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The ill-fitting robe: female representation in the church

One of our most pervasive findings concerns the impact of women's poor or unequal representation in the church.

During a recent visit to a small island in northern Michigan, my husband and I visited a Protestant chapel whose stained-glass windows vividly describe the first missionaries' deeds in that land. Quite predictably, the characters memorialized in that luminous storybook were exclusively male.

Who is included and who is excluded in the representation of a story matters. A stained-glass window points out something beyond itself. It teaches the faithful about what is honorable and worthy and who embodies a Christian leader's characteristics.[1] In this sense, women's absence from that stained-glass window conveys a symbolic message that goes well beyond the four walls of a small chapel in northern Michigan.

Representation plays a crucial role not only in the realm of visual art but also in ordinary church life. Only 11% of the clergy leading a Christian congregation in contemporary America are women.[2] Many of them work in part-time or subordinate positions; a disproportionately large number is assigned to small and often isolated congregations. Women's place in the "stained glass window" of their denominations remains marginal at best.

Unfortunately, the impact of women's scarce and unequal representation in the church is not limited to the church's present reality; it creates a self-perpetuating cycle that effectively undermines future generations of women's ability to follow their calling. One of the most surprising and pervasive findings of our research concerns the extent to which women's basic ability to imagine themselves as a pastor is connected to their concretely seeing someone who looks like them in that specific role. Our interviews with clergywomen highlight that a significant number of contemporary female pastors wrestled with their calling for years, and sometimes even decades, because they did not believe they belonged in ordained ministry. Unsurprisingly, our male participants never reported such an experience. Being a pastor and being male seemed to be an obvious "fit."

According to our data, the negative impact of poor female representation acts emerges in multiple forms. The most pervasive effect can be seen among mature clergywomen who experienced a calling in their youth. This was the case of Nichelle, a middle-aged African Methodist Episcopal clergywoman. She wrestled for years with her family's open opposition and her self-doubting before embracing her calling. She had never met a female pastor and intimately recoiled at the idea of occupying a contested role:

I never wanted to be a pastor ever… back then, it was just fear and anxiety, but now I see it was rooted in some gender issues. I just didn't see female pastors, which then bred insecurity, like "I'm not supposed to." And then there are those who are antagonistic, so it was, like, "I don't get to." (Nichelle)

Nichelle's story is far from being rare. Mature women represent a significant percentage of the most recent ordained clergy cohorts. Our study shows that these women experienced an early calling that wilted and waned in most cases because they could not project themselves in the role or trust the legitimacy of their aspirations.

For younger generations of clergywomen, scarce and unequal representation manifests in a different set of challenges. Differently than in Nichelle's case, younger women are generally aware that their denominations give them the right to become pastors. What they often miss is the ability to understand how being a woman, and a minister may be reconciled in real life. Jackie's story illustrates this point.

Growing up, Jackie knew that her denomination ordained women but had never met a female pastor. She felt called to ministry but struggled to understand how life as a female clergy person could look and feel. Her male pastor could teach her what the profession entailed, but what about the gender-specific realities she would face as a woman in that role?

So for me, really the first step was getting, was learning what it is I would even do in ministry, cause I didn't really have any great role models for women in ministry in my life. I had a wonderful mentor whom I had known at that point for ten years, and I had worked camps with him and… so I knew what ministry in his world looked like, but I wasn't sure what kind of ministry for me would look like. (Jackie)

Besides the need to come in contact with exemplars that may provide women with a concrete understanding of how to embody the role, our younger participants highlighted a second set of challenges. Current statistics show that clergywomen are over-represented in part-time and subordinate roles and predominantly occupy solo and poorly rewarded positions in small rural congregations. In this sense, female representation is not only relatively scarce; it also magnifies the persisting patterns of inequality affecting their ministry in the church. Younger women are deeply aware of this contradiction.

This was undoubtedly the case of Joy, a young Evangelical Lutheran pastor. Speaking about the struggle she faced before embracing her calling, she explains:

I had female pastors in my church growing up. It was a big church. There was never a female senior pastor or a lead pastor, you know? They always served as associates. And they also didn't stick around for very long. So, I had multiple female pastors in my life as a child and as a young adult or, like, a teenager. But yeah, some of them left the ministry, some of them, you know, went to different churches. They were always in associate roles. So, it's interesting because… I always knew, from the youngest age, that a woman could be a pastor. But there was something that… There was still kind of a block at seeing myself in that way. (Joy)

These stories highlight the persistence of an implicit inconsistency between being a woman and an ordained minister. Researchers have described the intrinsic incongruence individuals — women, in our case — experience in a particular role as a contradiction of status.[3] People embody different constellations of statuses. These may involve their age, sex, family membership, occupation, or religious membership. In a given culture, some constellations of status are taken for granted as merely going together. A particular status—for instance, being a college student—is associated with certain other status expectations—like being 18 and not 6. When these expectations are broken, we suddenly realize that we take certain constellations of characteristics for granted. This also happens in the case of clergywomen.

