Duke University Alumni Magazine

Women In The Ministry
The Last Male Bastion
by Robert K. Otterbourg

Photo: Les Todd

Today's clergywomen, like women in other professions, seek assignments commensurate with their experience, promotions to jobs once only held by men, equal pay, and the removal of social and lifestyle barriers that once comprised an all-male ministerial club
eet five modern day pioneers: Frances Olson, Nancy Rankin, Susan Jones, Edith Gleaves, and Nancy Allen.

      Each has forged ahead in a field--the clergy--that talks about equal employment opportunities for women, yet all too often fails to produce results. The handful of achievers aside, many other talented clergywomen face careers filled with frustration, stop-starts, and token progress.

     Though inequities occur in other professions, female ministers have yet to match the recent gains made by women in law and medicine. Despite the advances in most denominations, clergywomen face many more obstacles in their march toward equality than women in other fields. Simply put, the clergy represents one of the last battlegrounds in the professions for women's rights.

     As a University of North Carolina undergraduate,Frances Olson dreamed of becoming a Presbyterian minister. In the early 1950s, mainstream Protestant denominations refused to ordain women. So when she graduated from Duke's divinity school with an M.Div. in 1978, her life had come full circle. Olson had become a participant in a feminist movement that has rocked organized religion for the past thirty years. Her career typifies the changes that have taken place in the ministry since the late 1960s. As an ordained Presbyterian minister, she served for several years in southern Louisiana and was assuredly the first female minister church members had ever seen. "I remember clearly," says Olson, who is retired and lives in Fearrington Village, North Carolina, "being introduced by a male church member as divorced, a mother of seven, a former missionary in Korea, and you [the congregation] should listen to her. The roof won't fall in."

     The roof didn't fall in on her or the 20,000 or so ordained Protestant and Jewish clergywomen who are graduates of accredited seminaries. Depending on the school, female students comprise anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of enrollment. But don't be lulled by the statistics. The Center for Social and Religious Research at the Hartford Seminary will report early next year that even with the "increase in the numbers of clergywomen over the past eighty years, women have not moved in the clergy profession as rapidly as they have moved into other professions."

     While twenty-five years ago the primary concern was being accepted into divinity school and becoming ordained, today's clergywomen, like women in other professions, seek assignments commensurate with their experience, promotions to jobs once only held by men, equal pay, and the removal of social and lifestyle barriers that once comprised an all-male ministerial club. Older career changers, many married with children, bring new demands and perceptions to theology. Used to an open job market, these women are less patient with status-quo employment conditions in the ministry.

     Perhaps it's misleading to equate professional progress in ministry with law and medicine, as Julie Parker, an ordained minister, points out in Careers for Women as Clergy. "In some ways, being a clergyperson is a career unlike any other. You become a 'professional' Christian or Jew, employed to uphold your faith and share it with others.... For better or worse, people often think of you as God's representative. Wherever people in the community run into you, be it a grocery store, a post office, or on the street, they look at you and see 'the rabbi' or 'the minister.' It's more than a job; it's an identity."

     Parker points out that parishioners are unsure how they should respond to a clergywoman. To them, she represents a deviation from the norm. They'll use a female doctor or lawyer without hesitation, yet refuse to accept a woman as their spiritual leader. Unlike other professions, the clergy is blanketed in mystique, tradition, and dogma. The naysayers who oppose ordination of women cloak their positions with commentary ranging from anti-feminist polemics to biblical references. Denying women a pulpit, however, has not diminished their participation historically in America's religious life. Witness such pathfinders as Ellen White, founder of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Mary Baker Eddy of the Christian Science Church, and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.

