Women Break through the Stained-Glass Ceiling

Article excerpt

Critics of the `feminization' of the ministry claim it drives males from churches, but supporters say that's the point: Women bring a leadership style that is more tolerant, less competitive.

What do women of God want? At least one female student at General Theological Seminary in New York City says she has been called to the priesthood. "I was almost in tears when I first saw a woman celebrate the Eucharist," says Laurie Brock, 31, from Alabama. "It gave me a whole different view of God."

A different view of God -- that is the stumbling block for proponents and opponents of female preachers some 25 years after women first were ordained as ministers in the nation's Protestant churches. Opponents such as Baltimore writer Leon J. Podles, author of the book The Church Impotent, blame the decline of male attendance in mainline churches on "feminized" worship services and female clergy. "If men see something as feminine," he says, "they'll stay away from it."

In a society where women hold parity with men in education and in many occupations, they make up just 10 percent of the clergy who lead the nation's congregations. Still, women wield great influence in denominational structures, national assemblies and in many theological schools, where they comprise one-third to one-half of all students.

Currently, just 5 percent of white, conservative churches are led by women, according to the 1998 National Congregations Study of 1,236 houses of worship, conducted by University of Arizona sociologist Mark Chaves and several other researchers. Female pastors who lead churches showed up even less often -- 1 percent -- in historically black denominations. Black churches that are independent of denominational structures, however, are more likely to have female leaders, about one in 10.

The highest rate of female ministers occurs in the so-called mainline Protestant denominations. The United Methodist Church has been preferred by women who want to lead churches, some clergy say, because bishops can appoint women as senior pastors no matter what their congregations want. The church has ordained 5,202 women, by far the largest number in the mainline denominations.

Within the whole of mainline Protestantism, women lead 21 percent of churches. Nearly half of those congregations are in the West: 20 percent in the Pacific region and 24 percent in the mountain states. The Middle Atlantic region hosts 17 percent of congregations headed by women, the Deep South 7 percent. Women lead only 4 percent of Roman Catholic parishes, the study found. Typically they are nuns or ecclesiastical ministers put in charge because of a shortage of priests.

Yet women account for half of the students at General Theological Seminary. And with the more aggressive recruitment of seminarians seen in all U.S. theological schools, the seminary just welcomed its largest entering class in 15 years. "The demand for our sharp women is very high," says the Very Rev. Ward Ewing, the school's dean. "They can easily get on as an assistant rector of a large congregation. But where do they go from there?"

For female clergy, the market is shaped like a hat: a large plateau of lower-paying jobs with a narrow peak of better-paying positions. Their supporters worry that this economic disparity may swell. They don't want the call to become one of low wages and no mobility, typical of traditionally female occupations such as nursing, teaching or secretarial work.

Women typically hit the "stained-glass ceiling" five years down the career path. Finding they can go only as far as assistant or associate pastor, many turn to seminary professorships, large church staffs or national and diocesan offices. Women also have begun "reinventing ministry, refusing the old definitions and expectations," says one pioneer, the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, a United Church of Christ minister who was ordained in 1964.

Her study, "Clergy Women," notes a surge of female seminarians in the 1970s and 1980s who entered the field. …