In religious cultures where female exemplars are absent or limited to a small and disadvantaged minority, women often perceive themselves and are perceived by others as if they did not exactly "fit" in the role. Subverting those taken-for-granted constellations of status may cost them a high price, as they face inner self-doubting and external resistance as a consequence. This was the case for many of our female interviewees, still today.

In her study of clergy women's first generation ('the pioneers'), Charlton describes how this sense of incongruence played out in the lives of the first female seminarians and pastors:

They described their seminary experience as being both exciting and difficult, sometimes mysteriously difficult… These ministers-in-training were struggling to figure out how to fit, how to know what to do — and what to wear — when only men had done these things before. Whether or how to wear a clergy collar and where to find clergy clothes that fit were no small practical, and sometimes symbolic, issues then. They also had to determine how to interpret their own experience. When people — seminary professors, male and female classmates, parishioners, hospital patients — responded to them in particular ways, positive or negative, they wondered openly how to know to what extent the variable of gender — the fact that they were women — was part of the response. They felt the contradiction, and they faced the dilemma.[4]

While contemporary clergywomen do not belong to the first generation anymore, they are still pioneers. Still today, many clergywomen are assigned to congregations that have never been led by a female pastor. These women have to navigate the dilemmas of how to look, behave, and speak in ways that may or may not fit expectations set by generations of male predecessors. They often have to discern how to face reactions and attitudes that may be more or less explicitly connected to their gender. Seminaries and divinity schools rarely prepare women to meet the real-life implications of being a female pastor. This issue raises questions about the extent to which today's ministerial education may have thoroughly problematized the taken-for-granted association between being a clergy person and a male individual.

The persistence of a wide gap in gender representation, even within denominations currently open to women's ordained ministry, has consequences beyond the individual experience of the clergywomen we interviewed. Poor female representation contributes to maintaining clergy women's minority status within religious denominations; furthermore, it implicitly perpetuates the perceived incongruence between being a woman and a leader. A recent, extensive study on gender inequality within American Christian denominations confirms this insight:

The disproportionate paucity of female religious leaders in American congregations, even in congregations with female-inclusive leadership policies, may also be attributed to the prevalence of gender stereotypes and the relative shortage of female role models in positions of religious authority in the lives of young girls.[5]

According to Knoll and Bolin, the implications of this situation go beyond the religious sphere. Their research shows that when young girls and boys grow up in contexts where women in positions of spiritual authority are uncommon, rare, or absent, they internalize an expectation that positions of leadership may be occupied by men only. The effects of this form of social learning have far-reaching consequences. Knoll and Bolin convincingly argue that the persistent gender gap within Christian denominations plays a substantial role in maintaining gender inequality within society. Conversely, their research points out that when young girls experience a significant relationship with a female exemplar in a position of religious authority, they achieve significant gains ranging from increased self-confidence and self-efficacy to educational success and career advancement in their future life.[6]

In conclusion, it is essential to emphasize a few practical implications of our findings:

Our research shows that female clergy representation matters at multiple levels: promotion of new vocations among women, professional and personal flourishing, and career advancement. This implies the necessity for religious organizations to aggressively pursue policies that may increase gender representation at all levels and in all positions within their organizations.

Conversely, it appears urgent to promote women-to-women mentoring and networking. These forms of interaction can mitigate the negative effects of poor gender representation and have a positive impact not only on new religious callings but also in creating a 'spillover' effect on girls' lives and careers at a broader societal level.

Finally, seminaries, divinity schools, and leaders in charge of ongoing professional training should reflect on the implicit 'constellation of status' underlying these concepts and problematize their application to their female students as they prepare for their transition into ordained ministry.

Manuela Casti Yeagley, PhD

[1] Emanuela Lombardo and Petra Meier, The Symbolic Representation of Gender: A Discursive Approach, 1st edition (Routledge, 2016); Hanna F. Pitkin, The Concept of Representation, 1st THUS edition (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1972). [2] Mark Chaves, American Religion: Contemporary Trends - Second Edition, 2nd Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017). [3] Joy Charlton, “Clergywomen of the Pioneer Generation: A Longitudinal Study,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36, no. 4 (1997): 599–613; Joy Charlton, “Women and Clergywomen,” Sociology of Religion 61, no. 4 (2000): 419–24; Everett Cherrington Hughes, “Dilemmas and Contradictions of Status,” American Journal of Sociology 50, no. 5 (March 1, 1945): 353–59. [4] Charlton, “Clergywomen of the Pioneer Generation,” 603. [5] Benjamin R. Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin, She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018), 12. [6] Knoll and Bolin, She Preached the Word.


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