For U.S. clergywomen, numbers increase but sexism remains

November 15th, 2018

A recent report on the state of clergy shows that the number of clergywomen has doubled or tripled in many denominations over the past twenty years. The author of the report, Eileen Campbell-Reed, an associate professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, was herself surprised by the results and the progress that women clergy have made in just a few decades. The “State of Clergywomen in the U.S.” showed that the two denominations with the highest percentages of clergywomen are the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, but other denominations have made progress as well.

In the United Methodist Church, the percentage of women clergy almost doubled from fifteen percent of clergy in 1994 to twenty-nine percent in 2017, while the percentages of clergywomen in the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America nearly tripled from twelve and eleven percent, respectively, to thirty-seven percent in each denomination. With at least one-third of clergy being women in most mainline denominations, it seems as if the presence of clergywomen has become more normative. In my experience, clergywomen who have been ordained for a couple of decades frequently express wonder and gratitude at how many more of “us” there are now. Even still, attendance at clergy gatherings still heavily skews male.

Clergywomen also lag behind men in leading churches. Women clergy are far more likely than men to serve in ministerial roles outside of the church — as chaplains, non-profit staff, and professors. While the percentage of women clergy in denominations as a whole has increased, people in the pews might not be seeing the full extent of the shift.

There is little doubt that the power and prestige of the institutional church is waning, and as it does, I suspect we will a continued rise in women clergy. Additionally, studies have shown that, as women enter traditionally male-dominated fields, the pay drops. So, even though the increased percentages of clergywomen in many denominations are something to celebrate, there are still broader issues of compensation and opportunity both culturally and within the church that need to be addressed.

Similarly, the “Stained Glass Ceiling” is still broadly in effect, even as denominations have worked to ensure women are elected and appointed to higher jurisdictional ministry. A recent article in The Living Church reported on the emergence of all-women slates of candidates for the episcopacy in The Episcopal Church with an undercurrent of concern. The Right Reverend Barbara Harris was elected as the first bishop in the Anglican Communion in 1989, and there certainly have not been articles written about the number of all-male episcopal slates since then. Hopefully, as the number of women clergy with the appropriate gifts and level of experience grows, we will see more women called and appointed to jurisdictional and episcopal ministry.

Of course, all of these trends only apply to denominations that ordain women, and there are many conservative churches that still do not. Particularly in mainline denominations, women of color are still a distinct minority. As Campbell-Reed notes, just because there more women being ordained does not automatically solve the problems of sexism, either in the church or in the world. There is no doubt that women clergy have come a long way, but we must still be ready and willing to address sexist bias.

comments powered by Disqus