In 1956, Margaret Towner was ordained as the first female minister of Word and Sacrament in a denomination that would become the PC(USA). There was great optimism about the future of women in ministry. Towner’s ordination ran counter to the White male-dominated clergy of the 1950s, during the peak of mainline church membership and influence.
While serving in admissions at McCormick Theological Seminary in the early 2000s, I witnessed a shift in who entered seminary. For the first time, women became the majority of seminary students and graduates. These women often spoke of being inspired by seeing other women in pulpits when they were little girls.
However, the current shrinking of the PC(USA) has a direct effect on this growing number of women in ministry and the choices women have. When sexism combines with declining church numbers, the results make it more difficult for women to find calls in larger congregations. In the presbytery I now serve, 16 of the 20 largest congregations have White male pastors. It seems the larger a congregation is, the more likely they are to call a White male as pastor or head of staff.
When looking at women of color in ministry, the results are even more dramatic. The few women of color who can find any pastoral leadership are often in small churches. Some face headwinds of ethnic cultures that struggle to accept women as pastors. LGBTQIA+ women have often found it challenging to find pastoral positions as well.
If ordained ministry is flooded by women, where are these women serving? It appears the river of pastoral leadership creates distributaries of waterways that cut channels in other areas of ordained ministry for women, and especially women of color.
Many women find their call to large congregations as associate, interim or transitional pastors. These positions may pay more and offer better terms of call than those of solo pastors of small congregations. Still other women bypass congregational ministry and find their way into denominational leadership. Other women serve as chaplains, professors and operate nonprofits. Many women create a pathway into new worshiping communities.
Women have found other ways when doors are closed to them. Yet, having a door shut to one’s dreams, heartfelt desires and sense of call is hurtful. As a mid council leader, I am often challenged to keep our young women pastors in ministry; they see the reality of their future and often opt to leave the ministry altogether.
I wonder if mid councils can develop creative solutions to these challenges? Are there ways to incentivize larger congregations to call women pastors? Can we develop pathways for women of color and those in the LGBTQIA+ community for leadership in larger congregations?
Water always finds a way, and the waters of pastoral ministry will continue to find new distributaries for talented and called women to serve in a dry and thirsty world. Yet those of us with administrative authority must consider how we might help women who want to bring their gifts to Christ’s church.