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Asking questions from the right people: a profile of our participants

Who is behind the stories and insights we present in this blog? In any research, knowing who participates in a study is critical to weigh its claims and put them in the right perspective.


This blog post aims to shed some light on the profiles of those who generously agreed to share their journeys into an incredibly challenging and rewarding vocation, church ministry. Who are they exactly? And what does their profile suggest about the shifts currently affecting the clergy profession?


Asking questions from the right people. At the core, research is all about asking questions and openly exploring possible responses. Which means that it really matters from whom you try to obtain your answers! Our research's subject—how new clergywomen experience their early transition into full-time ordained ministry as church leaders—played a crucial role in guiding our sampling choices.


Our participants were part of three church organizations –the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church—that have supported women's ministry as ordained church leaders for decades. Despite this history, recent denominational reports emphasize the persistence of gender-based discrimination at both structural and local levels. These realities point out the continued existence of a "loose coupling"[1] between these denominations' stated theologies and the church's lived practice. They also represent an invitation to continue telling stories about "the hard walk from rhetoric to reality."[2]


We recruited three denominational panels to investigate how gender impacts the shaping of clergywomen’s professional identity during their early transition into ordained ministry. Each panel included three categories of participants—our “experts.” The first and most numerous comprised new clergywomen who had been assigned to their first full-time appointment as ordained ministers during 2018. Given the complexity of factors involved in the formation of a pastor’s identity, beyond gender, each panel included a few new clergymen who had also started working as full-time ordained pastors in 2018. Finally, each panel involved a small group of second-appointment clergywomen, who could provide a retrospective look at their early journey into ministry.


A quick profile of our participants. The final sample was composed as follows:

The average age of our denominational panels was sensibly different. The Episcopal group was the oldest (average age: 44), followed by the Presbyterian and Lutheran ones (respectively 41 and 38). Among first appointment clergywomen, again, Episcopal priests presented a significantly higher average age (47) than their ELCA (39) and PCUSA counterparts (38).

Our team actively tried to reach out to minority groups within the limitations imposed by the denominational's actual racial and ethnic makeup. The resulting sample slightly over-represents the demographic balance of these organizations.

A relatively recent development in the history of all three church organizations involved in our study was their decision to ordain LGBT clergy. This shift is reflected in our panel's composition, which included approximately 12% of queer clergywomen and clergymen. With few exceptions, these clergy were predominantly white and younger than 40. Studies on queer mainline clergy are still relatively scarce, and we particularly welcome the opportunity to explore the impact of the intersection of gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, on new clergy's journey of "becoming."


Approximately one out of four participants were single, either because they had never been married (in most cases) or were divorced. The percentage of single clergy was significantly lower among men (19%) than among women (35%). Single male participants generally fell in the "never married" category and were relatively young (below 40 years of age). Married clergy represented by far the largest group. Among clergywomen, only a few were expecting a baby or had underage children. Others had recently married and were experiencing the transition into ministry simultaneously with their early steps as a couple.

In recent decades, church organizations have experienced a steady decrease of "pipeline" pastors and priests, who have been replaced by an increasing number of second-career clergy.[3] Our panel reflects this tendency, with second career clergy representing 78% of our female participants and 73% of their male counterparts.

The next chart illustrates our participants’ position at the time of the first interview. Most first appointment women covered solo roles in small to medium-sized congregations. Only a minority worked in associate positions. With few exceptions, these associate roles concerned specialty areas typically considered "feminine" (children and youth ministry, education, spiritual formation, and pastoral care). Multiple female participants in associate positions spoke about their organizations' tendency to funnel clergywomen into "feminine" ministry specialties and took active steps to prevent being "locked up" into a stereotypical professional niche.

The last two charts illustrate the locality and geographic area where our participants lived and served as ministers. The locality distribution mirrors each denomination's characteristics, with ELCA and PCUSA reporting the largest number of rural assignments, especially among first appointment clergy. TEC participants, on the contrary, were mostly assigned to urban and suburban areas. This distribution reflects the nature and organization of early-career ministry in these three denominations. In the ELCA and PCUSA, newly ordained pastors are often assigned to solo pastor roles in small rural congregations. On the contrary, in the TEC, recently ordained priests often occupy associate roles in suburban or urban parishes.


Finally, it is essential to emphasize the wide variety of regional cultures represented in American mainline Protestantism. Our panel's geographic distribution tells a multilayered and complex story. While the chart is partially reflective of each denomination's historical geography, it also reveals an informal geography of acceptance or resistance to female and queer clergy as congregational leaders. Cultural and social variables profoundly influence local churches' openness to hire female and LGBT ministers. As a result, for many of these clergy, a crucial part of the work of becoming pastors involves trying to decrypt and navigate informally defined "markets" that may be more or less welcoming. Thus, the "map" provided below does not exactly correspond to each denomination's geographic distribution. Instead, it reflects the tensions and gaps of a job market shaped by local resistance to these clergy's gender and sexual orientation.


Finally, it is essential to emphasize the wide variety of regional cultures represented in American mainline Protestantism. Our panel's geographic distribution tells a multilayered and complex story. While the chart is partially reflective of each denomination's historical geography, it also reveals an informal geography of acceptance or resistance to female and queer clergy as congregational leaders. Cultural and social variables profoundly influence local churches' openness to hiring female and LGBT ministers. As a result, for many of these clergy, a crucial part of the work of becoming pastors involves trying to decrypt and navigate informally defined "markets" that may be more or less welcoming. Thus, the "map" provided below does not exactly correspond to each denomination's geographic distribution. Instead, it reflects the tensions and gaps of a job market shaped by local resistance to these clergy's gender and sexual orientation.


 

[1] Mark Chaves, Ordaining Women: Culture and Conflict in Religious Organizations (Harvard University Press, 1999). [2] Bonnie Miller-Mclemore, “Practising What We Preach: The Case of Women in Ministry,” Practical Theology 2, no. 1 (2009): 50. [3] Mark Chaves, American Religion: Contemporary Trends - Second Edition, 2nd Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 75-88.