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Women in Ministry from 'Women and Church Leadership' by E.Margaret Howe

Women in Ministry

Women and Church Leadership by E.Margaret Howe,
a Zondervan Publication, 1982, pp.185-212.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.

Once seminary days are left behind, the woman minister faces many challenges as she begins her professional career. If she chooses to enter the pastorate, as many women do, she may encounter initial problems in finding a church that she feels is suited to her leadership potential. This will depend to some extent on her denominational allegiance. In some denominations the local church has little to say in the choice of a minister; the decision is made at the state or national level. In other denominations the local church is autonomous. Such local churches may be far distant from the seminary in their stance on the leadership of women. Even after appointment to a pastorate, a woman minister must be prepared to face some problems which are directly related to the fact that she is a woman filling what has been for many centuries a male role. If change is slow in coming about in the seminary, it is even slower at the congregational level.

The substance of the material in the pages which follow was gained from direct contact with women ministers. Questionnaires were sent to women across the United States who are in some way involved in professional church leadership. Nine major Protestant denominations were included in the survey.(1) In spite of heavy commitments and a proliferation of questionnaires, many of these ministers responded enthusiastically with detailed comments and even with letters of encouragement and support. Many took the time to recommend various books or denominational materials, listing sources from which these might be obtained. Although the sampling was necessarily selective, the completed questionnaires did provide direct insight into the situations faced by some women in church leadership positions.

Support and Placement

When a young man chooses to enter the ministry, he usually experiences the enthusiastic backing of his local church. Some women also found this to be true, but many discovered early in their commitment that such encouragement was not to be taken for granted: “I do remember that there was no glory or excitement about my commitment to the ministry such as there is when men make that decision.” In practical matters, too, it was common to encounter quiet resistance: “By the church and the presbytery where I grew up, in a conservative area of South Carolina, I was ignored. My papers would be lost. I would not be contacted concerning meetings. I was never asked to preach until my final days of seminary—a different experience from that of male seminary students from my home church.” When it came to ordination, some found similar problems: “My local 'district' refused to ordain me when the congregation requested this step. However, the Mennonite church has a congregational polity, and the congregation appealed to the national leadership and chose to ordain me anyway.” Such incidents cast a shadow over entrance to Christian ministry.

Most of the women questioned, however, reported very positive experiences, both in their home churches and in their initial placement into a pastoral situation. They had proceeded through the normal denominational channels, had been interviewed for positions, and had been well-received. Some had obtained positions through informal “contacts,” or because they had been highly recommended by one of their former teachers. Others had been approached by pulpit committees and had been offered very satisfactory appointments. Some had responded to advertisements in denominational journals and, after successfully completing the interview process, were appointed to pastoral positions. Many reported that in the placement process they had not encountered any problems which could be ascribed to the fact that they were women. Some said their gender had actually been an advantage because the churches in which they were interested were desirous of appointing a woman to their staff.

Of those women who had experienced problems in this area, some felt that these were to be attributed to the placement system itself or to the fact that this is largely administered by male personnel, many of whom are not sympathetic to the needs of women ministers. This was found by some to be the case in the seminary situation: “During seminary I received no help from the placement office, even for summer jobs.” “The president (now bishop) of the L.C.A. synod to which I previously belonged refused to even try to place his women candidates and sent us looking elsewhere in the second semester of our senior year at seminary.” Rather than being encouraged by administrators, these pastoral candidates found themselves being influenced away from ministry: “Our denominational administrators were full of scare stories about how few openings were available in the ministry—the implication being that even then women would only be called if no men were available.” Another wrote, “My field education supervisor once suggested that I might be happier as a wife and mother.” And one candidate was advised, “Wait until you are in your forties . . . you'll be more accepted as a woman minister when you are older”!

Many respondents said they would like to see the placement of women promoted much more strongly by administrators. It was suggested that the techniques used by some actually mitigate, against the interests of the woman candidate: “In the call process of my district, I seem to fall through every bureaucratic crack that opens. The problems seem to be: (1) congregations' lack of experience of a woman pastor and (2) the district's tentativeness in giving my name. For example, they will 'check out' a congregation's attitude instead of just giving my name where my qualifications match the needs of the congregation." Some felt that they were too much in the dark about the whole process: “Because of our Baptist polity, pastoral candidates do not know where their names are being circulated, so we don't know which churches will not consider us because of our gender.” “The church operates politically by word of mouth . . . women are outside most of the circles of conversation.” It is in denominations where this “unofficial” power structure is permitted to operate that much of the problem lies: “'No openings available,' I was told again and again.”

It was generally thought that congregations are more willing to take a chance with an unknown male than with an unknown female. Few churches, however, are prepared to give that as a reason for not calling a woman as pastor: “Churches don't say they won't hire a woman. Other reasons for dissatisfaction are given.” Often the reason a candidate is rejected can only be surmised: “I suspect that various congregations in the areas I listed as 'preferred' did not pursue further contact with me because of my being a woman.” But because nothing has been directly stated, there can be no grounds for objection: “I have applied to several parishes for the position of rector, and I do not believe my applications were ever seriously considered because of my being a woman. But I have no proof of that.” Subtle methods are sometimes used to discourage a woman candidate from even applying for a position: “One committee described their situation as very bleak and uninteresting. I visited it later and found it quite appealing.” Because of the reluctance of some churches to entertain the thought of a woman minister, it is often hard for a woman to obtain a hearing: “Some churches feel that it would be detrimental to their image to hire a woman. My biggest problem was calming fears and obtaining a chance to be heard.”

