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When congregations and their clergy do not "fit": keys to authenticity and integrity for clergywomen

According to recent denominational studies, clergywomen are more likely than men to be placed in “low fit” churches—that is, congregations whose theology, culture, and political orientation may significantly differ from those they embrace. During the pandemic, ideological divisiveness has made reconciling differences while preserving one’s integrity (and job) even more challenging. How can ministers stay true to their identity and values in difficult ministry contexts? What insights can guide their choices?

Stories from the field

Brittany is in her late twenties, single, and her first appointment is in a small and aging congregation in the rural Midwest. The age gap between her and her parishioners is significant, as are their cultural, political, and theological differences. She is a graduate from a prestigious progressive seminary; her new community is socially, politically, and religiously very conservative. She feels strongly called to work for social and environmental justice, but her congregation resists change and would prefer Brittany to concentrate on parishioners’ pastoral care. Over her first two years of ministry, she transitioned from being the “shiny new object” of her parishioners’ hope to someone they look at with suspicion and resentment. The balance tipped on a Veteran’s Day when a parishioner displayed an American flag on the altar. A giant flag and cross, perpetually illuminated, had been marking the entrance of the building for many years; smaller flags were also a normal part of the church décor. In Brittany’s mind, though, that flag on the altar finally crossed a line. She removed it. Her act marked the end of her honeymoon with her new church. The backlash forced her to confront the incongruence between her theological ideas, values, and commitments and her congregation’s culture. Since then, she has struggled to understand how to communicate with her parishioners while remaining true to her values and beliefs.

Norma is a Black woman in her late fifties. She exudes confidence and authenticity, laughs easily, and does not take herself too seriously. After her ordination, her professional experience qualified her for a prestigious appointment in a predominantly white congregation in the South, where she worked for racial and economic equality. Norma perceives her call as a gift from God that requires openness to grow, especially when this implies discomfort. Her ministry is consistent with this attitude. She feels called not only to comfort but also to challenge. Her work has made her acutely aware of a wide gap between how some parishioners see themselves—liberal and forward-thinking—and their actual behaviors, and commitments. As the only Black priest on staff, she lives in a strange space where she is at the same time “invisible”—more or less subtly ignored and challenged as a competent leader—and too “visible,”—the first Black female priest of the congregation. Too confident, too outspoken, inopportune in her questioning, and somewhat ill-fitting in the role of priest. Despite all this (or, perhaps, because of all this), Norma sees her visibility as a transformative calling she embraces fully. Her priestly garments proudly display her African heritage. Her appearance and emotional expressions intentionally challenge the white, masculine, impassive ideal many consider as the proper “fit” for a priest. Her words and acts are a direct expression of her calling to comfort and challenge. A change of leadership and a national racial reckoning have recently broken the fragile balance that made her ministry possible. She is now transitioning to a new appointment that will allow her to expand her ministry of pastoral care and racial justice.

Congregation-priest fit, clergywomen’s labor market, and authenticity

In different ways, Brittany’s and Norma’s stories point out the problematic tension involved in reconciling a priest’s identity, values, and commitments and a congregation’s specific culture. Our research shows that clergywomen, and especially female clergy of color, are particularly exposed to the risk of being assigned to “low-fit” congregations—that is, churches whose culture and theology are considerably different from theirs.

This mismatching has structural roots in clergywomen’s “job” market. Despite recent progress across denominations, clergywomen are disproportionately appointed to small and declining congregations, often in rural or semi-rural areas. This is very much Brittany’s case. She is young, politically and theologically progressive, and the first female leader in an aging congregation located in a conservative rural community. This gap puts her at a heightened risk of conflict with her church.[1] Especially during the pandemic, political, cultural, and theological differences have confronted many clergy with a stark choice between maintaining their integrity and keeping their job.

Norma’s case points out another facet of the dilemma of clergy’s authenticity. She is older and well-trained in dealing with racial and cultural differences. Nevertheless, as the first female priest of color of her congregation, she directly experiences a contradiction between her parish’s stated ideals of racial justice and an ordinary reality of more or less subtle prejudice based on her skin color and gender. Her very identity does not exactly “fit” the role. Her entire way of being—her appearance, voice, emotional expressions, and commitment to racial justice—represents a constant call for the church to question assumptions and prejudices.

