Saturday, August 26, 2006

Women Clergy; There and Here

Today's NYT has an interesting, sad article about the state of women in Ministry. You can read it here , but the upshot is that in most denominations women's ministry is truncated; women can serve in small churches but not large ones, can teach but not preach, can serve as staff ministers but not as senior ministers, can be spiritual leaders to women, not men, and so on. That's in spite of more than 100 years of ordaining women by most Liberal Protestants. That letter to Timothy which says that women can't preach, and how it trumps Jesus' evident attitude towards women seems to be the cause, but we all know that the cause is much deeper than that, and that Timothy is only an excuse. It's a sad and depressing article.

The writer looked into the history of the ordination of women, so she must have come across the fact that the Universalists and the Unitarians paved that particular way in the 1880's and 90's, and seem to be thriving while having a vastly larger proportion of women in religious leadership, serving as senior ministers to women and to men, and in larger congregations than other liberal denominations. Our pioneering and our success don't figure into that article about Christian clergy, but I just want to say that I feel very lucky to be where I am. (But it does make me wonder what the percentage of women clergy in our larger congregations is. I know I'm not alone, but the review of large pulpits I just completed in my head suggests that I'm one of 10%. I will check on this matter and report.)

Of course, UU women, while we never get beaten with Timothy, get regularly beaten with the deeper issues that depress gender equality, so all is not well. There's a never absent static for women in ministry that just makes things a little harder all the time and hugely harder during storms. And it's all the worse for being invisible and forgotten.

For some reason lately I said in a group that my predecessor in this ministry was a man who, while he worked for the American Unitarian Association in the 1960's, refused to place the few women clergy in pulpits, and a bright and competent (male) student at an extremely progressive UU theological school overheard and expressed his shock that this could have happened in our always progressive denomination. Can it be that UU schools are teaching about systemic oppression without reference to women these days? (judging by my glance over our current intern's coursework, it seems to be all about race, class, sexual expression minorities and the third world now). That bodes ill for the next generation of women in ministry, who had better be prepared to deal with those deeper issues or they'll drop like flies in the bugspray. And those deeper issues don't just effect women and men who work with women, (that would be all of us) they are a bedrock of the human psyche and have everything to do with other kinds of oppression.

It would be sad and depressing, except that it also gives just a little extra boost of meaning to my own ministry, a visible success for women in larger churches, proof that it is possible, even if sometimes too hard.


Turtle Mountain said...

I was glad to hear of the article, and I went and read it. To me, it is sad when anyone feels sad and unappreciated. At the same time, men and women who define larger as better, authority over others as validation, and heirarchical promotion as success, have bought into an endless cycle of gender bias - and have decided to keep thinking inside the box. I tell people who say that you can improve teaching by raising teachers salaries that they will not get good teachers; they will get teachers who want money. I never asked for a raise in 42 years. Many others were startled that a man like me, with my credentials spent my life in schools for young women when I could have easily taught at Andover, or Exeter, or St. Paul's. All I could say was that I do not think that way - nor do I watch football.

In UU, no one has authority over anyone, onless one means administrative staff. Neither I, nor many others, set much store by ministerial robes and degrees. We judge by passion, integrity, intelligence, compassion - all of those things that are your real "success."

Anonymous said...

Hi Christine,

As a recent search committee member I do have to say that there is considerably less initial prejudice against a female minister, at least on the surface, than when I joined my conregation. But there were interesting twists like worries about motherhood, youth, partners, etc on the committee that actually surprised me and I believe revealed all sorts of interesting underlying biases. In the end this did not matter as far as the selection went, but the experience was a real eye opener, especially since all these so-called issues were raised by women.

Looking at the large church list at the UUA congregational data page I am a struck by the number of team ministries or co-ministries. So, how one counts those regarding whether a female is in the lead minister role maybe tricky. I was also struck by how many large congregations are currently in an interim period.

I need to remain anonymous because revealing my identity would let folks know which search I was writing about.

Christine Robinson said...

Actually, TM, some people go into large church ministry because that's where their gifts lie, and they manage the authority issues that people have about that as best they can. And women who go into ministry of any kind have to work harder to manage other people's authority issues than men do, because people (of both sexes) have more authority issues about women than they have about men. (but male ministers are not strangers to this issue, don't get me wrong.)

There's no doubt, Anon, that it is easier for a woman to serve a large church if she's a part of a team ministry of which the other member is male. That's not to say that she has any less skill, just that she's more likely to get a job comensurate with her talent.

Steamhead said...

I thought about sending you this article, but I checked your blog first, thinking you might comment on it if you had already seen it.

Two thoughts were lurking in the back of my mind as I read the article. First, I remembered how wonderful was the first female minister of a congregation I belonged to. It seemed a little odd at first, but it quickly became evident (it took maybe five minutes) that she was a very deep thinker with a huge heart and a prodigious talent for connecting to her congregation's deepest spirituality. I would drive a hundred miles on bad roads to hear her preach.

And, of course, I also thought how lucky I have been to be associated with your your congregation.

Let's assume that the seminaries don't consider oppression of women a problem for UUs because they think it's not an issue for us anymore. Personally, I think it's a waste of time to pick out a handful of oppressed minorities and spend time focusing on them, to the exclusion of other, equally oppressed groups. This is a good example of that. Why dwell on the wrongs on the past, when the time would be spent working on visions of justice for the future? That universal vision would, of course, encompass women in the clergy just as much as blacks, gays or people with obvious Alabama accents. Idealistic? Yes. Unreasonably idealistic? I don't think there is such a thing.

Christine Robinson said...

The difficulties that women in ministry have are neither past oppressions nor future visions of justice, but an everyday reality for women in ministry who, if they are not aware of the dynmics, are going to be in for a very tough time. It's awfully helpful if their male colleagues know something about this, too, because support is vital. That's why my dismay at this issue being glossed over in seminary these days.

Anonymous said...

It occurs to me that UUs haven't had many female presidents of the UUA. What does that mean?