Being highly qualified is not always the solution for a woman desiring to enter professional ministry. One candidate reported that although her qualifications were rated higher than those of her male competitors, “questions would arise relating to 'whether they could handle a woman pastor.'” Many women noted that there were times when they received no reply after applying for jobs for which they were fully qualified. Leaving seminary is a critical time, and a time at which it is easy to make comparisons of one sort or another. A respondent wrote, “I was the last person in my seminary class to receive a call upon graduation, in spite of the fact that academically and in terms of ministerial ability I ranked at the top.” When applying for jobs, some women were actually told they were overqualified: “I found it very difficult to find work in Nashville, Tennessee, when I came here in 1978. It seemed that I was overeducated.” Observing the struggle which some competent women have in finding employment causes others to question how much support they really have in the church structure: “One other woman clergy in this presbytery has interviewed for several positions and has not been called to any. She is one of the most competent people I know. So I do wonder about the real support of women clergy.”

Anger was expressed by some women regarding offensive interview questions and comments. One respondent stated, “Two single women clergy I know were asked directly at job interviews whether they were lesbians. Are men asked if they are homosexuals?” Another wrote, “I was told by one church committee, headed by a woman my age, that I would not be able to appreciate their large eighteenth-century parsonage because I did not have a family.” Others were asked if they contemplated marriage in the near future, and married women were interrogated concerning the number of children they expected to bear!

Anger was expressed by others concerning the fact that women are often relegated to “leftover” parishes with very low salaries and little hope of promotion. “I am angry” wrote one, “that many of us are forced to take jobs in small parishes which a 'real pastor' doesn't want; that there is pressure to fit that mold.”

“The churches that are interested in women usually feel they could not attract a man for the salary or challenge they have to offer,” observed another writer. Highly qualified women come out of seminary only to find that their options are severely limited: “The real problem is the narrow range of positions open to me. Small, rural, multi-church field, or associate pastorships. I want more options than that.” “Most 'good' churches are not open to me, and probably never will be.” One respondent observed, “No women in my denomination are serving parishes of over 150 members; only a few are serving parishes of over 75 members.” If a woman wishes to obtain a senior pastorate, rarely can she find that in a large church: “If I had waited for a church senior pastorate, it would have had to be in a small church with a low salary.” This was found to be particularly true in the South.

A woman whose husband is also an ordained minister will probably find it easier to obtain employment, although this situation does present its own special problems. “Our parish has admitted to its liberal and open-minded self that it would not have hired a woman pastor had I not come equipped with a husband who was also ordained.” The obvious problem is for both to find employment in the same general geographical area. Occasionally both pastor in the same church. If the church is large enough, both work full-time; otherwise, each pastors part-time. Reports were that the part-time arrangement was very satisfactory when the couple was also raising a family because child-care could be shared equally between husband and wife. Sometimes two different churches were pastored by the clergy couple, and occasionally the wife worked within one denominational structure and the husband in another. One couple, for example, pastored respectively for a United Methodist church and a Lutheran Church in America congregation. This was the only way “to find suitable options for both of us.” When it is time to move to another appointment, some couples have this equitable arrangement: “My husband and I take turns in job choices. This move he got first priority.”

Problems other than geographical location can arise. Role stereotypes, for example, may cause trouble. One couple met up with a presbytery executive who was “convinced that clergy couples could work only as associates at a large church, the woman in Christian Education of course.” Sometimes couples encounter authorities who feel that “any couple in which the woman is more verbal, assertive, or skilled than the man ... or even equally so ... is unbalanced and therefore unacceptable”! Occasionally the man may lose a position because he wishes to work in partnership with his wife: “My husband and I applied for a four-point charge and were turned down because they did not want a woman on the team of four.” One woman who had lost her spouse feared that she might have difficulty finding a suitable appointment in the future: “I expect now to have some trouble in making my next move, since I am seeking a senior pastorate on my own.”

Problem Areas

Once a woman is appointed as pastor of a church, she may find that she is the victim of all kinds of prejudices. One woman found that there was divided opinion in her church concerning whether or not she should participate in the preaching ministry: “In my first position there was concern about me preaching. I worked out an agreement whereby I would preach twice and then we would evaluate. The response from the congregation was so favorable that there was no problem.” Another encountered opposition over the celebration of the eucharist: “I went to celebrate communion once in a congregation I served and where I regularly preached. They had taken the communion vessels away from the building. I addressed the congregation briefly on the subject and returned the next Sunday . . . they had everything prepared. All but one received communion.”

The conducting of baptisms, weddings, and funerals is sometimes a problem area. A respondent wrote, “I was assistant pastor in a congregation of one thousand members. I was never asked to do a baptism; I conducted only a few funerals and no weddings. A large part of the problem was a senior pastor who was unwilling to share this aspect of ministry and so controlled the situation." This experience was by no means uncommon. One minister commented, “It seems to me that this type of problem is often due to an insecure or egotistical senior pastor.” At other times it is the wishes of the congregation which predominate: “Some people still want a male minister for funerals—why, I don't know. Weddings are different. I've had no problems here.” Non-church members who wish to be married in a church are apparently more likely to be conservative in this area: “We do a lot of non-member weddings, and then the request is for a male pastor.” Performing a wedding in another diocese may also create a problem: “I was not allowed to perform a wedding in another diocese for two of our students. The bishop forbade it.”

