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Women at work: Female ministers find obstacles on path to pulpit

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Updated: October 1, 2014 6:03AM

Carol Jamieson Brown was in her early 20s when she told her pastor she had answered a call from God to pursue ministry and enrolled in seminary.

But he put the brakes on her plans — he didn’t acknowledge women ministers.

“He had been my pastor since I was 5 years old,” Brown said. “So it was like your father telling you that God didn’t call you. He had to be right, and I had to be wrong. There was no room for him to be wrong in my life.”

Many years later, she found room. Today she is pastor of First Baptist Church of Park Forest and among those who’ve made cracks in a stained-glass ceiling that continues to block women clergy and is nowhere close to being shattered.

Only 11 percent of American congregations were led by women in 2012, said Duke University Sociology Professor Mark Chaves, who shared data from a National Congregations Study survey that will be fully released in September.

“It was about 11 percent in 1998,” he said. “Nationally, it doesn’t look like it’s going up.”

The survey was conducted by Chaves in collaboration with the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Progress is greater in more liberal Protestant denominations that have more women ministers. Across such faiths, it was about 20 percent in 1998, and it’s just roughly 22 percent today, Chaves said. “It is creeping up there, but slowly.”

Women have made greater inroads serving in lesser ministerial roles, with nearly a third of congregations reporting they have clergy women on their staff, but not necessarily serving as the head person, he said.

Just because denominations have policies allowing women’s ordination as clergy doesn’t mean individual congregations embrace them as pastors, noted Adair Lummis, faculty associate in research at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Hartford, Connecticut.

“In churches that are more congregationally centered versus those with more denominational leadership control, congregations can sort of make up their own minds,” Lummis said.

Age demographics account for some of the limited progress, contends Chaves, who also is professor of religion and divinity at Duke.

“There’s still the generation of clergy that are almost entirely male,” he said. “They will be leaving the scene, [but] when you have a process that requires generational change in the occupation, that takes time.”

Women also leave the clergy at a higher rate than men, “and it’s still clearly true that there are churches out there who prefer a male,” he said.

It took 27 years for Brown to decide her pastor had erred. She concluded that after sharing her experience with an orthodox rabbi friend.

“He said, ‘If you’re right, how are you going to explain that you didn’t do what you believed God called you to do because somebody else told you you were wrong?’” she shared. “Within six months of that conversation I was in seminary.”

Brown, who is African-American, has been pastor for 11 years at First Baptist Church of Park Forest, which had been racially diverse when she arrived. The church lost roughly 20 percent of its membership after she came, and she attributes that to her race and gender.

The Rev. Jo Ann Deasy initially was reluctant to pursue the pastoral path. She is the former pastor of Evanston-based Sojourner Covenant Church.

“I’d always been in communities that were divided over the issue, and as somebody that does not like conflict, it was hard to make a decision that you knew was going to challenge or upset people, even the people that supported you,” she said. “It’s really difficult to feel like if you become a woman pastor, you can walk into any church community and there’s a potential that somebody is going to get really angry at you just for being who you are.”

She got over that attitude after spending one year at Chicago-based North Park Theological Seminary.

“That was probably the first time I was in a community where the entire discussion was in support of women pastors, and I felt really free to begin to explore whether or not I was called to be a pastor without having to carry the baggage of the debate,” Deasy said. Today she works as director of Institutional Initiatives and Student Research at the Association of Theological Schools.

She resigned as pastor of Sojourner this year in part because of the challenge of balancing work and family. She has a toddler son she adopted and is raising as a single parent.

“Pastoral work requires a lot of evenings and weekends. Just finding child care was really tough,” she said. “It was hard to figure out how to raise him and do my pastoral work.”

Other female pastors concur that the family/work balancing act is difficult.

“It’s definitely a women’s issue,” said Brown, who’s available 24/7. “Regardless of how many times you preach, how many hospital visits or counseling sessions, there’s still an expectation that I’m going to cook dinner, do housework, get the laundry done. And I have grandchildren. I’ve got to find time for [them].”

Over the years, Brown said she has had a mixed reception to her female pastor role from male clergy. Some “have received me as a colleague and there have been no problems,” she said. Others “not only have not received me as a colleague, they have not allowed me to make remarks at funeral services [when a] family has invited me to come for a father’s funeral, a mother’s funeral.

“Their understanding of Scripture is that God does not call women,” she said, adding that she responds to those viewpoints at times with Scripture.

When women have questioned her role, she has asked them, “Why is this such a problem for you? Women have led the Sunday school, they’ve led the choir, the nurse’s board. They’re the ushers. Why is this such a problem that God could use us to do more?”


Twitter: @KnowlesFran

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