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Hiring and pay matters: clergywomen and an "opaque" ministry job market

Why do hiring discrimination and pay gaps persist?

Stories from the field

Audrey is in her late 30s, and her first career involved supporting juvenile offenders who experienced mental health problems. When she decided to embrace ministry, her seminary provided little guidance on navigating the ministry “job market.” She was used to very tough work environments, but church employment was the first where she felt “gendered”. Her diocese was not “women-friendly.” Consequently, while her male peers found a job before graduation, her female and LGBTQ+ seminary colleagues struggled. She decided to act aggressively and applied for a job she had learned about from seminary friends, in a different diocese, and under a female rector she admired. She succeeded. Her best advice? “Sometimes, it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.”

Vicky is in her early 30s and comes from a lineage of priests. She grew up listening to stories about how the church “worked” as an organization, but coming out as a lesbian made things decidedly less predictable. “I will never be able to say with certainty that being lesbian was the reason why some churches rejected my application—nobody ever told me that openly,” she says. “But I have gay friends who went through the same process, and some were told that they would have been perfect for the job, but the congregation did not accept their sexual orientation. So, there may well be some people who put me on the bottom of the pile because I’m lesbian.” Despite this opacity, Vicky has been able to find a rewarding appointment as a vicar of a large church and is optimistic about her future as a priest.

Sarah is in her late 50s and comes from a career in corporate management. Following a ministry calling involved a considerable price tag, but she is passionate about nurturing people’s spiritual needs. The hardest part of her transition into ministry was to shift from being a valued professional and leader to feeling treated as a mere “novice.” As an older woman, she believes that the organization does not invest in women of her age, while younger—preferably male—colleagues are assigned to the most rewarding positions. She is working through personal connections to find a suitable appointment, but she is also exploring alternative professional options.

Nichelle is also in her late 50s and, like Vicky, comes from a clergy family. Becoming a minister was never part of her plans! As a black woman and a single mother, she perceived joining the Episcopal Church as “arriving” by the upper class—and she didn’t feel to belong there. After her children finished college, she finally embraced her calling. She wants to build a church where “all feel welcome” but, as a priest and a black woman she has often felt “invisible” and awkwardly fitting into the role because of her skin color and gender. She sees improvement and wears her identity confidently and proudly. She would like progressive churches to stop assuming they have overcome gender and race discrimination and take more radical actions to change their organizations’ culture.

Women and LGBTQ+ clergy's "opaque" job market

In the last few decades, multiple research studies have pointed out that the geographic distribution of women and LGBTQ+ clergy’s “labor market” in the church is complex and reflects broader social and cultural trends of acceptance or resistance to changing gender roles and sexuality norms. In the Episcopal Church, newly ordained priests in assistant or associate positions are slightly more likely to be female, while newly ordained priests holding solo rectorships are more likely to be male. Associate positions are much more common for first callers than solo rector positions, especially when the priest is younger (below 45 years of age).[i] These patterns were fully mirrored in our Episcopal panel of participants and were unique to this denomination. In the other two church organizations involved in the study—the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church USA—first-call participants are overwhelmingly placed in solo pastor positions. Most clergywomen are employed in small to medium-sized groups congregations. This distribution was mirrored by our ELCA and PCUSA panel composition.

The Flourishing in Ministry study highlighted that women and LGBTQ+ clergy generally experienced their denominations' “job market” as opaque. This opacity was due to the fact that while all three church organizations have promoted gender inclusiveness in ministry for decades, they also grant a significant level of autonomy over clergy hiring to local congregations. Consequently, while gender inclusiveness (or “gender neutrality”) may be enshrined in canons and policies at a central organizational level, discrimination is perpetuated at the local level, depending on the theological, cultural, social, and political preferences of each local church. At a practical level, this situation implies that, especially early in one’s career, it is hard for women to predict what churches will welcome their application and what will not.

