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Clergywomen numbers increased significantly in two decades, sometimes equaling men

The Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, center, gives the benediction at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., on July 27, 2014. The Rev. Theresa S. Thames, associate pastor, left, and the Rev. Dawn M. Hand, executive pastor, right, joined her. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

(RNS) — The share of women in the ranks of American clergy has doubled — and sometimes tripled — in some denominations over the last two decades, a new report shows.

“I was really surprised in a way, at how much progress there’s been in 20 years,” said the report’s author, Eileen Campbell-Reed, an associate professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tenn. “There’s kind of a circulating idea that, oh well, women in ministry has kind of plateaued and there really hasn’t been lot of growth. And that’s just not true.”

The two traditions with the highest percentages of women clergy were the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, according to the “State of Clergywomen in the U.S.,” released earlier this month. Fifty-seven percent of UUA clergy were women in 2017, while half of clergy in the UCC were female in 2015. In 1994, women constituted 30 percent of UUA clergy and 25 percent of UCC clergy.

Clergy Women in American Denominations. Graphic courtesy of StateofClergywomen.org

UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray credits the increase to a decision by her denomination’s General Assembly in 1970 to call for more women to serve in ministry and policymaking roles. She noted that as of this year, 60 percent of UUA clergy are women.

“All that work in the ’70s and ’80s made it possible for me, in the early 2000s, to come into ministry and be successful and lead thriving churches,” said Frederick-Gray, “and now be elected as the first female, first woman minister elected to the UUA presidency.”

Campbell-Reed and a research assistant gathered clergywomen statistics that had not been collected across 15 denominations for two decades.

The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, who co-authored the 1998 book “Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling,” welcomed the new report as a way to start closing the gap in the research.

“While the experiences of women and the evolution of church life and leadership have changed dramatically over the past two decades, there have been no comprehensive studies on women and church leadership,” she said.

Reached between recent convocation events at Andover Newton Seminary, the Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, a retired UCC minister, said the report’s findings were reflected around her.

The Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree. Photo by Roger Castonguay/Defining Studios

“I was sort of looking around and seeing so many women and remembering that in my years in seminary in the ’60s how few of us there were,” said Crabtree, a trustee and alumna of the theological school. “So it’s definitely a sea change in terms of women’s ordination.”

Campbell-Reed’s research found a tripling of percentages of clergywomen in the Assemblies of God, the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America between 1994 and 2017.


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But Campbell-Reed also found that clergywomen — with the exception of Unitarian Universalists — continue to lag behind clergymen in leading their churches. In the UCC, for example, female and male clergy are equal in number, but only 38 percent of UCC pastors are women.

Instead, many clergywomen — as well as clergymen — serve in ministerial roles other than that of pastor, including chaplains, nonprofit staffers and professors.

Paula Nesbitt, president of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, said other researchers have long observed “the persistent clergy gender gap in attainment and compensation.”

For women of color, especially, significant gaps remain, and for women in some conservative churches, ordination is not an option.

Campbell-Reed noted that clergywomen of color “remain a distinct minority” in most mainline denominations. Those who have risen to leadership in the top echelons of their religious groups, she said, have done so after long years of service.

“Some of them are also being recognized for their contributions and their work, like any other person who’s got longevity and wisdom, by being elected as bishops in their various communions,” she said of denominations such as the United Methodist Church and the ELCA.

Women’s Leadership by Denomination. Graphic courtesy of StateofClergywomen.org

Campbell-Reed also pointed out the role of women who serve churches despite being barred from pastoral positions in congregations of the country’s two largest denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church.

Former Southern Baptist women like herself have joined the pastoral staffs of breakaway groups such as the Alliance of Baptists, which have women pastoring 40 percent of their congregations. And Catholic women constitute 80 percent of lay ecclesial ministers, who “are running the church on a day-to-day basis,” she said.

Patricia Mei Yin Chang, another co-author of “Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling,” said the new statistics prompt questions about the meaning behind them, such as changing attitudes of congregations or decreases in male clergy.

“Those are two really different causes and they may differ across denominations,” she said.


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Eileen Campbell-Reed. Photo courtesy of StateofClergywomen.org

Campbell-Reed, whose 20-page report concludes with two pages of questions for seminaries, churches, researchers and theologians, said she thinks the answers about the often-difficult job hunt for clergywomen relate to sexism.

“Just because more women enter into jobs in the church or are ordained does not mean that the problems of sexism have gone away,” she said. “At times, the bias is more implicit but no less real.”

But some women are reaching “tall-steeple” pulpits — leadership in prominent churches — instead of being relegated to struggling congregations, often in denominations on the decline.

Frederick-Gray said her denomination, which she said is working on race equality as well as gender equality, is seeing greater opportunities for women to preach in its largest churches. Of the 41 largest congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association, 20 are served by women senior ministers.

Women’s leadership, Frederick-Gray said, is necessary at a time of decline for many religions.

“The decline is not the responsibility of women,” she said. “But maybe we will be the hope for the future.”

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.

27 Comments

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  • Don’t count on the sexist 15 old men in Salt Lake City getting with the program any time soon but it is good news among churches that care enough to move forward.

  • What saddens me about this is the direct exclusion of scripture necessary to want to be a female “pastor”
    Christ taught:
    1 Timothy 4: The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.

    1 Timothy 3 New International Version (NIV)

    Qualifications for Overseers and Deacons

    3 Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. 2 Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full[a] respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
    ?
    8 In the same way, deacons[b] are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

    11 In the same way, the women[c] are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

    12 A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. 13 Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.

    1 Corinthians 14:33 ….As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.

    And on and on. If they cannot adhere to Christ’s word on this, how can they be trusted to properly handle the word of God?

  • I wonder how many churches we have which are founded independently by couples and the husband and wife teams refer to themselves as co-pastors. There is more than one way into ministry. “Start your own” is a big deal. Why not two or three single women starting a church and being the co-pastors?

  • But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.
    1 Corinthians 11:3
    That is another reason why women should not be pastors

  • Meanwhile, in the real world, we read daily about male clergy who sexually abuse the powerless and cover it up. But women need to be kept silent and out of the pulpit.

    Keep at it. The more of this sexist garbage you put out, the more people will see through the travesty of “God’s holy word.”

  • Yep, women are sometimes abusers, but not at the incidence of men. And just which version of god’s word? There are plenty of them.

  • Your prefered version. Billions of people think it’s not true, and neither they nor you have any reasoned means of declaring one better than the other.

    You’re giving up any form of reason, except the circular.

  • I have no idea. I trust Christ that He knows though and knew what He was saying when He taught that scripture .

  • I’ve been thinking about your question……No one – not Christ, nor the angels in Heaven, know the time that God has set to return, so I would suggest as they are separate Persons in One, the Father maintains the most authority. I have heard it said, God the Father plans; God the Son forms, God the Holy Spirit maintains. Just a thought

  • Very interesting meditation.

    The only thing I would add into the mix is that the unity of the Trinity is also a union of love. The Son obeys and follows the will of the Father – freely, without compulsion or diminishment of His equality to the Father – because of the bound of love between them. In the Trinity, the Son’s submission to the Father does not imply inferiority of nature. As you imply, this is similar to the union of man and woman in marriage, which is a creaturely analogy to the divine union of love in the Trinity.

  • If you understood that the Sacraments are designed to help us become the saints that God wants us to become, then you’d be concerned about fall off.

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