The "stained-glass ceiling" was breached in dramatic fashion this
summer, when bishops of the US Episcopal Church unexpectedly elected
Katharine Jefferts Schori to be the church's leader for the next
Yet that glass ceiling remains relatively intact, even though the
ranks of women clergy and their impact on religious communities
continue to grow. It's perhaps no surprise that women's leadership
remains controversial, since the two largest Christian denominations
in the US - Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists - reject women as
pastors. So do Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, some Evangelicals,
Muslims, and Orthodox Jews.
Still, thousands of clergywomen are filling rewarding and
increasingly influential roles as ministers, priests, bishops, and
rabbis. And it's not the numbers or even the level of acceptance
that's at the heart of the issue, many say - it's a divine calling.
"God called me, and I have such a sense of that, that it's the
defining thing," says the Rev. Nancy Rankin, twice a senior pastor
and now director of congregational development for the United
Methodist Church (UMC) in western North Carolina.
The UMC and the Presbyterian Church (USA) are currently
celebrating 50 years of ordaining women. The Methodists boast some
12,000 clergywomen; and 20 percent of Presbyterian clergy are
female. Unitarian Universalists stand out as the one denomination to
have a majority of women leaders.
Some Christian and Jewish clergywomen with years of experience -
and who've reached the challenging and often-elusive post of senior
pastor - say they still encounter resistance. They point to
frontiers that remain, but are also encouraged by the strides
"I wanted to be a rabbi long before women could, but I didn't
think it would happen in my lifetime," says Rabbi Susan Grossman,
who leads Beth Shalom, a Conservative Jewish congregation in
Columbia, Md. "There's been more change in women's role in Judaism
in the last 30 years than probably all of Jewish history!"
Women of both faiths share the experiences of difficulty in
finding jobs, being shunted into smaller, often remote
congregations, and receiving lower pay and fewer benefits than their
male counterparts, as shown by studies of both Protestant clergy and
Conservative Jewish rabbis.
Partly out of necessity and partly out of inclination, women have
extended the boundaries of ministry beyond the congregation to serve
as both military and hospital chaplains, educators, and counselors
for social service agencies, according to a major 1998 study,
"Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling."
Studies also show that clergywomen experience more stress than
their male counterparts in a demanding occupation. As a result, a
number are leaving the pulpit.
At the same time, clergywomen have been credited with being less
interested in hierarchy and more in collegiality. They've brought
new perspectives into the theological discussion, a more inclusive
style, and opened the doors to worshippers who've felt disengaged
from institutional religion.
"My mother often said that if there had been women rabbis when
she was young, she wouldn't have been alienated from Judaism," says
The role models clergywomen provide are spurring other young
women to enter seminaries, where today they make up between 30 and
50 percent of students. "I grew up not ever seeing women in
ministry.... The girls in this congregation don't think twice about
it," says the Rev. Shannon Kershner, senior pastor at Woodhaven
Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.
Despite the numerous challenges, many women find the profession
immensely satisfying and an opportunity to influence their faith
Grossman was in the first class of ordained Conservative rabbis
in 1985 and has been in the pulpit for 17 years. She's in an elite
class of women who've become senior rabbis leading large