By and large, women and LGBTQ+ clergy participants often felt unprepared to face the disconnect between the official labor market of their church organizations and the informal geography of acceptance or resistance to their ministry within their organizations. In effect, for women and especially LGBTQ+ clergy, the actual congregational ministry labor market was more limited than for their male colleagues. This problem was severe for first callers working for denominations where the search for first employment was limited by policy to a specific region and one job application at a time.

Clergywomen, especially first callers, found a position more quickly and in better “fitting” congregations in church organizations that allowed broad job searches and multiple simultaneous applications (like the PCUSA).

  • Seminaries that actively worked to give their graduates a broad exposure to potential employers seemed to provide an opportunity advantage to their female and LGBTQ+ students. However, it was also clear that this access advantage didn’t completely erase the challenges women and LGBTQ+ new clergy faced. Participants still emphasized that men were generally hired more quickly than women and LGBTQ+ new priests. More generally, the study highlights seminaries’ potential role in supporting and coaching female and LGBTQ+ first callers as they navigate the specific challenges of their ministry labor markets.

  • Especially for female and LGBTQ+ first callers, a vital asset in the search for a suitable job was represented by personal connections with former (generally female or LGBTQ+) seminary colleagues or older priests. In multiple cases, the key to a successful application was a contact with a friend or mentor who could point out a suitable opportunity in a welcoming congregation. This situation points out the constantly negotiated nature of women’s and LGBTQ+ clergy’s ministry labor geography, whose contours need to be continuously reconstructed with the help of “insiders” who may know if their gender and/or sexual orientation will be accepted or rejected in a given congregation.

  • Personal limitations played a significant role in hindering clergywomen’s ability to find a suitable position. Limiting factors could be the pressure to find a job as soon as possible because of financial need; being single and with little economic ability to wait for the best professional opportunity; being married, and therefore limited by dual-career pressures and family needs in the ability to pursue a suitable job. Older women (over 55), particularly at the early stages of their career, recurrently reported being perceived as less employable than their younger male counterparts and felt generally disadvantaged in the competition for desirable positions.

Hiring practices and compensation

The three denominations involved in our study (the ELCA, the Episcopal Church, and the PCUSA) have in common a granular and diffuse power structure. This system has many advantages and implies a view of ministry that is not top-down but negotiated at multiple levels. Unfortunately, this organizational model also involves potential disadvantages. All three denominations formally and practically embrace principles of fairness and inclusivity regardless of an individual’s gender and sexual orientation. However, the granular and negotiated nature of each organization’s structure implies that there may be significant discrepancies between the church stated theological and ethical blueprint and lived local practices, particularly at a congregational level. The Flourishing in Ministry research unequivocally shows that a lack of uniform standards and accountability structures in hiring and compensation is among the most significant contributors in perpetuating gender and sexual orientation discrimination within the TEC, the ELCA, and the PCUSA. Multiple denominational studies confirm this finding. Organizational research consistently shows that hiring practices standardization, transparency, and efficient accountability structures are crucial in promoting gender and sexual orientation fairness and inclusion.4

More specifically, our interviews with clergywomen pointed out the potential opacity of congregations’ hiring practices. In multiple cases, there appeared to be a deficit of accountability structures ensuring that women’s and LGBTQ+ applications were not sidelined to favor a male and/or straight candidate. Unfortunately, multiple clergy participants were directly aware of congregations that explicitly or implicitly prioritized the applications of straight male candidates. Organizational research suggests the effectiveness of “nudging” institutions towards fairness and inclusion by introducing structural changes that encourage applying these principles. These strategies could involve, among other things, hiring panels operating their first selection based on resumes omitting a candidate’s gender and/or sexual orientation; shortlisting mechanisms based on performing tasks relevant to the role (preaching, leading a meeting, assessing a budget, and the like) and less on non-standardized interviews; requiring congregations to explicitly articulate the rationale by which a candidate was chosen over another; and, finally, creating external accountability and appeal structures allowing dioceses, synods, and presbyteries to monitor the fairness of congregations’ hiring criteria and practices.

