Pastors Who Happen to be Women

By Bishop Michael Rinehart

In 1970 both the ALC and the LCA voted to ordain women. In 2020, 12 short months from now, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s ordination in the ELCA. So where do we stand?

Pastors who happen to be women
An October 2018 gathering of Gulf Coast Synod pastors who are women

We celebrate the many and varied ways the gifts of ordained women have advanced God’s mission through this church. We have been blessed in so many ways, it’s hard to imagine this church if we had not taken this important step.

Nevertheless, as Assistant to the Bishop Blair Lundborg will attest, we still get pushback from call committees who feel the congregation just “isn’t ready” for a female pastor. There are also significant disparities for women in seminary, first call, salary, seminary debt and ministry roles. A 2015 study at the 45th anniversary of the ordination of women showed some of those. For example, the median salary for female clergy is $56,128, while the median salary for male clergy is $61,722, a 9.1% difference.

We have nevertheless made significant progress. In the Gulf Coast Synod we put women on every slate of candidates. And sometimes we and the congregation, are surprised by the results. More women are serving in our synod than ever. 1/3 of our active clergy are female, and growing, but we have a ways to go. We are not yet at 50%. So we have set a goal to grow to 40% in the next 5 years, and to 50% in ten. This would mean, if ten congregations get new pastors, as happened this year, we would need a net gain of two female pastors each year.

A majority of our deans are now women. Although Peggy Hahn has been Assistant to the Bishop for 18 years, LEAD is angling toward become a self-standing organization, which leaves us with a pastoral staff too heavily weighted with men. We have a plan to address this.

When I started, the Conference of Bishops had 6 female bishops, less than 10%. This spring, all six new bishops elected were women, bringing us to 17 female bishops, or 25%. Better, but still a long way to go. Having a Presiding Bishop that is a woman has helped.

We now have a draft social statement on Women and Justice, and a social message on Gender-based Violence. We need congregations to study and wrestle with these.

But I also hear stories from our female clergy and deacons about denigrating and discriminating experiences they have had with parishioners and even with male colleagues. This is especially true for women of color. This must stop.

Some of these things are blind spots we have. Recently I had an experience that revealed such a blind spot. A senior pastor was out of town and I needed to relate an urgent request to the congregation, so I contacted a male staff member, overlooking the female associate pastor. What’s going on here? Sociologists call it unconscious bias. A healthy community sees these things, names them and calls one another on them. Gratefully, this was called to my attention and I offered an apology.

Men often interrupt and talk over women. A recommendation from a female pastor may be overlooked, but when a male colleague recommends the same thing, it receives high praise. A male senior pastor may take credit for the hard work of a female associate. And so on.

It gets worse. Every female pastor I’ve discussed this with has stories of condescending remarks, sexist jokes and insults, inappropriate physical contact and more. Sadly, these sometimes come from colleagues, who should know better. So I scheduled a time to listen to these stories and think together about how we deal with this in congregations and among colleagues. This was our first time for a meeting like this. Next time we will also ask deacons to attend.

Then a month ago the North Carolina Synod video came out. With actual male pastors reading things that had been said to female pastors. It might be useful for us all to hear words and experiences our clergy have encountered:

  • One pastor reported her application for candidacy was delayed for almost 3 years because she was told (by a female clergy from her synod’s Candidacy Committee at the time) that she was too thin, too pretty, with hair too long, and wearing too much makeup. She was told she would be a distraction to male congregants.
  • Pastors report being hit on by congregation members.
  • One pastor reported that a male congregant made a point to come through her communion line every Sunday and grab her hand.
  • In some cases, parishioners will come into the church office when they know the pastor will be the only one there.
  • When one pastor declined an invitation to dinner from a male parishioner, he replied: “No one has to know.”
  • “If I didn’t already have a bride, I’d be taking you home.”
  • “I didn’t know pastors were allowed to be so sexy.”
  • “You’re too pretty to be a pastor.”
  • One experienced graphic and vulgar comments from a seminary classmate in front of others. When she made it clear that friendship was all that was on the table, he continued to harass her via telephone, text, and email, extremely explicitly. She was told she was “strong and could take care of herself” and “What do you expect when you look like you?” She reported the harassment to the seminary, but was told she waited too long to launch a formal Title 9 Complaint, so they could not do anything about it.
  • One senior pastor said to his associate pastor, after maternity leave, “Now that you had the baby, I expect you are going to work part-time. Correct?”
  • One female congregant liked to say, “She has a liberal feminist agenda.”
  • An all-male executive team said to their female pastor, “We understood you were going to talk to the worship committee about this, but we expected you to do what we said.”
  • Female Council president to outgoing female pastor: “She’s done everything we’ve asked her to do when we called her. I know I was on the call committee, but truth is we don’t like the changes.”
  • When pregnant with her second child, a pastor was asked by a colleague, in front of other colleagues, “You do know how this happens, right?”
  • On internship, a church staff member once said to a pastor that maybe people would listen to her sermons “If she preached in a wet, clingy robe.” When these and other issues were brought before the seminary, her male supervisor sided with his staff member, and the seminary believed him. It later came out that she was the third female intern to leave this site early. This gifted pastor very nearly left the church over this.
  • When interviewing for internship, one person on the committee said, “I don’t believe in women pastors. What are you going to do to about that?”
  • When a group asked her to be their spokesperson at an advocacy day, one pastor was steamrolled by a late-arriving male colleague who stepped into the room as she was speaking. Without missing a beat, he interrupted and took over the leadership of the conversation. She considered confronting him. Would he listen and change, or hold it against her? She opted not to confront him. “I couldn’t trust him enough not to turn it back on me. Confronting men who hold power is always a calculation. If their ego is wounded, women pay the price. Even if women are in authority over them, it’s still always a calculation.”
  • One gentleman in the congregation, led by a pastor who is a woman of color, had been “nipping at my heels” ever since she arrived with cross-questioning. At first she took it as his trying to figure out how to be light-hearted with the new woman pastor. His ongoing critiques and evaluations of whatever she did came close to harassment. She drew the line when he commented on her style of dress. Since all his looks and comments were part of his self-described appropriate assessment of her, he thought whatever he said was well-placed. Under normal circumstances she would have put him in his place, but when a church is anxious and struggling, and the contributions made by his wife and daughter were helpful, it was difficult. “Acceptance” by his “long-time friends,” that his odd behavior was “just him”; and somehow she must accept that kind of weirdness, compounded the problem. By their failure to correct him in his ridicule, (once publicly at a memorial service) they give him permission to say whatever he thought was his right to say.  She commented that “It is entirely possible that he is the voice for the rest of them … and that’s another sad matter altogether. I would put this kind of complaint under the general category of ‘good old boy’ accepted misbehavior.”
  • I have been surprised “at how many unthinking comments have come from other women, who I would have thought would know better. Like, ‘What are you going to do if you’re with your kids and an emergency comes up at the church? Like someone is in the hospital.’ Well, probably the same thing any other professional person would do, I expect: work the problem. Find childcare or, if that doesn’t work, ask a colleague to go to the hospital in my place. Much of the bias I have experienced in my congregations, come to think of it, seems to have revolved around my roles as mother and pastor.”

It is important that we acknowledge and name these realities. Some men are surprised when they discover how many disparaging remarks pastors receive, and are shocked to hear some of the actual experiences. We must talk about these things. It is important that congregations establish clear boundaries. Councils can pass sexual harassment policies and work with victims of abuse. Leaders must act when complaints arrive. In this way, leaders can be the immunity system of the organization.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28

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