Pastors who are single experience some pressures not shared by their married colleagues. They do not have the ready-made support structure that may be found within a family unit—and there is no one to care for their needs when the day's work is over. Many of the concerns of church life cannot be voiced indiscriminately among a wide group of people, and a sense of isolation may readily develop unless there is a close support person in whom to confide. It takes effort and discipline to overcome this problem, and often the demands of church involvement drain away the energy needed to build a support network. Dating is another problem: “How many men are ready to date their pastor? Believe me, not many!”

However, those women who are already married when they enter the pastorate feel that they, too, have problems. One respondent wrote, “My guess is that the Protestant Reformation really hasn't gone much past the concept of married priests.” She had in mind the care of children and the constant pull to be “both mother and pastor.” Ironically, our society has reconciled itself to the male version of the dedicated pastor who is so involved with the family of God that he neglects his own family. It is assumed that his spouse will make up for the loss by being both father and mother to their children, even though she herself might be feeling neglected. The male minister is not only excused for allowing this situation to develop—he may actually experience a certain quiet approbation. But when it comes to the female version of the dedicated pastor, society's expectations are different. And because she is a product of this society, a woman's sense of responsibility is sometimes stronger in this area. A minister who is also a mother must constantly evaluate the quality of service she is giving to the church and the quality of nurture and support she is giving to her own family. Many women ministers consider themselves fortunate to have husbands who share equally in the task of child care. Potentially this situation can make ministry even more meaningful: “Part of being a woman involves the possibility of husband and children. My ministry has been enriched by these experiences.” There are times, however, when serious choices must be made, whether or not they are understood by others: “I was three weeks pregnant when the accident at Three Mile Island occurred. To escape from the risk of nuclear contamination, I resigned . . . the lack of support and help is more than I can deal with here.”

Women ministers were asked whether there is any appreciable difference between the salaries they are paid and those paid to men in similar positions. Some replied that they are paid on the same scale as men and that they have no complaints in this area: “Since E.R.A. was passed in Pennsylvania in the late 1960s, I have had equal pay.” Others said that they receive higher salaries than those paid to men in their positions: “Our synod is, if anything, fanatic in the opposite direction.” But some stated that their salaries are “painfully different” and that “promotion” or “financial growth” is nearly impossible. Sometimes the reasons given were that the size of the parish precludes larger payment or that the geographical area to which they were assigned is less wealthy: “Compared to my classmates, I would say probably $3,000 behind, partly due to geographical difference." There is not always an obvious reason for the difference: “Less qualified men in my graduating class received calls paying almost twice what I am paid,” wrote one respondent. Another commented, “My salary is $2,000 to $4,000 lower than men in comparable churches.” A third wrote, “I am $500 lower than most of my male counterparts.” Even when serving in the same church as a peer, differences were discernible: “The work was . . . equally divided, but he received one-third more. He also had far more use of the part-time secretary.”

When the matter of payment is raised in committee discussions prior to an appointment, women are frequently treated differently from their male counterparts. “Discussions with the call committee ... on salary were centered on how much I 'needed' rather than. the worth of the position,” one minister commented. Another; wrote, “I started at a lower salary than the other associate minister. The reason given—he was engaged to be married!” It is quite common for ministerial candidates to be told, “Single women do not need as much as married men.” One respondent wrote, “Being single, I am supposed to be cheaper. Actually my colleagues' wives are the major wage earners in their homes.” Others commented that being single not only precludes a second income but also entails extra expenses, such as the need for a housekeeper. This was felt to be most unfair discrimination. Some women speak up actively and attempt to bring about change: “I am earning more than my predecessor simply because I told the committee that I deserved more than they were offering me.”

Housing allowances are also an issue when discussing salary. One woman wrote, “I was the fifth woman to be ordained into this synod and the first to receive equal pay and housing allowance with the male graduates.” A married candidate had this experience: “The Board of Trustees saw no need to provide a housing allowance because 'your husband does that.' When I suggested that they could give me a matching sum as part of my salary, they did offer $2,000 as a housing allowance. In the Chicago area where I reside, $10,000 is recommended." Clergy couples also face problems in this area: “As a clergy couple, my husband and I have encountered many people who assume we would be 'two for the price of one.' We both work full-time and expect to be paid accordingly.” Some clergy couples take for granted that they will receive less than their due: “My husband and I are slightly underpaid since we share housing, thus relieving each parish of half of its housing cost. This is because we are a clergy couple.”

Pressures resulting from prejudice are not always easy to isolate. Some feel that to find acceptance it seems to be necessary to repress the feminine side of their natures, and they offer strong resistance to this. “Many women, myself included, feel the pressure to fit in as 'one of the boys,' to abandon the feminine/womanly sides of ourselves in order to fit the clergy role,” wrote one minister. “The image of the minister is male. That's a tough mind-set to break.”(2) Some have a hard time combating feelings of inferiority: “We have been brought up to feel inferior to men.” For others, coping with anger is a problem: “I think women's biggest problem is their anger which, though very real and honest, prevents them from going on with life and ministering effectively.” Some feel they constantly represent not just themselves but all women, so that if they fail in any area they are somehow vicariously causing all women to fail. In this connection, many women are tired of being treated as “zoo exhibits”—representatives of the species rather than individual people with dreams and feelings. As ministers of churches, women find themselves “visible walking targets for the pain, confusion, and grief that people feel over the changing roles of women and men in society at large.”

