for women. The rivalries that emerge are complex. If the senior pastor (who is usually male) is threatened by a competent woman, her energies will be dissipated in frustration and anger. If he is young and attractive, there may be sexual innuendos and jealousies. If he is supportive, his best intentions sometimes come out in paternalistic ways. In all cases it is difficult to obtain the helpful feedback necessary for professional growth.

Often denominational staff people seek out a new woman pastor to serve on committees and to take a visible role in regional or conference meetings. Being a token, or being pushed into leadership before one is ready, is lonely and frightening. The situation gets worse when patronizing executives lean over backward to help. One well-meaning moderator changed all of the “brother in Christ” language at an ordination service to “daughter in Christ.” Not until someone pointed it out to him did he realize that “sister in Christ” would have been more appropriate.

Rivalry among clergy is commonplace. For everyone starting out in the Christian ministry, it is disillusioning to function within the hierarchical and patriarchal patterns of church power. It is common for assistant and associate pastors to become discouraged and cynical. For women, however, the rivalries are more intense and layered with sexism. Male seminary classmates see women as favored candidates for those jobs that take heed of affirmative action goals. Established male pastors worry about how they will measure up when compared with exceptionally able women. Clergy wives become uneasy after a woman joins the ministerial staff. Active laywomen feel devalued because they have not been to seminary. Even other women clergy sometimes begrudge sharing the limelight with another woman. Rivalry is a powerful reality in the lives of many women clergy.

The calling to ordained ministry in much of Protestantism today has a double meaning. On the one hand, to have a call means to have a job, a particular invitation from one church to become its pastor. On the other hand, a call to the gospel ministry is a theological and spiritual reality. Women ministers have special concerns about their calling in both senses.

Placement of women seminarians is a major issue in many denominations. Special educational programs and bureaucratic efforts are under way to help the increasing numbers of women ministerial candidates find employment after graduation. Although some free-church denominations have been ordaining women for over 100 years, they have done little to help place women in other than small, out-of-the-way and marginal pastorates. Many women have had meaningful and significant ministries in these unprestigious places, but their salaries and their capacity to move through a normal ministerial career have been severely curtailed. Where each local church is free to call its own pastor, pressures to change common preferences for male pastors must be indirect. It is a slow process, but the sheer numbers of women graduating from seminaries at the present time are helping to change attitudes.

In those connectional denominations that deploy clergy through an appointment system, change has been even more rapid. When a bishop accepts a female candidate for ministry, the aspirant has powerful forces on her side. Although some ecclesiastical systems are saturated with candidates and there is an oversupply of clergy, when positions do open up, and when the appointment officer is a strong advocate for women, women move into significant pastorates.

For many women, their first call or appointment is not the problem. In today’s economy there are many small churches seeking fresh seminary graduates to be their pastors, and there continue to be fair numbers of openings for assistant or associate pastors. Although it usually takes longer than placement for a male graduate, most women who want a position eventually get one.

After several years, however, in a typical minister’s career, it becomes time to move to a slightly larger church, or to graduate from being an assistant or associate minister to having a parish of one’s own. At this point many women find themselves trapped. They have lost touch with the support networks they developed during seminary. They have learned some things about themselves, and they are less willing to settle for the lowest salary. They have developed greater self-confidence so that they are able to state what they want to do in ministry, not simply to respond in gratitude to whatever is available. Furthermore, women clergy seeking their second placements are often limited geographically because of their husband’s job, or they may be limited because they have or want to have children. Single women have a bit more flexibility at this stage, but they too have developed ties and relationships they cherish. Those clergy couples who settled for team ministry when they wanted churches of their own (or the other way around) may become impatient. At the very practical level, ecclesiastical systems of all types do not have structures that are supportive of the career/life cycle of women ministers. Consequently the burn-out and drop-out rate for women clergy runs high.

Those who do survive often have trouble getting another job, and they struggle with the issue of calling in its deeper meaning. Some women ministers learn to adapt to current definitions of “success” in ministry. They are usually strong personalities with a willingness to sacrifice aspects of their personal life to God’s service. Others, however, keep reaching for a new balance between their identity as women and as ministers. It is a difficult life, because there are few models.

These women raise basic questions about Christian vocation and professional ministry. They want to succeed by past expectations, but they believe that the calling to ministry is itself changing. When they reflect upon their situation, it is not easy to interpret. As one woman put it, “I keep wondering if I am successful because I am a woman, or because I am competent?” Or if something goes wrong, “Is it sexism or me?” With increasing numbers of ordained women these concerns are common. What is normal? How do we measure “success”? What structures and leadership resources are best for the church of tomorrow? Without necessarily seeking to do so, women clergy are presenting some serious questions about the nature of Christian vocation. In their efforts to gain credibility, to deal with rivalry, and to claim their calling, women ministers raise issues which ought to concern all Christians.