     Sometime during her career, nearly every clergywoman has experienced rejection, when parishioners leave the congregation following her appointment or when a congregant refuses to permit her to baptize a child. Instead of becoming remorseful, achievers like Nancy Burgin Rankin M.Div '84 are working within the system to eliminate "business-as-usual" conditions that stymie many talented female ministers. Rankin was senior pastor of the 750-member Central United Methodist Church in Concord, North Carolina, until her appointment last year as superintendent of a three-county North Carolina district, where five of the sixty-seven pastors serving 101 churches are women. She finds that parishioners don't prepare in advance for the arrival of a female pastor. "A woman like myself is assigned, and they discover that the change is not as threatening as they once feared. Men today are less fearful of women professionals. They go to college and graduate school with them. They work side-by-side with them in offices and,in this spirit, they also find women pastors less threatening."

     Growing up as the daughter of a Methodist minister, the late Grady Rankin B.D. '48, she did not aspire to be a minister. "I had no role models. I never met a woman minister. I also wanted to get married and have children, but I saw no women who had both a family and were clergywomen." Graduating from High Point University, Rankin got married, had two children, and taught school. She entered Duke Divinity School in 1981, commuting sixty miles to class from High Point.

     Throughout her thirteen-year ministerial career, Rankin has not made gender an issue or her role as a minister a defiant act. "When I became the senior minister in Concord, I was one of only twenty-five Methodist women in the country to hold this type of position. I was the first woman to be named a senior pastor in the conference."

     Getting assigned to a church and being ordained is no longer a key issue for Protestant clergywomen. But the glass ceiling prevents otherwise talented women from forging ahead. The challenge comes in the form of future jobs, especially as a senior pastor of a larger church or to a distinguished position in academe. Interestingly, there are more women serving as bishops and district superintendents than in the pulpits at the more prestigious Methodist churches. A comparable situation exists nationwide in other mainline Protestant denominations where congregations are often more conservative than their regional and national leadership. Over the next several years, the post-World War II-trained male clergy, many in senior church and academic positions, will have retired, thereby creating a large number of potential openings for experienced clergywomen. The question is, will dogma and tradition prevail, or will job equity be realized?

     Reared in a parsonage as a pastor's daughter, Rankin has been steeped in church tradition. Growing up, she lived in six different homes: Her father moved every three to four years. Since her ordainment in 1984, she had been appointed to three different churches before being named district superintendent. "When you become a pastor, you need to understand and to accept this lifestyle concept. We try to make the best possible match. I've lived with these problems. It means my husband often has to commute considerable distances to his job. It's something we both accepted when I became a pastor."

      When it comes to reassignment, the Methodist Church, the largest denomination to rotate new as well as long-time ministers regularly, is mellowing. The changes are mostly in response to family and lifestyle issues. In some conferences, tenure lasts less than five years, and in others it has stretched to as long as eleven years. Like other superintendents, Rankin considers the spouse's job and related family matters before making a reassignment. Her decisions are tempered by her own experiences. Dating back to divinity school, she knows what it's like to juggle the responsibilities of a career, marriage, and young children.

     Until her relocation to Durham this past summer, Susan Jones M.Div. '83, the wife of L. Gregory Jones M.Div. '85, Ph.D. '88, the divinity school's new dean, was a pastor in the Baltimore area. Her most recent assignment was senior pastor of a United Methodist church with more than 1,000 members in suburban Baltimore. "What you find is that members of a congregation face the fear of the unknown with every new pastor. Fear increases with the appointment of a clergywoman, but it usually goes away based on the clergywoman's performance," she says. "They even learn what it's like to worship with a pregnant minister. On two occasions, I was pregnant during Advent, once in my seventh and the other in my ninth month. This creates interesting dynamics that most members had little trouble in accepting."

Looking forward: despite some early negative reactions, pastor Nancy Allen persevered and prospered
Photo: Jim Heemstra

     Though Jones was one of a handful of American clergywomen to head a 1,000-plus member UMC congregation, she does not support the view that bigger is necessarily better. While she says the barriers restricting clergywomen should fall, she maintains that there are many clergywomen who, like their male counterparts, prefer to minister to smaller congregations.