Some women ministers said that they understand why some congregations are slow in accommodating to new forms of leadership. “It is never easy for people set in their ways to change, and the people who are most faithful to the church are many times looking for stability in the midst of a chaotic world. They don't want to have to deal with change in their religion, too. This is especially so when the pastor has been a strong father figure and has helped them weather the struggle." So congregations also have problems. On the positive side, however, it is good to be reminded that “the entry of women into the ordained ministry is not primarily a problem to be solved, but a gift to be received and appreciated and enjoyed.” Perhaps this is the aspect which should be stressed.


By virtue of her office a woman minister is committed to the establishment of a network of relationships. First she must establish rapport with ministerial colleagues within her church, and then with those ministers of other denominations who serve churches in the same general community. If she is fortunate enough to have a secretary and other staff members, she must aim to develop a working relationship which is mutually helpful. Her relationships with the church congregation are highly significant, as are those with the community beyond the church boundaries. While many women ministers have found few problems in these areas, some have encountered situations which have, from time to time, hampered their ministry.

Many women find themselves working as associate ministers where the other members of the ministerial team are male. Relationships in this situation are, as one respondent noted, “a real challenge and a real chance for all of us to grow.” Another respondent wrote, “The biggest hassle will come from colleagues, and the more successful you are the worse it will be.” Another reported she was having “much difficulty” in this area but was “not sure how to understand it.” Below the surface of church leadership activity, women ministers commonly experience “subtle sexist attitudes that are hard to point out and difficult to deal with on an emotional level.” This is often attributed to the fact that “pastors who come from male-dominated seminary days just do not know how to relate to a female colleague.” The situation is one to which men have difficulty adjusting: “Some men have a hard time dealing with women as professional equals. I try to remember that it is their problem, not mine."

This underlying tension surfaces in a number of ways. A senior pastor may express his true feelings not in open hostility but in persistent betrayal of the working relationship: “The senior pastor I worked with was continually by-passing me and demeaning me.” At other times paternalism is evidenced: “The underlying message is that women, and especially young women, are sort of defenseless and helpless and need someone to watch over them.” This reveals itself in condescension: “They tend to be a bit condescending because they are not used to treating a woman as a peer—just check the way they treat their wives.” A show of strength on the part of the woman minister is sometimes resented: “Strong women are expected in the ministry, but the first to complain about strength is the male pastor.” When a task has been performed with excellence, casual comments may betray an attitude of disrespect: “I preached for a district ministers' retreat. Most of my male colleagues were supportive and complimenting; however, one told me later that he liked 'girl preachers' because they were prettier than men. ... I did say that I did not consider a twenty-eight-year-old female a girl.”

Women ministers may find that the only way a male colleague has been programed to relate to women is with sexual flirtation. Unhappily, this is common in the business world, and it is hardly surprising to find that it carries over into church life from time to time. Women ministers develop their own ways of dealing with this: “Occasionally a male colleague is patronizing, flirtatious, or rude. I try to use humor in confronting them.” This places a restraint on the quality of friendship which can be developed: “It is difficult in many cases for me to maintain a warm and supportive relationship with certain colleagues without that warmth being taken as an invitation to a different kind of relationship.” Pastors' wives, all too aware of the dangers, may discourage their husbands from establishing meaningful relationships with women colleagues: “From what I have heard, I am a threat to many of the pastors' wives, and therefore, the coffee . . . and conversation are much harder to come by.” When informal gatherings of male and female colleagues do materialize, the conversation is not always of mutual interest, and it may even cause alienation: “Male sexual humor gets to be a bore and a topic that separates us.”

From time to time women ministers participate in clergy gatherings which include ministerial staff from other parishes or from other denominations. These gatherings, too, may present problems. The presence of a woman may be resented by certain people: “Some of the men in my area are tense when I'm at meetings. In my Baptist clergy group I find far less problem than in the ecumenical circle. It's nothing specific—a general feeling of avoidance or distance.” Often at such gatherings the woman minister feels she is being ignored: “For the first year I was ignored by 75 percent of the other clergy in the district. Only after I confronted them with the distance and the hostility did a few of them acknowledge that they had 'difficulty in accepting me.' Now they at least say 'hello.'” Not every person has the emotional resources to effect an open confrontation: “Early in my ministry I quit attending most clergy gatherings because I didn't appreciate being treated like a sweet little girl instead of a colleague.” One woman said she was referred to constantly at presbytery meetings as “the blonde”! Another reported that she faced derision and abuse: “At a clergy gathering I was cornered by a fellow pastor. He said, 'Am I ever thankful my wife isn't a pastor.' He was quite abusive.” The president of one ministerial association insisted on addressing the group as “gentlemen,” thus communicating clearly his attitude toward the woman minister. One respondent reported that a potential pastor in a clergy gathering “acknowledged my presence only when there was something he wanted me to do—his reason, 'I'm just a male chauvinist.'” Some women ministers make initial efforts to create good relationships within their districts but meet with only limited success: “When I began in my first parish, I invited six different area pastors to lunch or coffee, and only one, a Catholic priest, returned the invitation."