According to our study, female and LGBTQ+ clergy, especially when they belong to racial minorities, are more likely to identify, understand, and address oppression and prejudice than their male counterparts. A wealth of research highlights that those who experience discrimination are also, on average, more inclined to learn about and speak out against prejudice and injustices impacting other groups. This positioning implies that, especially in politically and socially conservative settings, they may experience greater value dissonance. This finding is confirmed by a recent study:

On the whole, women pastors… more readily took on controversial topics in the pulpit, emphasized inclusion, and led social justice initiatives related to issues of sexism, homophobia, heterosexism, and racism. These trends reinforce findings of other studies demonstrating that women pastors are typically more political and social justice-oriented… The data… suggest that women’s commitment to social justice and helping others can be attributed to their own experiences of discrimination and oppression.[2]

Authenticity: personal and professional impact

Researchers define authenticity as an individual’s perception that her behaviors are “true to herself” within a role and congruent with her identity, values, and commitments. The context in which people work—in our case, a congregation—plays a significant role in determining whether they can maintain a sense of authenticity and integrity. Research shows a negative correlation between individuals’ sense of alienation from their work context and psychological well-being. Conversely, people who experience authenticity and integrity at work are more motivated and engaged, show higher levels of initiative and ownership of their role, are more satisfied with their work, and perform better.

Workplace authenticity is especially crucial for women. Recent studies have explored the issue of workplace-individual “fit” from the perspective of gender and racial or ethnic minority groups, especially in white and male-dominated work cultures. Social identity threats (incidents that signal that a person is devalued by virtue of her membership in a stigmatized group), among other factors, have the potential to erode a person’s sense of authenticity and congruence and considerably impact workers' mental wellbeing, performance, and motivation.

Women and people of color often face these challenges by “sorting” themselves. They choose work contexts that may represent a good fit and avoid threats. Church organizations are no exception to this tendency. Even more than their male peers, our female clergy participants were acutely aware of the importance of finding a good “fit” (a congregation accepting of women’s ministry and/or racial and sexual minorities and aligned with their core values and commitments). However, clergywomen’s ability to sort themselves was often limited by the dynamics of their denominational job market (explicit or implicit gender, sexual orientation, and/or racial bias) and by practical and financial constraints. Just like Brittany and Norma, most clergywomen also experienced some level of alienation and social identity threat—for the way they looked, sounded, behaved, or for the causes they supported—and felt pressured to appear and behave in ways they perceived as inauthentic and inconsistent with their identity and core values. This situation represents a heightened risk for their mental wellbeing and the continuity of their professional careers.

Going further--reflective questions

  1. In Norma’s story, her particular sense of being called to comfort and challenge plays a crucial role in preserving her authenticity and congruence within her ministry context. To what extent has your understanding of your calling helped you remain “true to yourself” at times of conflict?

  2. In Brittany’s story, her choice to be consistent with her theological convictions comes at the cost of a serious rift with her congregation. Norma leaves her appointment to avoid a situation that would compromise her integrity as a minister. As a priest, when and where do you draw a line? How do you balance preserving your authenticity and integrity and ministry a congregation whose values may considerably differ from yours?

  3. During the pandemic, clergy had to walk a delicate balance between integrity and accommodation. How did you navigate that tension?

  4. To what extent do you think seminaries and in-ministry training can better equip clergy to walk the line between integrity and accommodation, especially early in a priest’s journey?

  5. Research shows that women and people of color frequently experience forms social identity threats as clergy. How do you respond?

Manuela Casti Yeagley, PhD

[1] Matthew J. Price, Anne Hurst, Paula Nesbitt, and Andrea VanZile. “Called to Serve - A Study of Clergy Careers, Clergy Wellness, and Clergy Women.” The Church Pension Fund’s Office of Research, 2010. [2] Lauve-Moon, Katie. Preacher Woman: A Critical Look at Sexism without Sexists. 1st edition. Oxford University Press, 2021, 166.


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