Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Beyond the Stain Glass Ceiling: Support for Female Clergy

Hi, my name is Chris.  I am the senior pastor of a small (approximately 70 active), diverse American Baptist congregation in Wickliffe, Ohio.

About two years ago, during the "Speak Until Justice Wakes" conference (2008, ABC/USA) a colleague and I (The Rev. Kasey Jones) found ourselves sharing "war stories" and comparing notes concerning our experiences as female senior pastors. Out of that discussion grew a desire and decision to learn more about how other female clergy are faring as they pursue ministry opportunities and or serve as senior pastors. We wanted to hear their stories - their challenges, victories, testimonies, and words of wisdom.

So, we developed and launched a survey designed to explore the above listed items as well as female clergy demographics. Below are some suppositions with which we began...

Many denominations have grappled with the place of women in the church. Historically, women have supported, served and led (in designated ministries) in the church. Without the support of women, most local churches would fold.

While great strides have been made towards the licensing and ordination of women in churches across the USA, the position of senior pastor often eludes most female clergy. No matter how much experience, education, credentials or personality a woman minister has, her resume` is most frequently pushed to the side when competing against a man for the pastorate.

The concept of the “glass ceiling” is not new. In the secular realm, the glass ceiling represents the barrier that prevents qualified individuals from excelling beyond a certain level due to their race, gender or orientation. For those of us who serve in the “sacred” or religious realm, we know it as the “stained glass ceiling,” referring to the barriers imposed by churches. We celebrate the good news that God has opened the eyes of some regarding the legitimacy and divine prerogative of God to call females to the holy vocation of pastoring. However, there is still much work to be done.

Contrary to the reports of some, we have not yet arrived. While a few denominations such as United Methodists, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ and American Baptists have accepted and called women to serve as senior pastors, many qualified and well-equipped sisters are still struggling to have their gifts of preaching and pastoring recognized.

Among those who have become senior pastors, remnants of the stained glass ceiling still remain. While women are receiving the call by congregations to serve as senior pastor, frequently, those congregations are small, fractured, dying and unable to get a male to even look their way. Women, therefore, find themselves becoming a last resort rather than a valued and desired gift from God. There is a differnce between electing to serve in a smaller setting and being relegated to such venues.

According to the Barna Group,
Women represent just 5% (according to a 2008 Christianity Today article, this number has risen slightly to 9% [1]) of all Protestant Senior Pastors. However, female pastors are much more likely to be seminary-trained (86% have a seminary degree, compared to 60% of male pastors); are more than twice as likely to have been divorced (31%, compared to 12% among male pastors); have less experience in the pastorate (9 years in full-time paid ministry, compared to a median of 17 years among men); last less time in a given church than do men (three years per pastorate, compared to almost six years among men); and receive much lower compensation packages.[2]

Historically, women have faced a variety of obstacles preventing them from being placed in the role of senior pastor. Theologically, women seeking to fill leadership roles in the church have been pummeled by misinterpretations of the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul’s words to Timothy,

“Women should learn in silence and all humility. I do not allow them to teach or to have authority over men; they must keep quiet.” ( I Timothy 2:11-12 The Good News Bible)

This verse is a favorite oppression tool! From a socio-political and cultural standpoint, women face opposition not only from men, but from other women. Having surveyed many female clergy and knowing my own experiences, this is a sad truth. It is important to realize, however, that much of the division is an unfortunate biproduct of oppression.

Today, female clergy can say like James Weldon Johnson, “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.” However, we do have reasons to rejoice.

Over the past year and a half, I have had the privilege of identifying and surveying female pastors of freewill denominations. I was blessed to encounter several female pastors of large (500 +), mid-sized (250+) and smaller congregations. The ranks of women serving as senior pastors are growing slowly. Their journeys – varied, their testimonies – compelling, their insights – provocative.

So the questions arise, what can be done to shatter the stained glass ceiling for female clergy? What can we learn from those who have successfully burst through the barriers? How can we encourage and equip those who are seeking to become senior pastors? What strategies ought we develop in order to provide clear paths to success?

Over the next several weeks I'll be sharing the thoughts, insights and words of wisdom from female senior pastors - words to help us not only break through the stained glass ceiling, but to help us survive and thrive beyond!

I'd like to hear your thoughts. Please share.

You can also send an email to me at

In faith, hope and perseverance,
Pastor Chris

[1] Online Article, “Charismatic Christianity in US – myths exposed,” by Jennifer Riley, Christianity Today, January 8, 2008.
[2] Online Article, “A Profile of Protestant Pastors in Anticipation of ‘Pastor Appreciation Month,’” September 25, 2001, (Ventura, CA), The Barna Group, LTD, 2009.