     Since her move to Durham, Susan Jones has temporarily changed career directions from pastor to religious editor and writer. She is managing editor of Modern Theology and co-author with her husband of Curriculum for Adult Bible Studies and Mending Lives, The Power of Forgiveness in Christian Faith and Life.

     Edith Gleaves M.Div. '85, pastor of Durham's integrated Resurrection UMC, has taken on the additional role as the first black female minister and now one of four in the Eastern Carolina Conference. "I didn't set out to be a pioneer or a mentor to other black women," she says. "But the roles have been thrust on me, and I've accepted them as part of my ministry. I came to Resurrection due to the church's open policy regarding race. My presence as a black woman minister has served as an added attraction."

     Gleaves became the minister of this mid-size Durham church in 1996. The church was founded in the mid-1980s. Resurrection's creed, depicted on the cornerstone of the church, includes a biblical passage that applies to Gleaves and her career: "Therefore, if any person is in Christ, that one is a new creation; the old has passed away; behold, the new has come!" About 15 percent of the church's members are people of color--a distinctive condition in the South, where Protestant churches continue to be segregated, she says. "Women rather than men are less willing to accept a woman minister, regardless of color. Women feel threatened, especially those women who have not been in the workforce or have not had successful careers."

     As a Wake Forest undergraduate, Gleaves hesitated in applying to divinity school. "At first, I thought I'd be a chaplain or do pastoral counseling. Then, I discovered that I liked being in the pulpit. Perhaps my reluctance was due in part to the fact that I had never seen an African-American clergywoman." In reaction, she serves as a mentor for divinity school students, giving them the advantage of her experience. Women bring special attributes to the ministry, including a more universal way in which they address theological issues and their personal approach to people problems, says Gleaves. "And divinity schools are encouraging us to bring our differences, including our pastoral skills, into the ministry."

     Other women have less reason to cheer. Ordination is denied by evangelical Protestant sects and prohibited by Orthodox Jews. Based on a mixture of tradition, religious mores, and biblical interpretation, chances that women will be ordained as Southern Baptist ministers appear bleak. Occasionally, a church will appoint a clergywoman, but in doing so, it faces expulsion from the local association. Other Southern Baptist women, out of frustration, pursue niche pastoral specialties such as hospital or prison chaplains, camp administrators, or directors of church education or music. And, as a career alternative, some Southern Baptists train for the ministry in other denominations.

     "To understand how women are faring in the clergy job market, we first need to consider how the clergy get jobs," says Jackson Carroll B.D. '56, director of the divinity school's J.M. Ormand Center for Research, Planning, and Development, and co-author of Women of the Cloth. "While it may seem incongruous to think of the clergy, who typically understand themselves as responding to a divine call, negotiating in a market for jobs, it is nevertheless necessary to do so. Each denomination has established its own internal labor market in which clergy obtain employment in congregations or other church-related employers."

     Three different employment (or deployment, as church people like to call it) approaches exist. There's the open method of employment used by churches that emphasize local congregational authority, such as the American Baptist Church, Disciples of Christ, and the United Church of Christ. The approach favored by Episcopals, Lutherans, and Presbyterians gives the congregation considerable choice in hiring a minister, but also restricts the pool of persons to be considered. The United Methodists comprise the third group. It uses a closed method with a centralized denominational body, distinct from the congregation, which has nearly complete control of both the admission of candidates and their deployment in churches. The bishop and the district superintendent set the employment tone by negotiating in the pastor's behalf.

     The system assures newly-graduated divinity students their first job; it also means that newly-ordained Methodist ministers are often assigned to small rural churches, where they literally tour the circuit on Sundays, handling two to four churches. It's a difficult assignment at best, but particularly hard for single women, says Jackson Carroll. While a traditional part of the ministerial drill, rural appointments--coupled with a failure to move up the ladder as rapidly as their male counterparts--force women to change careers. Or they leave the active ministry for pastoral jobs in hospitals and institutions.