In the absence of these measures, it appears clear that women and LGBTQ+ clergy bear the consequences of organizational mechanisms that allow congregations to continue to discriminate. According to our findings, some denominations are challenging this state of things by requiring churches involved in a hiring process to explicitly affirm their support for inclusive and uniformly fair hiring practices. Emerging insights suggest that churches explicitly promoting themselves as “inclusive” are seen as more attractive and receive a more significant number of applications than congregations that fail to do the same. This mechanism creates a virtuous circle that rewards fair practices and discourages bias.

Finally, one of the most evident signs of the persistence of gender discrimination within church organizations is the compensation gap between men and women. Multiple and complex factors contribute to perpetuating these differences, not least explicit or implicit bias in hiring, women’s personal constraints (pressure of dual careers and family caregiving), and professional priorities.

While reconstructing this complex picture, it is essential to emphasize that a significant number of our female and LGBTQ+ participants pointed out that their compensation had been negotiated fairly and in line with local salary guidelines. Unfortunately, about half of our sample reported persisting patterns of discrimination related to compensation. These problems particularly affected first-call female and LGBTQ+ clergy and appeared to compound gender, age, and tenure factors.

More specifically:

  • The research highlighted that compensation guidelines are not always considered binding; deviations from the standard were more frequent in the hiring of women and LGBTQ+ clergy at their first call.

  • Younger women were particularly exposed to the risk of compensation discrimination. In multiple cases, the intersection between younger age, short tenure, and gender seemed to legitimize hiring practices aimed at imposing a below-standard wage without negotiation. This tendency was particularly effective with female candidates who urgently needed to find an occupation, generally due to financial debt or family circumstances. Fearing backlash, they would self-censor and give up negotiation for fear of losing a job opportunity.

  • Theological and missional reasons also played an essential role in women’s acceptance of below-standard compensation offers. Appeals to a sacrificial mindset prioritizing a church’s needs over those of a clergy person have particular power over women, who are socialized to prioritize others’ needs over their own.

  • Multiple participants emphasized the need for more transparency in the way congregations calculate and present compensation offers. More specifically, some interviewees highlighted the need for new hires to assess their proposed compensation against the congregation’s budget and the salaries provided to previous leaders of the same church. Some participants also highlighted the need for more clarity and uniformity in how compensation is presented. Some congregations tend to offer a total “package” compensation and do not separate cash salary from benefits such as healthcare, retirement contributions, etc.

What helps

Monitoring and accountability

The main issue allowing compensation discrimination to happen is that across denominations, local salary guidelines may not be considered as binding and therefore ignored. To prevent this issue, some of the organizations involved in the study enacted virtuous monitoring and accountability processes to protect vulnerable groups—in our case, first call women and LGBTQ+ priests and pastors. These mechanisms allowed the local bishop’s office to review local compensation negotiations and intervene on behalf of the candidate when necessary. The effect of these monitoring and accountability measures is to discourage economic discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.

Reducing financial pressures

Even more than other participants, clergywomen were positively affected by strategies aimed at decreasing seminary tuition costs and supporting financially burdened students. Single and divorced women, often from a second career background, are over-represented among new clergy. For many of them, starting a new cycle of studies implies giving up financial security; they quit their previous occupation, stop paying retirement contributions, and use their savings to finance their career change. Financial pressures and the burden of debt play a significant role in women’s inability to wait for a suitable professional opportunity in a ministry labor market that still considers men more employable than women.

Providing focused salary negotiation training

Women and LGBTQ+ clergy were universally appreciative of training programs focusing on women as salary negotiators (when provided!). These courses do not eliminate the risk of backlash clergywomen may experience when they negotiate a salary—a phenomenon well documented in the organizational research literature. However, according to our data, these training opportunities increased women’s agency and confidence, provided concrete negotiating skills, and made them aware of the gender dynamics underlying negotiating situations.

Coaching resources

Some participants highlighted the positive role of their diocese’s Office for Transition Ministry as a potential advisor and coach in compensation discussions. The relatively small number of people mentioning this option suggests the need to promote this resource among clergy.

Manuela Casti Yeagley, PhD


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