“We’ve already done that,” people often say when I mention that I’m working on equity for clergywomen. “We’ve been ordaining women for decades, and women almost equal the number of men enrolled in seminaries and theology schools.” Although it is true that many denominations have been ordaining women since the 1950s and 60s and that the number of women in theological education has increased to almost 40%, only about 10% of pastors of all Protestant churches are women. The percentage of women of color who find places to fulfill their call to pastor is much lower. In many denominations the percentage of women pastors of all ethnicities is lower than 1%. The average compensation of female pastors is much lower than that of male pastors, although clergywomen are more likely to have seminary degrees.
The ecumenical, multicultural Equity for Women in the Church Community, birthed by the Alliance of Baptists, intends to change these inequities. We intend to tap all this unused talent and training of culturally diverse women ministers. The stated purpose of this Community is to advocate and network for clergywomen across denominations and cultures to facilitate access and congregational receptivity so that they have opportunities to fulfill their call. Our big vision is to facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society.
Working to make this vision a reality, the Equity Community held a strategy meeting at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, October 25-26. Clergypersons, denominational leaders, and seminary/divinity school leaders across the country from various races, genders, occupations, and 10 denominations participated in this Access and Equity for Women Clergy Strategy Conference.
Participants worked together to accomplish the goals of this historic meeting:
(1) Assess the progress of women clergy in gaining acceptance in the profession;
(2) Review issues hindering job placement and career advancement of clergywomen;
(3) Propose strategies to ensure fuller access for women to more senior leadership roles in congregational ministry;
(4) Address the interlocking injustices of sexism, racism, and classism that impede women’s career advancement.
(1) Resource development to support women pastors;
(2) Biblical scholarship supporting women pastors;
(3) Creation and support of new models of faith communities for women to pastor;
(4) National forum for clergywomen for networking, support, strategy, and mentoring;
(5) Think tank for examination of power issues underlying barriers for clergywomen, looking especially at the intersection of race, gender, and class.
Christine Smith, a member of the Resource Development Activist Group, expresses her enthusiasm for this work: “I am excited about our plans to ‘make the case’ for salary support for female clergy senior/solo pastors. Statistics show that only approximately 10% of all Protestant churches call females to serve as their senior/solo pastor. The churches that do call them are predominantly elderly, economically strapped and on the verge of closure. Women serving these congregations rarely earn a living wage. Although efforts are being made to increase opportunities for women clergy to gain acceptance into more stable congregations, the process for that endeavor is a long-term project. Our team hopes to cultivate resources in the short term through major grants to provide matching funds for churches that call women to serve as their senior/solo pastor.” (See Pastor Christine’s blog article: http://shepastor.blogspot.com)
As you can see, this gathering was historic not only in the accomplishment of big goals, but also in the exuberant, hopeful, open spirit of all the participants. The gathering engaged hearts as well as minds. The gathering was inspiring beyond my highest expectations! The participants not only brought amazing gifts and experience, but also deep passion and commitment for the work. Cheryl Dudley did an outstanding job of facilitating so that every voice was heard, respected, and valued. She set the atmosphere through a Power of Circle exercise that evoked honest sharing of feelings about being included, being excluded, and being included in a group but still isolated and marginalized.
Marvin McMickle, Virginia Marie Rincon, Isabel Docampo, and Cari Willis inspired and empowered us through their worship leadership, and Molly Marshall (who could not attend) challenged and encouraged us through a video. “The spirit was indescribable…it is so hard to find adequate words to describe the spirit,” conference co-chair Sheila Sholes-Ross says. “There was energy, love, and covenant commitment proclaimed by participants. Even during the challenging aspects of discussion, love and commitment were evident. Facilitator Cheryl Dudley kept us on point and the charge we received from Marvin, Isabel and Molly invoked more energy into an already energized group of activists.”
Virginia Marie Rincon expresses gratitude to all the conference participants: “I continue to be moved, energized and full of ‘awakenings in my heart,’ from our time together. I want to thank all of you for being there with truth, spirit and Sophia wisdom; with Holy Spirit wisdom! I can’t thank you enough for the healing, the liberating moments and my new sense of hope. I realize that the work has just begun but I feel confident that these groups of strong and justice-oriented women and men will follow through.”
Judith Liro, another conference participant, also expresses gratitude for the experience: “I want to thank each one of you who participated in this enlivening, hope-filled experience and beginning of our work together. I am in awe of the talents and gifts and humanity present. I feel so blessed to be a part of this important work and amazed at what Christ-Sophia might be up to here.”
Participants left with renewed energy and greater passion for making reality the big vision of equal representation of clergywomen in multicultural churches in order to transform church and society. Since recent religious history shows that 2 or 3 committed people meeting and planning can take over a denomination and move it backwards to exclude women called to ministry, surely 30 committed people meeting and planning can move denominations forward to open doors for women called to pastor churches. These Equity for Women in the Church Activists intend to do just that!
photos by Paula Clayton Dempsey and Christine A. Smith