Monday, December 22, 2008

Women and Excellence

I posted this document from the folks at Harvard Div School
a couple of weeks ago. It is a self-study from Harvard about their own efforts to educate fine UU ministers. Someone left a comment noting that all the research was on sole/senior pastors, leaving out an increasingly important category of ministers, those who serve on staffs (Assistant, Associate, Co-, MRE, etc.) The commenter noted that ministers are not well socialized to serve well on colleague teams, and I would certainly second that comment, note that our larger congregations require that skill set from all the ministers who serve them, and that our lone ranger ministerial culture permiates our lives deeply and not just in theological schools. Serving with colleagues is to be a square peg in a round hole every way you turn.

I re-read the document to make sure that the commenter was correct (s/he was) and found something else that needs comment.

For part of their study, the good folks at Harvard wanted to interview some "excellent" ministers to ascertain what parts of their education experience had been most valuable to them. How to figure out whom to interview? Here's what they did. "David Pettee surveyed several long-time Unitarian Universalist officials and asked them to give us a list of the ministers within the movement whom they would characterize as excellent."

They then compiled a list, apparently only by choosing all the names that appreared more than once. Although they note that they got a good sampling of ministerial tenure (grads from the 60's-90's,) and type of ministry (7 parish, two community, presumably the two UUA staff who made the cut) they don't comment about the fact that they interviewed 7 men and 2 women.

Now, the last I heard, our ministerial pool is more than 50% female and has been that way for a good long time. (10 years? 20?) So any research sample of ministers which is almost 80% male has to be questioned. Hello! Research 101! Sample demographics should match real demographics!

The fact that this was the sample used and that it was used with no comment is disappointing on three scores. First, one can intuit from the text that "longtime UU Officials" have a decided bias (STILL!!!!) towards a masculine norm in their, probably, off-the-cuff assessment of who is an excellent minister. This is not a big surprise, but it is the sort of dreary disappointment that confirms what one never wanted to bring to consciousness. You wouldn't necessarily expect them to review their lists to see if they had anything like a proportional representation of women and ask themselves if they were being real in what was probably a very informal process. Still it's a sad comment on the state of feminism amongst us, isn't it?

(Don't even think it might actually be the case that only 2 persons in a pool of 9 actually excellent ministers would be women. More than 1/3 of minsiters serving large churches are women, 1/2 of the "listening to experience" group of 12 ministers who had grown their churches significantly were women, there are plenty of women serving "Breakthrough congregations..." just to name three kinds of excellence that are easily quantified. The Excellence in Ministry conference participants were close to half and half male and female. Frankly, I can't remember the last time I was in a minority of 20% in any ministerial gathering that wasn't mostly Evangelical in 20 years.)

Anyway, I WOULD expect this kind of review of bias from a group of people doing RESEARCH at HARVARD, because, if this is not a huge sampling error, it sure LOOKS like a huge sampling error, and it needs explanation, if not remediation.

Is it a difference that makes no difference? Hardly. I'm only an informal expert on this subject, but every study I've ever seen suggests that there are profound differences in how men and women receive their education and go about developing in their careers and in what they most value from their experience. So, thirdly, this is a disappointment because I think a better sample would have given them better information for the current, real world, in which, last I heard, considerably more than 50% of persons in ministerial formation are, in fact, women.

Temporarly Wallowing in Exasperation and Disappointment,

Your (Female) Excellence in Ministry Blogger


ogre said...

Considerably more, indeed.

Let's make that obviously considerably more--seeing that from the inside these days. I know of two male students/ministers who've shared their concern that if that remains so, the profession could become seen as a distinctly "woman's profession," to the disadvantage of its female practitioners (cf nursing, teaching).

Didn't comment on the 7 males of 9 excellent ministers, but did notice it when I read it. I think your guess that "long-time UU officials" have a perspective skew is likely correct. Though I can think of some other plausible artifacts of the survey device as well.

Robin Edgar said...

"The commenter noted that ministers are not well socialized to serve well on colleague teams, and I would certainly second that comment,"

I am not quite sure how to interpret this but the phrase "Prima Donna" is coming to mind. . . Is that a reasonable interpretation?

Kenneth said...

You wouldn't necessarily expect them to review their lists to see if they had anything like a proportional representation of women and ask themselves if they were being real in what was probably a very informal process.

On the contrary, I would expect exactly that. I think you're going rather easy on them. But then, I'm the kind of person who casually keeps track of gender, age, etc., of people who speak in meetings, and who speak in the ministry in Quaker worship.

Christine Robinson said...

Prima donna is probably the worst and most public manifestation but most multi-staff issues are far more mundane than that, Robin. They have to do with ambivilance about leadership (taking leadership and being a follower), with lack of team skills, with poor structures of accountability, and with a 19th century culture of ministry that assumes that "real" ministers work solo and have a call.

bluish seminarian said...

The gender bias about "excellence" is an important aspect of this conversation. Women, no matter how smart, philosophical and savvy, are more likely to be thought of as nurturing, compassionate teachers, rather than cutting-edge thinkers. Male ministers, even those with the kindest, most pastoral presence, will still get described first as "intelligent" more often than not. These are the biases of an community that often subscribes to the "female=earth mother" and "male=sky father" sensibility. We think we've progressed simply because we've learned to value "female" skills in ministry. This leads to the fear of ministry becoming a "woman's profession" and a decline in "excellence". I'd be surprised if this didn't have ramifications for the election of the next President of the UUA as well.

"She's so caring. And smart, too!"
"He's such a smart man. And kind as well!"

As a female seminarian, I struggle with the fear that most men still are not able hear and identify with the universal human in a woman's voice, whereas woman have had practice self-identifying with a male voice for our whole lives.

Jodi said...

Amein Sister(s)! I truly appreaciate your reading of this survey as I was very uncomfortable with it ona number of levels. One of which is how it is being used to promote various agendas (but that is another story). As a 24/7 single mother in the formation process, I can tell you that there is little in this that is NOT designed for a solo man, going forht, etc. etc. I may have to uproot my family not once but twice in order to proceed through the stages of formation. The, of course, onec ordained (here's hoping) more upheaval. Does this just have to go with the job of religious leadership? Methinks not as there is much to do in pretty much any location to grow UUism! How can we create a path to ministry that IS modern? I LOVE the stories of the folks plunging forward in our history (herstory?!?!) across wooden bridges, in mud hip high (for some reason that one sticks out in my mind not sure who it was at this moment but I'll look it up!) to build the beloved community. Yet, here I am a 'simple' Mom, building beloved community everyday in a million 'small' ways and I think I am living into my "call" (a very Christian concept by the by & I am not on that particular branch of the family tree). So, YES, let's acknowledge the diversity of women's voice, too. I for one, like being a nurturing woman and I bring those skills to my religious leadership. I AM collaborative & I think this is critical to my service and what I offer religious leadership in a UU context, especially on a quickly shrinking planet...where we must welcome everyone to the table. I love the path I am on to UU religious leadership and I think it IS excellent BUT we need to look at what is happening here and now,today, on the ground in real people's lives as they live out their ministries and as they prepare for moving into doing so formally. Happy Many Holy days of Winter!

Jodi said...

p.s. sorry for the typos...passionate typing without spell check does it to me every time :)

kim said...

Perhaps the definition of excellence they are using is a "masculine" definition?