Cracks in the ‘stained-glass ceiling’: Women reach prominent pulpits

The Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, new pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., gives the benediction on July 27, 2014. She stands with the Rev. Theresa S. Thames, associate pastor, left, and the Rev. Dawn M. Hand, executive pastor, right. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

(RNS) Chicago. New York. Washington, D.C. In quick succession this year, three women have been chosen to lead historic tall-steeple churches in all these cities.

In May, the Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner became the first woman solo senior pastor at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church. In June, the Rev. Amy Butler was elected senior pastor of New York City’s Riverside Church. And finally, in July, the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli began leading Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.

“For women to speak in those pulpits and speak boldly as public voices in these very public buildings is very powerful,” said the Rev. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, who recently hosted a dinner party with some of New York’s movers and shakers to welcome Butler to town."Women in Major Metro Pulpits" graphic by Tiffany McCallen/Religion News Service.

It’s been 40 years since the Episcopal Church first ordained women, and other denominations have long included women in their clergy ranks. But these new advances are occurring sooner in the lives of these three women than some of their older counterparts. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research reports that women clergy are much more likely to serve in smaller congregations.

Scholar Diana Butler Bass hailed the arrival of these women — all in their 40s and leading large, urban, neo-Gothic churches — but also wondered if they reflect the “General Motors phenomenon.”

“Are women coming into leadership only as the institutions are collapsing?” asked Bass, author of “Christianity After Religion.”

“Now that they’re in crisis, it’s almost like the men are moving out and, ‘Oh well, we’ll just leave it to the women.’ Then if the church doesn’t succeed, then it’s the woman’s fault. It’s a kind of a double-edged sword.”

Gaines-Cirelli, 44, doesn’t view it that way.

“I think there are challenges and I think that we face them and I think that the fact that women are being counted among those who are capable of facing those challenges at the highest level is a very positive sign,” said the native Oklahoman.

The Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner leads children in a song at Fourth Presbyterian Church. Photo courtesy of Fourth Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner leads children in a song at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Fourth Presbyterian Church

Sociologist of religion Cynthia Woolever said the movement of first-career women to these significant sanctuaries is occurring in the isolated realm of mainline Protestantism, where about 20 percent of congregations are led by clergywomen.

“If you look at conservative Protestant churches you find very few; in the Catholic church: zero,” said Woolever, editor of The Parish Paper, a newsletter for regional offices of mainline denominations.

“It’s wonderful that women are being given those kinds of opportunities to serve in those very large churches, but it’s a very small slice of the pie.”

All three of the senior pastors have had to jump gender-specific hurdles.

In June, Butler used the hashtag “nevergetsold” when she tweeted about how a funeral director didn’t believe she was a minister. She once had to get an emergency room security guard to log on to her former church’s website to show him her photo there so she could pay a late-night visit to a sick congregant.

“Look, I know you’re his girlfriend,” the guard told her before she convinced him otherwise.

Kershner said that early in her ministry when she was a hospital chaplain, she often entered rooms where she was rebuffed because she wasn’t a “real minister.”

In every place she’s served as the first woman pastor, Gaines-Cirelli has heard a variation on this theme: “I was so worried that we were getting a woman, but I think that you’re going to be just fine.”

Comparable pay was yet another hurdle.

But both Butler and Len Leach, chair of Riverside’s church council, said the pastor’s base salary of $250,000 is equivalent to that received by her predecessor, the Rev. Brad Braxton.

The Rev. Amy Butler greets congregants at New York City’s Riverside Church during her candidacy weekend. Photo by Dave Cross Photography, courtesy of Riverside Church

The Rev. Amy Butler greets congregants at New York City’s Riverside Church during her candidacy weekend. Photo by Dave Cross Photography, courtesy of Riverside Church

“It is a big job and for me it’s a big, wonderful opportunity and a big risk and so I think the Riverside Church has really stepped out here to set a great example for the rest of Christendom,” said Butler, a native Hawaiian who will lead a majority black congregation.

Butler described her total package, including benefits, as “fair.” Leach said Butler decided to give $35,000 annually to the interdenominational church’s general fund and an additional $26,000 as a scholarship to pay the annual tuition of a student at the church’s day school.

Kershner and Gaines-Cirelli also said they are paid fairly.

All three women are not only leading congregations but staffs that include other female clergy. Riverside’s staff has four other women clergy, Fourth Church has three female associate pastors, and Foundry has one female associate pastor as well as a woman executive pastor.

“The truth is that for years, it was all men; in some places it still is and nobody bats an eye,” said Gaines-Cirelli. “So the fact that we are live-streaming to the world this other vision is kind of powerful.”

Foundry member Leo Lawless agreed.

“It’s about time, isn’t it?” he said, noting that a recent worship service featured Gaines-Cirelli and two other women clergy, and two female acolytes as well as a laywoman who read the Scriptures.

The three senior clergywomen each say they look forward to the day when they’re viewed simply as their congregation’s pastor, rather than its woman pastor.

Said Kershner: “My hope is that little boys and little girls see me and the other clergy and think if that’s something that they say and others think God’s calling them to do, then they can do it.”

Click on these links to read the first sermons of these pastors before their new congregations:





About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.


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  • Aspirant den mothers.

    There’s a story of a couple of Catholic priests who were asked about the propriety of their courtesies to a couple of pastorettes (from which denomination I forget). They laughed and said it’s no big deal: “The can’t ordain men either”.

