Clergy women make connections
Women have been entering into ministry in large numbers for decades. But few women lead congregations, and those who do are likely to lead small congregations.
February 16, 2010 | For women who aspire to leadership positions in church organizations, the career path can be a lonely one, with few role models and mentors.
Overall, women lead about 8 percent of congregations, and only about 5 percent of American churchgoers attend a congregation led by a woman, according to the National Congregations Study. The study also found that women who work as pastors are less likely to report satisfaction with their jobs than their male colleagues.
Although the official barriers to leadership have fallen in many church organizations, women clergy still face challenges, including how to thrive personally and how to build networks and friendships that can sustain them, said Barbara Brown Zikmund, who is ordained in the United Church of Christ and is a former president of Hartford Seminary. She is co-author of “Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling.”
“The challenge is how to do the job in new ways,” she said.
Women have responded to this need in different ways, including conferences, formal church programs and online chat rooms and blogs. In these formal and informal spaces, women clergy are coming together to connect with and support one another.
Here are four examples of women clergy networking with each other:
The Young Clergy Women Project
An associate pastor writes about knitting as an act of faith. An associate rector confesses that she feels slighted and ignored at a retreat and questions whether her church really wants her. A clergy woman describes her struggles with depression.
These stories come from Fidelia’s Sisters, an online publication of The Young Clergy Women Project, where ordained women younger than 40 can share thoughts and ideas with their peers. The project, now a network of nearly 430 women, hosts conferences and in-person meetups, runs password-protected online communities and produces Fidelia’s Sisters.
The Rev. Susan Olson of Yale Divinity School came up with the idea of The Young Clergy Women and its website as a way to get women talking online. Olson, who is the school’s director of divinity career services and acting director of supervised ministries, wrote a grant proposal that the Louisville Institute funded in 2007. The grant funded a preaching conference, the website and a board meeting.
The goal is to give the youngest women clergy a place to connect with others. The group is structured “so you don’t feel isolated in your ministry,” said the Rev. Ann Bonner-Stewart, co-chair of the board of The Young Clergy Women Project.
“If young women aren’t feeling supported, they could very well leave [ministry],” said Bonner-Stewart, who is the chaplain and director of community service at Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh, N.C.
While some networking groups pair mentors with protégés, the leaders of this group were looking to foster more equal relationships. This can be easier to do by matching people roughly the same age, Bonner-Stewart said. The group also prides itself on showing publicly diversity of young clergy women through Fidelia’s Sisters.
Writers address topics ranging from mother’s guilt to how best to counsel people who have lost their jobs. And they don’t shy away from weighty topics.
In a February 2009 post, a single clergy woman wrote anonymously about her pregnancy scare in a letter she addressed to “Mary, Mother of our Lord.” In it, she wondered if the parishioners in her church could hear her heart pounding in her chest.
“Could they see the panic on my face? No, they had no idea. It’s only you, Mary. Only you can possibly imagine my fear. Forgive me. I never understood. I was so intoxicated by the angel and lost in the mystery. It never occurred to me just how scared you might have been,” the woman wrote.
The women write about their work as pastors and their lives as mothers and wives. In an article from May last year, the Rev. Julia Seymour of the Lutheran Church of Hope in Anchorage, Alaska, wrote about the sadness she felt as she said goodbye to her husband, who was deploying to Iraq for nine months and would miss the birth of their first child.
“This morning, he pats my rounded belly and says, ‘I look forward to meeting him. Gestate well, my son.’ We do not look at each other to avoid seeing the tears in each other’s eyes,” Seymour wrote.
Bonner-Stewart said the group hoped that through Fidelia’s Sisters, clergy women would share both the wonderful and challenging events in their lives.
“The clergy person’s job is to speak the truth as we see it, knowing all the while that our own perspective is necessarily limited. Sometimes the truth stinks,” Bonner-Stewart said. “The thought is to help young clergy women know they're not alone.”
The Lead Women Pastors Project
The Rev. Karen Oliveto has served in urban and rural settings, as a campus and United Methodist parish minister, in New York and now, in San Francisco as co-pastor of Glide Memorial Church’s 11,000-member congregation.
Through it all, she has leaned on others for insight, inspiration and encouragement. But she has found that it has become harder to find mentors the longer she has been in ministry.
Through the United Methodist Church’s Lead Women Pastors Project, Oliveto will help fill that mentoring void for other women. The project pairs 25 women such as Oliveto who serve at churches with 1,000 or more members with 25 women who have the potential, as determined by United Methodist bishops, to one day lead a church of that size.