Establishing relationships within the wider community may also be difficult for a woman minister. One respondent observed: “My biggest problem is trying to become involved in the community. The most active service organizations in the community are exclusively fraternal organizations, and while I certainly qualify from a professional standpoint, I cannot be included because of my sex.” Generally speaking, the Jaycees, the Lions Clubs, and the Rotary Clubs all exclude women members. Influential people in the community tend to gravitate toward these associations, and many male ministers make significant contacts at these gatherings. There are no women's groups which serve quite the same function.

Relationships within the church are also important. A good secretary is a valuable asset in any setting, but particularly in a church. Many respondents spoke highly of the secretarial services at their disposal and of individual secretaries who excel in their work and provide an effective backup to the church's ministry. Warm, supportive relationships often develop in this area: “Secretaries are a real gift, so I support their work with my friendship.” Most women ministers said that their relationships with church secretaries are good. Some attributed this to the fact that they view their secretaries as people rather than as functionaries and that they feel free to demonstrate appreciation for their services. There is genuine mutual respect in most cases. When problems do arise, it is usually because of divided loyalties. Occasionally a senior pastor insists on calling the church secretary “my secretary.” Under these circumstances the secretary is generally less eager to assist the woman pastor. A few women ministers unhappily find that they have “inherited” a secretary who is basically opposed to the concept of women in church leadership. Such a situation is fraught with problems.

In a team ministry setting, the relationship with the secretary may be more complex. Some women find that the secretary caters to the men: “The secretarial needs of my male colleagues are taken care of better and faster than mine.” A secretary can readily project such attitudes to the congregation: “Our secretary tends to assume that people would prefer a male clergy person, and she refers calls to me only when the men are not around.” One secretary made a point of communicating information to the senior pastor but not to the woman minister who was the associate. Small matters, perhaps, but collectively they can create tension and conflict: “The female secretary had great difficulty doing secretarial things for me, such as phone calls, letters, arranging appointments.” Initial setbacks can sometimes be overcome: “This was an area of concern for our secretary before I came, but it has turned out to be a very positive relationship.” Some women ministers have male secretaries, and they find this very satisfactory.

Relationships between a woman minister and her congregation are highly significant. Most of the respondents find their congregations warmly supportive of their ministry. One wrote enthusiastically: “I must really compliment my parish on their adventurous spirit and very open and relaxed attitudes.” “Overall I've found overwhelming love and acceptance, if not excitement about my ministry as a woman.” On rare occasions, negative attitudes have been encountered, but these are the exception. One writer responded: “Once in three years someone left the altar rail rather than have the chalice from me. Other than that, the congregational response has affirmed me as a priest tremendously.” Another observed: “Very warm, affirming people in the churches I've served. Usually at first there are a few people who won't come or have preconceived notions about woman ministers, but these get handled individually or sometimes get cleared up spontaneously as time passes.” The respondents felt that a woman minister's attitude is very important: “If a woman goes into a situation expecting problems because she is a woman, she will most likely be able to find them. If she goes in confident and open, she will overcome any initial reticence fairly quickly.”

Even with the best of attitudes, however, a woman minister may expect to encounter some opposition. One respondent reported that a woman in her congregation “said that it made her physically ill to see and hear a woman in the pulpit”! Another commented, “I also work with youth, and I find that many of the mothers wanted a 'good-looking male' minister for their kids.” Other women in the church may deliberately cause trouble: “Some of the women in the power structure of our church's women's auxiliary are very negative and even hostile. This is changing a little bit, but it will continue to be a difficult area.” When opposition is voiced, it should be given a fair hearing: “We cannot deny that women in the ministry is new—our human nature is to find security in the old. It is important to respect and hear reluctance when it is voiced.” At the same time, some felt that church leaders should not shy away from exposing attitudes that fall short of the Christian ideal. A need was expressed for “bishops willing to point out bigotry and discrimination for the ugly thing it is. We are often slow to point out to Christians how unChristian their behavior can be—till they no longer can see right from wrong.”

Opposition is sometimes encountered from lay people who are very rigid in their attitudes and expectations. These occasionally find it hard to accept a woman as an authority figure, and they are surprised to find that a woman minister can actually operate effectively when conducting the business side of church affairs. One writer commented, “No matter how angry I've gotten, I have neither cried nor screamed at a church meeting, and I have been told that I am less easy to bully than most of my male predecessors.” Attitudes are sometimes expressed in the way in which a lay person addresses the minister: “I could always tell how people felt about me by the way they addressed me: first name—friend; Ms. X—doubtful about my pastoral role; Pastor X—everything okay.” There are lay people who cannot bring themselves to give a woman minister her correct title: “One of my elders introduced me to his mother as the preacher's wife even though my husband had never preached in that church!"