  • In its post WW-II existence, our suburban (recently ruled “inner-city” although it didn’t move, but the GI Bill white neighborhood is changing) Methodist congregation has had comparatively few pastors. One male and one female were superb, one male and two females were good, and one female damaging. It could just as easily been reversed. I had long referred to the conference as “an old boys’ club” and when challenged asked “What woman is pastor at a First or status church in a county seat?” (half of those are towns under 10,000 population). The superb female example got appointed to one in a 25,000 population town and damaged my argument, but still there have been only two women in thaat position (the one in over, and one under 10,000 population). Maybe your three examples may lead the bishop to disregard gender in the appointments in the future.

  • The news of my church’s death has not only been exaggerated, but outright lied about. For all those who are tired of misogyny, remember these five little words: The Episcopal Church welcomes you!

  • Thanks for the article. While I’ve been Episcopalian for many years, I would like to add that the Assemblies of God, not exactly a bastion of liberalism, have been ordaining women for more than 100 years.

  • Ditto that. And of course, there’s Aimee Semple McPherson, the original movie-star style megachurch pastor who founded her own Pentecostal denomination (Four-Square Gospel Church) in the 1920s, also a conservative political activist. More evidence that women’s ordination as such doesn’t have much to do with conservative vs. liberal.

  • The new Dean of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in San Diego is Penny Bridges!:Our Head Verger is also a woman! The roof has NOT collapsed! 🙂

  • Kevin:
    Has it? Several endowments and savings of churches/parishes, seminaries, and dioceses are depleting quickly. Your membership is diminishing greatly (there are now less Episcopalians nationwide than there are Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago).

    This isn’t conjecture, it’s fact.

    For me, who knows quite a bit about the “goings-on” if your ecclesial communion, we just don’t know what you people believe! It’s frustrating because one gets a different answer from depending who you ask and that includes ministers/priests.

  • The news of my church’s death has not only been exaggerated, but outright lied about. For all those who are tired of misogyny,

    I know of no misogyny. I am tired of people who can only manage caricatures.

  • I will uphold the Bible’s principals and doctrines which clearly define men as being elders or overseers in the Christian congregation ( 1 Timothy 3:1-7) and that a woman should have a head covering for prayer for prayer (1 Corinthians 11:5,6).

    Of course, 1 Corinthians 11:3 shows that the head of every man is the Christ; the head of every woman is the man; and the head of the Christ is God; these head-ships should be respected and followed.

    Naturally, a woman in the Christian congregation is entitled to study the Bible with persons on a personal basis such as at their homes. The Sanhedrin woman whom Jesus witnessed to at the well went back to her family to witness to them what she had learned, and many became believers of Jesus.

    Even God himself told Abraham to listen to Sarah and take her advice (Genesis 21:8-12).

  • One gets tired of the “Rah, Rah, Rah attitude the media takes toward feminist religion.
    But one need only go to many neighborhoods to see with one’s own eyes the blatant disgust with feminist religion many women have. I refer to all the women in or near my neighborhood who now wear Moslem head scarves.

  • The problem is not that women preachers exist. Not at all. God can use women in the pulpit to get the job done, and He’s had plenty of practice doing exactly that. No need for sexism.

    The problem is that some women preachers act just like some men preachers. They preach LIBBIE SKEPTICISM instead of preaching THE BIBLE. That ain’t no good, baby.

    A woman preacher who preaches in favor of gay marriage is just as rot-gut no-count var-mint, as a man who preaches in favor of gay marriage. You church folks better FIRE that man or woman INSTANTLY, if you want your church to survive!

    You better run those libbie preachers clean outta town on the Red-Eye Amtrak. Send the video to Viral YouTube so that America gets the message. Make sure that your next pastor, whether male or female, is preaching GOD instead of preaching GOOP !!!!

  • I am neither Liberal nor Conservative nor Independent, since I don’t belong to any political group on the planet.

    I support God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44) as the ONLY beneficial government for mankind. It is the ONLY government that will “deliver” in its promises of true peace and security and real brotherhood of man, instead of division by nationalism, politics or race, promoted by man’s governments!!!

    Besides that, it will get rid of some things that have plagued us for thousands of years….All sickness and disease 😀 old age 😀 ..death 😀 .. Wars 😀 prejudice :-D…pollution :-D…starvation :-D…and anything else that ails us!!!

    All of these blessings will soon be provided for mankind by God, whom he truly loves and cares for, through his heavenly government !!! 😀

  • Sorry Ms. Banks but the fact that three women pastors lead three large churches does nothing to diminish the rapidly deteriorating numbers for Episcopalians. In fact, they may be the problem, not the solution.

  • Wow, so much sectarian hostility and bile being directed towards fellow Christians.

    Evidently the key appeal to Conservative Christianity is the self-perceived right to act in a malicious, uncivil manner towards others without any sense of shame or impropriety.

  • If prominent is described by worship attendance, then Rev. Susan Lindblade comes to mind. She is co-senior pastor at North Raleigh UMC in Raleigh, NC, with average attendance of about 1000.

  • I think its funny that conservative factions would rather see the Episcopal Church die if they can’t ‘have it.’ They are mad because the Holy Spirit has so clearly moved the people of God to draw the circle wide, and offer healing and peace to a broken and sinful world where oppression — b/c of race, gender, class and sexual identity exists. No the Episcopal Church is certainly not ‘dying’ but the chaff has been separated from the wheat!

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