Magazine article The Christian Century

Women Take the Reins at Three Tall-Steeple Mainline Churches

Magazine article The Christian Century

Women Take the Reins at Three Tall-Steeple Mainline Churches

Article excerpt

In quick succession, three women have been chosen to lead historic tall-steeple churches in major cities.

In May, Shannon Johnson Kershner became the first woman solo senior pastor at Chicago's Fourth Presbyterian Church. In June, Amy Butler was elected senior pastor of New York City's Riverside Church. And in July, 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 Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, who recently hosted a dinner party to welcome Butler to town.

Many denominations have for decades included women in their clergy ranks. The rise of these three women has been faster than many of their counterparts. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research reports that women clergy are much more likely to serve in smaller congregations.

Diana Butler Bass, a scholar and author of Christianity After Religion, hailed the arrival of these women--all in their forties 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?" Bass asked. "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, it's the woman's fault. It's kind of a double-edged sword."

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

"There are challenges, and I think that we face them," she said. "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."

Cynthia Woolever, a sociologist of religion who edits the Parish Paper, a newsletter for regional offices of mainline denominations, noted that the movement of women to these significant sanctuaries is occurring in 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," Woolever said. "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 wrote on social media about how a funeral director didn't believe she was a minister. She also 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. …

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