Physical appearance has a bearing on relationships with the congregation. For men entering church leadership positions physical attractiveness is usually considered a plus. A “young, good-looking” minister is to be coveted. Women do not find their youth and attractiveness valued to the same extent: “My age (26), being single and a rather attractive woman are three aspects that can cause some to be hesitant in trusting my capabilities,” one respondent observed. Another bemoaned, “Physical attractiveness is both a blessing and a curse. It gets attention, but it's such a hassle dealing with people's amazement at a pretty woman being a minister ('You don't look like a minister!').” Why is it assumed that a beautiful woman would not enter professional church leadership? Why will a congregation adulate a handsome young male minister but be wary of an attractive young female minister? A pregnant woman minister may also have misgivings about the response of the congregation: “Now that I'm very pregnant and beginning my summer supply preaching, I wonder how congregations will react.”

On the whole, congregational response was not seen to be a major problem, and positive attitudes were expressed: “Rely upon people to be fair in the long run ... 98 percent of the congregation will be.” When opposition was encountered, it usually proved to be temporary: “There were three families opposed to the woman pastor. In the first year of ministry they were all 'back in the fold.'” “The four who voted against calling a woman are now among my staunchest supporters.” “A year later there are people who come up to me and say 'I didn't want you to come, but now I say ”Why not?" and I'm glad you're here.'" The respondents felt that women should not react to opposition by downplaying the role of male members of the congregation but rather by enhancing it: “I fear that women, in their effort to succeed at their job, frequently discourage the participation of men in the congregation. That could be a serious mistake which will take a long time to rectify.”

Congregations, it seems, have a fairly clear picture of what they expect in the way of leadership. A woman who is competent in fulfilling her duties is likely to be accepted and appreciated: “The Lutheran laity has an ingrown understanding of the office of the pastor, and when they see that a woman is fulfilling that function, they relax and everything is fine.” Perhaps, after all, it is the function that is significant. The gender of the minister becomes a somewhat insignificant factor: “In this last year I think they've found that the differences between male and female pastors are really minimal.” Congregations do readily adapt to changing situations, and they sometimes surprise themselves with their changing attitudes: “In all three congregations the process was about the same—Step One: 'I never heard such wild ideas. We have never done it that way.' Step Two: 'Things sure aren't dull any more. The young people are really taking an interest.' Step Three: 'Why do you think you are called somewhere else? We need you here just as much as any place else needs you.' Step Four: Somebody else takes over, and it all goes better than it would if I were there. Churches are filled with leadership.”

Personal Issues

Women ministers struggle not only with interpersonal relationships but also with inner feelings. They are not immune to doubts, fears, and personal problems. There are times when doubts may be particularly strong: “Just as all ministers have doubts, so do I. The call is not always overpowering, and questions of my abilities and intentions frequently raise their ugly heads.” A certain isolation accompanies this profession, and the single woman minister may have to grapple with such problems alone. Does she have the gifts needed for ministry? Is she effective in her professional performance? The tiredness that results from constant activity will often give rise to feelings of self-doubt: “My doubts have usually surfaced when I personally felt worn out by the constant demands of ministry.” “When the work load is extra heavy or the problems in the parish cause frustration, I wish momentarily that I could get out. But then I find myself right back in again." It is not always easy to establish a good self-image, particularly early in professional life. Situations can sometimes prove to be quite devastating: “Rejection is one of the most difficult things for me to take, whether I'm a minister or not. But it is always lurking behind corners.”

Alongside the usual concerns of church leadership, the woman minister is struggling with issues that relate to herself as a woman. Many of the respondents had heard very few women preachers during their seminary days, and many of them had not been fortunate enough to share friendships with other women ministers: “The first time I heard a woman minister preach was when I stood in the pulpit myself.” “The first time I saw a female pastor in a robe was when I looked into my own mirror.” Therefore, women from many denominations are independently questing after the significance of a woman's role in ministry: “I am constantly searching for answers to what it means to be a single female pastor.” “I find myself struggling with what I specifically bring to ministry as a woman. The men I have spoken with see ministry more in terms of a neuter function. I cannot help but believe that, by being a woman, what I offer and how I offer it differs from the men I know in ministry.” Sexuality must never be denied: “I am an attractive woman physically and very personable. I wonder often if the men in the congregation are responding to me as their pastor or as a woman. Probably both. I think so.”

A woman minister must also grapple with fear and stress. Sometimes fear arises from practical situations: “Because I was not permitted to perform certain duties, I feared them. I do not now.” “I experience fear when I start something new. Will I be seen as me, the person, or as representing all women Episcopal priests? I am not all women, only one.” Sometimes the fears relate to intangible or imaginary situations: “I entertain fears of punishment for being both strong and female.” “I feared that people might leave the church because I was a woman." In response to fear a woman minister will sometimes involve herself in frenzied activity, but this is self-defeating. Stress also results from “the need to appear strong and together when I am very aware at times that I am weak and apart.” At times like these a woman minister may be conscious of her need of support: “Another problem is loneliness—for a woman friend or a mate who understands my fears and pressures.” There are ways of dealing with this problem. “I joined several women's groups and am close friends with the local Roman Catholic sisters.”

A woman minister must also deal with the issues of marriage and motherhood. “I think a married woman has a much easier time than a single woman,” was a common observation. A single minister wrote: “I wish I could get over feeling that I have to be my wife as well as me.” But when it comes to contemplating marriage, other considerations arise: “I wonder how I can marry and maintain my current 60-64-hour week at my career.” One respondent observed. “I am a very domestic person. There were times when it seemed that ordination would prelude marriage and a family . . . and indeed it has not always been easy to combine them.” The problems are not hypothetical: “My husband admits to some difficulties with my professional role, the limelight, the time commitment, etc.”—an interesting reflection on cultural conditioning. Motherhood is another issue: “We are ready to start our family, and I have had some anxieties about the congregation's reactions. It's really none of their business, but that's easier to say than feel.”

