Faiths seeing wider spectrum of female clergy
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The Rev. Kristen Beckstrom of Olivet Presbyterian Church in West Elizabeth was ordained two years ago.
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On Christmas Eve, the Rev. Kristin Beckstrom's little church in West Elizabeth was packed with 120 worshippers -- the majority newcomers who did not belong to Olivet Presbyterian Church.
The congregation, which draws 40 on Sundays, chose her two years ago to help it grow. Her gender was not an issue, because Olivet has had female pastors for 25 years.
"I didn't have to fight any of the traditional battles," said Ms. Beckstrom, 32, who represents a new generation of ordained women. While the trailblazers were often bold feminists who challenged traditional theology, she is part of an influx of evangelicals who are broadening the spectrum of female clergy.
The year 2006 marked 50 years since women gained full clergy rights in what are now the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church. They remained a rarity until the 1980s, but have since been ordained at such rates that some commentators predict mainline Protestant ministry could become a "pink collar" profession, dominated by women.
Women are the majority at some mainline Protestant and Jewish seminaries. From 1977 to 2000, ordained women in the Episcopal Church rose from 94 to 3,482, or 20 percent of clergy. Figures in the United Methodist and Presbyterian Church (USA) are a close parallel.
But recent statistics show that the rate at which women enter ministry is leveling off, and that many of those ordained work outside a congregation. While women may remain a substantial minority in pulpits, however, some observers believe they are changing the style of ministerial leadership.
Reasons for not ordaining women vary among traditions. In the Catholic Church, it is because Jesus chose only men as his 12 apostles. For Orthodox Jews, it is because rabbis are judges in rabbinic courts, and tradition restricts that role to men. Some Protestants cite Paul's words in 1 Cor. 14:35 that "it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church."
But liberal Jews decided tradition could change for just reasons. Many Protestants concluded that Paul's words to the Corinthians addressed only women who were disrupting worship, and that he recognized more than a dozen women in ministry.
Two centuries ago, Quakers were the first Americans to have female clergy. In 1853, Antoinette Brown was ordained by a predecessor of the United Church of Christ.
Not just liberals
Countering the stereotype that ordained women are the sign of creeping liberalism, the evangelical Salvation Army has ordained them since 1865, and half its clergy are women.
Prior to the 1980s, the few women ordained in mainline churches rarely became pastors. The Rev. Peg Yingling became the first female minister in Pittsburgh Presbytery in 1965, but never sought what she called "a preaching pulpit."
The mother of three started classes at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary to enrich her spiritual life. She wound up on the ordination track because she found those classes more challenging than the Christian education courses most women took.
"I didn't start out to be a vocational trailblazer. But I just wasn't interested in being a namby-pamby little Bible story teller. I wanted the theology," said Mrs. Yingling, 84, who remains on staff at the Community of Reconciliation in Oakland.
She was happy to oversee small churches that lacked a full-time pastor. Her gift was to help lay leaders run meetings, she said. She eventually served on the presbytery staff.
Not until about 1983 did women become more than a novelty in pulpits. Many were inspired by the secular feminist movement which "told them that women can be anything," said Adair Lummis, a sociologist at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, who has studied female clergy since 1973.
That first wave gained a reputation as firebrands who rejected male terms for God, such as "Father."
"That is why some churches still are afraid of women in the pulpit. They don't want the traditional images of the service altered," Dr. Lummis said.
But her research shows that clergywomen today are far less inclined to change other people's language than they were 10 years ago. The Rev. Beth Nelson, ordained for the United Methodist Conference of Western Pennsylvania in 1983, agrees.
She cringes at some early efforts to promote inclusive language. At one annual conference meeting, advocates rang bells every time someone used a male noun or pronoun for God.
"I think we've lost -- and perhaps it's a good thing -- that militant approach," said Ms. Nelson, now director of resources and training for the conference.
"Because of the ministry that we loved, we mellowed and decided to model the language issues and the inclusiveness, rather than preach about it."
While more liberal women softened their approach, evangelical women sought leadership.
"Twenty-five years ago most of the women coming in were what I would label a feminist. Now we have a lot more conservative women," Ms. Nelson said.
Opinions changed after funerals
In two decades of pastoring, Ms. Nelson often had members who were uneasy about a woman in that role. But she won them over, often through funerals.
