Women Clergy Becoming More Common in Southwest Houston Churches and Synagogues
There’s a famous story within the Methodist church about a woman who has since become a bishop but was, in fact, locked out of the church where she’d received an appointment by men who did not want a woman minister.
“The men changed the locks on the church and wouldn’t let her in,” says Gail Williford, Minister of Spiritual Formation at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church.
“She won them over eventually. It was an uphill battle – another time, the men removed the musical instruments.” “I remember a time a few years back when I went to perform the graveside service,” says the Rev. Linda Christians, Executive Pastor at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. “I had not been to this particular cemetery before. I admit, I was dressed in a silk black suit that had a little flare in the back – perhaps some pleats that gave it an extra something. I was also wearing high heels. The director of the cemetery was taken back when I went into the office to inquire about the location of the graveside, and his response was, ‘Why, you’re a woman! I wasn’t expecting you to be.’ Well, what do you say to that?
These stories are not told by the women as complaints, merely as events in their lives, often looked on as humorous, in the past tense. These women dared to follow their hearts into God’s service, knowing that they were breaking tradition and that there could be challenges that their male counterparts would not face.
Even today, after most faiths have crossed the gender barrier and allowed women to minister to their congregations, there are challenges that the women clergy
uniquely face. One of the ways they meet those challenges is through mentoring - older, experienced women clergy taking younger women under their wing.
“I have been very fortunate that women have been leading in ministry as ordained clergy in the United Methodist Church since the late 1800’s. I know they faced challenges and dealt with issues that I can’t begin to imagine, and I am grateful for their fortitude and sacrifice,” says Williford.
“In the total Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, there are 1,200 clergy and 25 percent are women,” says Williford. “Of those 300, when you talk about women being promoted in the church, we call it the ‘stained glass ceiling.’
Through the United Methodist Church’s Lead Women senior women clergy like Williford will help fill that mentoring void for other women. The project pairs 25 women who serve at churches with 1,000 or more members with 25 women who have the potential, as determined by United Methodist bishops, to one day lead a church of that size. For the first time, Williford is seeing more women receive appointments at larger churches.
“Certainly Taylor Fuerst’s appointment at Westbury UMC, Carol Bruse’s appointment at West University UMC are some of the more visible. In terms of the ‘tall steeple’ churches, that has not yet happened. I think it will – there is a tremendous turnover of people my age who are mostly men and there are some very fine young women coming up.”
Another way these women meet the challenges is through networking. The Young Clergy Women Project is a network of the youngest ordained clergy women, defined as those under 40. What started as an online group of bloggers in 2006 has expanded to an e-zine for and about young clergy women (called Fidelia’s Sisters) as well as off-line conferences and regional gatherings. The YCWP more recently created a group for women who “are discerning a call into the ministry.”
To support and nurture future young clergy women, they initiated a column in their e-zine called “Along the Way.” The YCWP has attracted participants from throughout the world, eager to share their problems and solutions in support of each other. The nearly 1,000 members live in 46 states in the US as well as in Canada, the UK (Scotland, Wales, and England), South Africa, Sweden, Belgium, Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, Australia and other countries.
They represent Anglican (Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, Australia), Assemblies of God, Baptist (American, National, Cooperative, Alliance, and Australian), Church of Sweden, Church of the Brethren, Church of the Nazarene, Christian Reformed Church, Cumberland Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, Moravian, Mennonite, Pan African Orthodox Christian, Presbyterian Church USA, Presbyterian Church of Canada, Church of Scotland, Reformed Church in America, Scottish Episcopal, Swedenborgian, United Church of Canada, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, United Reformed Church, and Unitarian Universalist and other denominations. Other groups, such as Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy, The Center for Women Clergy and The National Association of Presbyterian Clergy women, provide encouragement through networking and mentoring to specific groups of women clergy.
About three years ago, a group of ordained Episcopal women met in Hendersonville, N.C., to talk about their work and the work they’d like to do someday. The Imagine Conference was the first church-wide gathering of Episcopal clergy women in the three decades since women had been ordained as priests.
The women gathered there were urged to “dream the big dream” by speakers including then-Presiding Bishop-elect Katharine Jefferts Schori. “The real purpose of the conference was to empower women to
put their names on the list of Episcopal elections or tall-steeple churches or for whatever jobs they wanted to do and strategize very concretely for getting those jobs,” says Rev. Margaret Rose, who now is the co-director of mission in the Episcopal Church.
“That conference was one of those turning point moments in our understanding of what women were really hungry to both talk about and act on,” Rose says.
For all of the women, a common struggle shared is that of achieving balance. “I would say balance is the most difficult part of being a priest,” says Glenice Robinson-Como, who serves at Christ Church Cathedral. “You must always be intentional about carving time out of an often hectic schedule to take care of yourself and those you love.” One young clergywoman, Rev. Amanda Berends, wrote on Aug.
22 in Fidelia’s Sisters, about her gratitude at a religious conference for the provision of child care. She says: “I entered the chapel for our opening worship service. All along the perimeter of the room, moms with babies and young children sat comfortably, some nursing, some bouncing babies, some gratefully handing their children to friends who had offered to hold them. My heart filled with gratitude for this place so full of life, for these women whose song was punctuated by squeals and screeches, and for the TYCWP conference committee, whose thoughtful planning allowed so many clergy moms to fully participate in the conference.”
“Most women want to be the best in all of their roles at all times, but that is impossible,” Robinson- Como says. “What is possible is working at living a balanced life and remembering not to lose yourself and the things that are important in life. This can sometimes be difficult.”
Research done by Mark Chaves, professor of Sociology, Religion, and Divinity at Duke University, shows that overall, women lead only about 8% of American congregations. And women are more likely to lead small than large congregations, so only about 5% of American churchgoers attend a congregation led by a woman. Chaves says about 1 in 5 Presbyterian, Methodist, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America churches are now led by women. Congregations that describe themselves as theologically liberal are much more likely than other congregations to be led by women.
More than one-third (37%) of congregations whose leaders describe them as theologically “more on the liberal side” are led by women, compared to only 5% of congregations whose leaders say they are “more on the conservative side” and only 7% of congregations whose leaders say they are “right in the middle.”
Having women pastors in one-third of self-described liberal congregations may seem like a lot, but only 9% of congregations call themselves liberal, Chaves says.
The percentage of congregations led by women should increase somewhat in coming years, Chaves says, as younger, female, clergy replaces older, almost completely male, clergy. But the presence of women in congregational leadership will continue to be widely variable across denominations and religious groups, and the overall percentage of congregations led by women will remain below 20% for
many more years, he says.
See Related Stories: Women of Faith – Breaking the Stained Glass Ceiling