Personal problems there certainly are: “There seem to be more crucifixion than resurrection experiences. I don't know if I can sustain this.” “Many times I have felt like Peter standing on the water with the waves rising and the wind howling.” But women face these problems with courage and hope. Some work constructively to see that the next generation of women has an easier time: “I cannot sit back and let other women take the initiative in consciousness raising as I did when I lived in one area (Iowa) where there were many women pastors.” Some find strength in the words of great church leaders of the past: “I was helped all the way through by a quotation from Martin Luther—'For progress is nothing other than constantly beginning. . . . We are always traveling, and must leave behind us what we know and possess, and seek for that which we do not yet know and possess.'”


Many women ministers were enthusiastic in recommending that other women pursue church-related vocations, “If you feel called and qualified, there is no better life.” Many advantages were listed. Some felt that a career in church ministry fits in well with family life: “The variety is limitless. It is also a good vocation to combine with motherhood because even though demanding, you can juggle your time.” This freedom to plan one's own schedule presented an attractive option to many, and the close involvement with people provides an opportunity for meaningful relationships to develop: “Working with people brings some of the greatest joy in life—and the greatest pain.” It was generally felt that the joy outweighs the pain.

What advice would women ministers give to a seminarian about to assume pastoral responsibilities, and what qualities of character would they consider to be important? One respondent wrote, “I would share in her excitement, encourage her competency, warn her of possible cruelties and unfairness, and stand ready along the way to help her.” Another would advise, “Don't consider it at all unless all other ways of serving God leave you with a feeling of desolation and disquietude.” Some contributed very practical advice: “Marry someone whose career is movable.” “Wait to begin your family until you're called to a parish.” Others called for a realistic appraisal of the consequences of such a course of action: “Think about what it will mean to your personal life. Your whole life will be spent being a new idea—not so much a pioneer as a road-maker. People will admire, hate, envy . . . but if God wants you, it will work out.”

As for qualities of character, the woman minister will require patience: “There has been real progress,” but “it is going to take many years to overcome the bias and prejudice of centuries.” She will also need persistence: “Perhaps tenacity is a better word—to keep holding on in the face of all kinds of odds.” She will need considerable inner strength: “Can she handle the extra stress of having to prove herself over and over again?” Resilience is also needed. A woman minister must be able to “bend and spring back like a bamboo branch in stormy weather.” The touchstone of her life must be “an obvious faith and devotion to God and to Jesus Christ”—this will give meaning to the struggle. The woman minister must be level-headed in a group situation: “In discussions she must be able to think clearly, express herself well, and not use inappropriate emotional responses or gambits.” She must somehow achieve a balance between servanthood and assertiveness: “Do not let others intimidate you, but do not bulldoze over people in proving your rights.” It will help if she has “the ability to listen and understand what the confusion or fear is behind the argument.” At the same time she must cultivate the ability to say, “I can see what you are saying, but I want you to know that things like that do hurt me.”

Self-image is very important: “It needs to be strong (yet not inflated) because there will be much in your future that will tear away at it.” One pastor commented, “The women saints of history have troubled me. Following their models of humility and long-suffering has got me into professional hot water. A self-effacing style is NOT the most effective.” A number of ministers suggested that women should take advantage of the abilities which have been developed as a result of their cultural conditioning: “We are taught to be nurturers, and that is a helpful role to develop.” However, women should have the confidence to step aside from society's expectations if they feel their task demands such action: “People find it incomprehensible for a woman to put her calling above 'getting married.' If the two happen to be incompatible, only God really understands." Above all, women should develop their potential as women: “Don't be molded into a little man-minister.”

The respondents also gave advice regarding training and goals. Flexibility is an important trait in this regard: “In my denomination, there are more clergy available than there are calls available. I would advise all prospective seminarians (both men and women) to prepare also for another profession in case they are unable to obtain a call.” Some feel it is a mistake for either men or women to move directly from schooling to the pastorate: “I would advise not following the pipeline routine—straight from high school to college to seminary. Even a year of work experience is helpful between college and seminary.” And it is considered wise to develop an open-minded stance in relation to denominational allegiance and to assess carefully where the individual may best fit: “Be willing to look at various denominations in which to work out that calling to the best of your ability.” Many have found from personal experience that a change of denomination is beneficial: “I could not find a call within the L.C.A. for a year following seminary. ... I accepted an appointment by the United Methodist bishop.” “I was raised as an Episcopalian. When I looked for support from my church, I heard 'Go elsewhere.' I chose to become a Lutheran.” “I moved from the Methodist Church to the United Church of Christ.” “I moved from Catholicism to Lutheranism.” Even given ideal conditions, women were cautioned not to imagine that they will necessarily be successful: “Not every woman who thinks she is called will be a success. Not every man is either.” Women should be realistic about their abilities and should accept the fact that there is not room for everyone at the top: “Accept the truth that you may not get to Riverside Presbyterian Church in New York, but wherever you are called, God needs you there.”

