Saturday, September 15, 2007

Women in Ministry

A set of statistics has floated around lately; the results of the past two search years in the UUA. They go something like this: 3/5 of the persons in search for a new church are women. 35% of those women were successful in search, vs. 46% of the men. The larger the church, the more likely it was a man who was called to serve it. In congregations of 250 members and above, it seems, a man was twice as likely to be successful as a woman.

Ouch. This is disappointing. We UU's think that we're beyond this.

What does this mean? One possibility that there's a lot more sexism amongst us than we'd like to think. Another possibility is that male ministers pursue their career path more vigorously and are able and willing to move, to put in full time work while raising children, and to move into ministries where they must supervise staff and exert considerable, overt leadership. (ie, fewer of the women in search are applying for the larger churches)

It may be that women still have to be better than their male competition to get a job, and this phenomena gets worse the "more prestigious" the pulpit. It may be that churches and search committees have unconscious prejudices or that their expectations of their minister-to-be are so high that only a man with a wife to hold down the home front could possibly do them, especially if there are young children in the family.

It may mean that, these days, the average male minister (now a minority entity,) is more skilled and dedicated and "together" than the average female minister. (This is very politically incorrect to think, I know. But I'm sure I noticed the reverse when I was in theological school; the average women, though a minority, was more skilled and dedicated and together than the average man. This was much more obvious amongst my Methodist friends, where women were less welcome than in my UU circles. Why beat your head against the brick wall of minority-ness unless you're really good at this?)

Thinking about all of those women, many of whom are now retired, and their careers leads me to my own theory about sexism, women, and ministry. I'm inclined to think that search committees are fairly open minded on the subject of having a woman minister. I've been in conversation with a dozen or so over the years and I've only once thought I detected a real strain of sexism. But I think that the women ministers themselves have been beaten down by the difficulties of being a woman in ministry. It's not easy being a man in ministy, either, but to all those shared difficulties, women add the difficulty of the unconscious, unspoken sexism in our society, which means that women have to be twice as forceful as a man to be heard but are liked less and less the more forceful they are, and women ministers bear a burden of projection of people's "mother stuff". Male ministers get "father stuff", but in this society, "father stuff" is a lot less potent and troublesome than "mother stuff".

So a woman's first ministry is hard, the resistance is subtle, (and often from women, which is confusing and painful), and the line very thin between being a leader and being strident. It's extra hard for the woman minister to figure out, when she gets negative feedback, what's sexism and what she really needs to look at. Conflicts with others are always her fault...after all, women are supposed to get along, and women ministers are supposed to get along with everyone. So ministry for women is harder, more perplexing, not as much fun, always requires a kind of heightened survival instinct. Because of all that, it is easier to quit, harder to take career risks, harder to imagine oneself a minister of a large church.

So if it turns out to be mostly true that women are self-selecting less challenging ministries, that does not absolve us of sexism. And if we are making things harder for our talented women ministers, we're the losers in the end, after all. There are apparently not enough ministers willing and able to serve our larger churches; several very attractive larger churches didn't settle a minister last year. We can't afford to handicap 3/5 of our pool with the results of a sexism we don't believe in.


Joseph said...

I really appreciate this post.

I recall being told that of the 20 or so folks who passed the MFC when I went, only 3 were men.

The question of linked oppressions comes to mind.

Joseph said...

PS - there is a short but very informative piece in the back of the UU World entitled "Feminist Transformation" that I found very helpful when looking at institutional social change. Some of the steps taken are documented there, and good modeling for efforts such as racial equity within the UUA congregations. Yet your post is a reminder that we've not yet reached that promised land.

Christine Robinson said...

Just to clarify; I don't know the exact statistics, but the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, which credentials UU Ministers, routinely sees candidates in the proportion of 20 women to three men. Their pool is already terribly skewed. That brings up the depressing area of how poorly we do ministerial recruitment and formation in this denomination.

Chris said...

I wonder if part of the large church selection bias might have to do with larger churches seeking more experienced ministers, and maybe more older ministers are men? Just a guess...

Anonymous said...

It is a wrong guess. Women began coming into our ministry in numbers approximately equal to men 27 years ago. Many large churches have settled men with no experience or very little --- in preference to more experiences women.

Jamie Goodwin said...

My church has 2 previous long term minsters. Gordon McKeeman of 22 years and Nancy Arnold of 13 years. They both were (and continue to be) very much loved and honored in our church. They each brought very unique gifts.

And yet, on the very Sunday when our most recent minister announced her leaving a gentlemen turned to his pew mate and said "Well... maybe now we can get a man for a minister".

So yes, i have no doubt that sexism does still exist in the search process.

I wonder if this has anything to do with the "graying" of our congregations. I can count the number of active young adults in my church on one hand, and yet do not even know by name all of the members of our circle of elders because there are so many.

I wonder if this is this a generational issue? Perhaps there are still many 60 plus year old men (and women) who can really never look to a female minister with the same respect as a man?

Kely said...
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PeaceBang said...

Re: the settling of larger churches:
I hate to generalize, but perhaps women clergy are less likely to feel they have to "climb the ladder" of moving from a mid-size or small congregation to a large one? Do male and female ministers have different ambitions? I think they do. It certainly never occurred to me to think of moving from a healthy smaller congregation to a contentious large congregation (hence moving into a supervision-heavy role) as a "promotion." Most men I know, however, see it just that way.

Christine Robinson said...

I agree that women are more likely to be sensitive to "quality of life" issues...oftentimes because they have a partner who is bringing home a quantity of bucks, but sometimes because they are just wise.

Of course, some people now ministering to large churches moved from unhealthy smaller ones to healthy larger ones...a promotion in all senses of the word. (Not me, however...I moved from an unhealthy small church to an unhealthy larger one. I figured if I was going to kill myself being a healer I might as well be decently paid!)