"About a year after I arrived in one of my churches, there was a man who died. Because of the way I took care of his widow, the entire climate of the church changed. She was kind of a matriarch. She put her seal of approval on me and kind of apologized for not wanting to give it at first."
She believes that female pastors must work twice as hard as men to earn approval.
"I think you can send in a bad pastor who is a man and people will put up with it. You send in a mediocre woman and people will not put up with it," she said.
Nevertheless, some critics, like Catholic Leon Podles in "The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity," believe that mainline Protestant ministry is well on its way to becoming a "woman's job."
Dr. Lummis believes that unlikely. In her study of 15 denominations, the rate of increase in female clergy was lower between 1986 and 1994 than between 1977 and 1986.
Smaller churches, less money
In some churches, half the women who earn ordination degrees do not become pastors. Women are 53 percent of ordination-track students at United Methodist seminaries, but only 20 percent of those ordained.
Several traditions now have female bishops -- the United Methodist Church has 20 -- and the Episcopal Church is led by a female presiding bishop. But most women still serve smaller churches and earn less money than men with the same experience, Dr. Lummis said.
"The congregations most open to having women are the smaller, rural churches that men don't want to go to. The men get out of them as fast as they can. What happens is that the women go to the smaller churches, and then they can't get out," she said.
A 1997 United Methodist study of why women leave congregational ministry at a rate 10 percent higher than men found that women felt isolated and abandoned by their superiors in rural communities that were ill-prepared to accept them.
"There was a man in one of the churches who was convinced I was demon-possessed and spread that around. There was a Baptist church in that county that prayed, had a covenant service in which they decided to pray without ceasing until I left the county. ... And I did," a woman reported.
Until about 10 years ago, Pittsburgh Presbytery had a reputation for being hard on women during "oral parts of trial," in which ordination candidates must submit to questioning from the full presbytery.
After the Rev. James Mead became pastor of Pittsburgh Presbytery in 1998, he called them on it. "We said in a meeting that this presbytery treats women candidates differently than it treats male candidates, and we think it is despicable. We named the behavior publicly, and that put an end to it," he said.
Today Pittsburgh Presbytery parallels the national church in the percentage of women in ministry -- but not in those serving larger churches. Just three of its 70 medium-sized churches have a female senior pastor, and none of the large ones do, said the Rev. Judi Slater, associate pastor to presbytery for small churches.
To create more opportunities, this year the presbytery declared that no congregation could ask it to approve the call of any new minister unless it could show that it had interviewed either a woman or a minority candidate.
"It's not so much that we want them to hire a woman or a person of color. But we want to try to be open to the best possible candidate by considering everyone," Ms. Slater said.
Ordained in 1992, she still faced obstacles men didn't.
"The powers-that-be in Pittsburgh Presbytery at the time were not very helpful. In fact, they discouraged churches even considering women," she said.
She went to First Presbyterian Church of Duquesne, a small congregation where she remains part time. "They thought they would never be open to a woman pastor. I've been here for 14 years and they laugh about it now," she said.
She doesn't consider small congregations a lesser calling.
Small can be important
"If more women are pastoring in these smaller churches, it means more women are pastoring in economically marginalized communities, which in my mind is very important ministry," she said.
Rabbi Sara Perman, who has led Congregation Emanu-El in Greensburg for 21 years, believes women have affected how all rabbis care for themselves and their families. Women pushed for family leave, and insisted rabbis had a right to time for themselves and their families, she said.
Self-care is now a common topic at national rabbinic conferences, she said. "They see that there is a need for rabbis -- even though we are on call 24/7 -- to keep to the concept of doing something healthy to de-stress."
Many advocates believe that women are more democratic and empathetic in their exercise of ministry, and that this will eventually change the way all clergy lead congregations. But Dr. Lummis does not believe the research bears that out.
"A lot of women are in associate positions, and that style may be part of the position," she said.
"When we looked at some of the more hierarchical denominations, the women who were senior pastors did not differ that much from men in their style. As senior pastor, you may have to make rather directive decisions."
After a generation of women in ministry, Ms. Nelson said there are still many people who prefer a man in the pulpit. But she believes that will change. When she left her last church she heard a little girl tell her mother, "I hope we get another woman."
First Published January 2, 2007 12:00 am