Concepts of Church Leadership

Women ministers were forthright in their opinions concerning the present concept of church leadership and the new directions they would like to encourage. Many felt that one of the biggest problems confronting the church is the fact that over the centuries the role of pastor has been viewed in terms of power rather than servanthood. Consequently, there has been a tendency for church leaders to grasp after status and to glory in their image as authority figures. This in turn has led to professional jealousy and to a competitive spirit which does nothing to enhance the gospel that the church proclaims. Respondents wrote, “The current stress on the pastor as authority figure cheats everybody and short-circuits the faith of many.” “We talk about the priesthood of all believers, but too often the parish pastor ends up being the 'highest priest.' Leaders claim to be enablers, when what they are is manipulative and dishonest.” “If the pastor begins by stepping down from the throne, then others can follow.” It was felt that too often church people are encouraged to “turn a blind eye” to what is really going on in the administrative background of church life: “I think we are not very honest about 'power.'” “There is a lot of game-playing and politicking in the upper echelons that irritates me at times.”

Many deplored the trend toward using business models as models for ministry: “These things don't match up.” The present hierarchical structure of many denominations was felt to be cause for concern: “I think our hierarchical pattern is highly questionable.” “Churches ought to move toward non-hierarchical patterns of leadership.” Too often, it was felt, leadership is used “to distribute personal favors or reward friends,” or even “to keep the lid on controversy.” Congregations then become pawns in a system, often unaware of “what is really going on” behind the scenes. Manipulative methods are sometimes used to secure a “favorable” vote. It is assumed that “the minister knows what is best for the congregation,” and the members of the congregation, like young children, are protected from acquaintance with the real issues and therefore from the possibility of using their own judgment and influence. Report sheets can conceal as well as reveal, and congregations eventually become accustomed to a vague feeling of uneasiness as church business is conducted with their apparent consent.

In some denominations this situation is changing. “More lay people are accepting their responsibility in decision-making, and more clergy are willing to loosen their grip on the reins of leadership.” Many respondents felt that the key to this whole issue is greater involvement of the laity. It was felt that churches should aim to “revitalize the skills of the laity” and that the long-range plans of a church should be to so distribute leadership functions that a paid professional leader might become redundant, or at least might assume a very different role from that now assumed. Some deplored the fact that to a certain extent ministers are “paid to be the church”: “My biggest frustration as a minister is not that I am a woman in a man's church, but that I am looked on as a hired Christian.” “I'd like to see the need for a paid professional disappear.” By what means might such an end be achieved? One suggestion was a return to the “small house church concept, with celebration as the body of Christ on Sunday mornings.” Others recommended that the ministry skills of lay people should be developed and that they should be encouraged to minister to one another “in word and deed.” It was strongly suggested that lay people should be featured more prominently in the leading of congregational worship: “I long for a worshiping, loving, serving community where everyone's gifts are welcomed.” Too often the “paid professional” is expected to minister the full range of “spiritual gifts,” when actually most of these are lying dormant within the congregation.

Are congregations realistic in their expectations of the leaders they appoint? Some respondents felt that far too much is expected of pastors: “Superhuman qualities are projected onto them. They cannot help but fall short of these. Then disillusionment sets in.” Idealization is followed by devaluation, and there may be a feeling of discontent and disappointment. If congregations could accept their pastors as mere mortals, it would help: “We must educate the laity so that they see their ministers as persons. Sometimes laity do not realize that their pastors also feel grief, pain, disappointments.” Perhaps congregations assume that a professional minister needs more skills than one person can possibly combine. An interesting observation was made in relation to this: “I think we need some specialists. That is how doctors and other professions accomplish the best results.” Another problem is the expectation that all ministers have the same leadership skills: “I think the biggest change is to realize that ministry and leadership come in many shapes and forms, and there must be room for a lot of variety.”

The respondents commented, finally, on the need for outspoken prophetic leadership and for personal spirituality. A woman minister must come to terms with the true nature of her function: “My struggle is to find the creative balance between strong aggressive leadership and supportive, patient facilitation.” Seminary training does not give all the answers; they must be sought: “I think at present our concept has done well with the enabling function but needs to also incorporate an assertive dimension. I think we're trained to listen well but not to actively take charge. Our church has reacted to the Herr Pastor image—but the gospel does need to be spoken. God not only listens but speaks. So, I believe, must God's ministers.” “Our leadership needs to be more prophetic and less soothing. We need to take the risk and raise our voices.” Some would like to see more emphasis on the role of the minister as an exponent of the biblical message: “I prefer a clear identification of the pastor as interpreter of God's Word which holds authority for all of life.” This kind of spiritual leadership can come only from personal piety and careful study and it was felt that this should be encouraged: “I would like to see more emphasis on the minister as a spiritual leader, with time given for that spirituality to develop.”

The search continues. . . .


1. Responses were received from women ministers in the following denominations: “American Baptist; Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); Episcopal Church, Lutheran Church in America; Mennonite Churches; Presbyterian Church, U.S.; United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.; United Church of Christ; and the United Methodist Church. Some denominations declined participation in the project and did not feel free to release the names and addresses of women ministers. The present situation in the Roman Catholic church explains the absence of respondents from this grouping. The questionnaire used is printed in Appendix B.

2. See E. Margaret Howe, “Interpretations of Paul in the Acts of Paul and Thecla,” Pauline Studies, eds. D. Hagner and M. Harris (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), pp. 33-49.

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