     There are practical limits to the "politicking" necessary to assure a clergywoman's call as senior pastor of a larger church. Carroll, in describing the mandatory consultation process between the congregation and bishop, says that the bishop may ignore the congregation's wishes, but the "marriage" between a minister and reluctant congregation is unlikely to be a happy one. Caught in this by-play are experienced clergywomen who are in line for recognition and promotion.

     But Protestant clergywomen aren't the only ones concerned about their future. Reporting on employment opportunities in the Jewish religion, the American Jewish Yearbook declared that "most Reform congregations continue to express a preference for a male primary rabbi. Now that earlier female reform rabbis have attained some seniority within the movement, it remains to be seen if they also attain rabbinical posts with the prestige and salaries commensurate with their status."

Minister, missionary, mother: Frances Olson, shortly after her ordination in the late '70s, was a first for her parishioners

     Clergywomen have additional reasons to gripe. The pay scale lags behind their male divinity school classmates, according to the upcoming Hartford Seminary report: "Women are seriously underpaid, compared with men. Clergywomen average $5,000 less in salary and benefits than men, even controlling for years since ordination and work experience." Parity is an issue that is hotly discussed among clergywomen; the Presbyterian Church USA has found a "direct correlation between pastors' satisfaction with their total financial packages and the change in the view of their ministry and their life."

     The entry of women into the ministry created a new dimension in church life, namely clergy couples. More than 60 percent of married clergywomen are part of a clergy couple, reports the Raleigh News & Observer. They met at church or in divinity school. And what's better, if you're looking for an understanding spouse, than another preacher? Some clergy couples work together in the same church and share a single salary; others serve in separate churches. An ironic twist: The clergy couple represents a contemporary approach to a time when the male pastor had his wife as the unpaid staff member to handle Sunday school, conduct the choir, and play the organ. In the past, the at-home mom was the minister's unpaid helper; now they're attending seminaries and competing for jobs.

     Unlike Susan and Gregory Jones, whose ministerial careers have taken separate paths, Nancy Lee Allen and Arthur Allen, both M.Div. '74, have worked together in the same congregation. As Duke divinity school's first clergy couple, they returned to Iowa after graduation. Other than two years when she was a district superintendent, they've been co-pastors of several churches, co-directors of a summer camp, and co-directors of church relations and religious life at Simspon College, where they met in the late Sixties.

     "The clergy couple is an easy concept to understand," says Nancy Allen. "Many couples share similar roots: small-town life where both sets of parents ran a small business or being raised in rural areas where their parents worked together on the family farm. It's an easy transition from this type of mutually supportive work into the ministry."

     In 1974, the concept of a clergy couple was an anomaly--three couples in Iowa compared with sixty couples today. "We tried to be open in our lives. People were used to seeing a woman in a supportive role, not in the role of preaching. I tried to let them see me as a preacher, but I held back on officiating at weddings, baptisms, funerals, and other family events. I didn't want to get into their face until they were ready to accept me. Working with Arthur, as in any partnership, we broke down assignments. Each of us would preach for two consecutive Sundays and we shared pastoral duties. I handled the administrative work."

     When they were appointed to Aldersgate UMC in Des Moines, their co-ministry of this 850-member congregation took a different turn. It was the first time that they have not shared jobs. Nancy Allen is senior pastor, while Arthur works half-time as pastor and the balance at re-Creation Ministries, a publishing, songwriting, and consulting ministry that the Allens established years ago. "Nancy has stronger skills as a pastor and is a better administrator, while mine are in teaching and the arts," he says.

     Nancy Allen is an achiever in the march--but her achievements make her sympathetic with those clergywomen whose careers have been slowed, sidetracked, or scuttled. "When we came to Aldersgate four years ago," she says, "people openly objected to my appointment. This was the first time I experienced that level of outspokeness and rejection. A few members of the congregation left the church. Looking back, it's better to have them leave than to stay around and undermine my ministry."                                                                 

Otterbourg, a Durham-based writer, is the author of two career books, It's Never Too Late and Retire and Thrive.

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