Visions and Revisions: Women in Ministry Today

Adair T. Lummis

Something new was happening: the ascent of women seemed poised to change old hierarchies in church culture and challenge American society too.

Four decades later, a question persists: has the progress of women in ministry lived up to that early vision?

Political upheaval and dissent in the 1960s – challenges to the war, to racial segregation, to institutions of all sorts – opened up possibilities for cultural changes never considered before. Thecampaign to expand a woman’s right to equal opportunity in career path and life choices soon moved to the forefront of these social revolutions. By the 1970s, feminism hit the churches, denominations, and seminaries as no other social movement had in more than a century.

The argument against women’s access to ordination was tied to long tradition, theology, liturgy, and denominational canons. Now, though, young women who felt called to the ordained ministry, or thought the call might come during seminary immersion, found far more support from their advisors, seminarians, and faculty than was customarily the case just a few years before.

Yet, as they discovered, a seminary degree did not always lead smoothly to women becoming ordained, paid, pastoral leaders. Congregational lay leaders often were apprehensive about allowing a clergywoman in their pulpits, since this was uncharted, unfamiliar territory. In the early 1980s, women were often the first female pastors not only in their congregation, but the first at any church across their county or state. To ease the transition, advocates of women’s ordination on the regional and national church levels devised strategies for supporting clergywomen, promoting them at least as guest preachers. Grassroots support groups flourished. These helped the way forward for new waves of female clergy. By the mid-1990s, almost every township had at least one congregation with a woman serving as pastor, whether part- or full-time.1

Public Acceptance

By now, most mainline Protestant churchgoers have likely heard a clergywoman preach. Each year more ordained women become denominational executives, bishops, conference ministers, and district superintendents. At divinity schools, female professors are more prevalent in the classical and practical fields. With growing numbers of clergywomen and wider public acceptance, female seminarians have further increased their numbers in many divinity schools: at least a third, sometimes over half, of the entering M.Div. cohorts today are women.

Nevertheless, women have not achieved parity with men in ordained ministry. Indicators show that in 2010 more than twice as many men as women earned the M.Div. degree.2 And if women do earn he M.Div., they are not as likely as men to seek ordination, possibly because of insufficient support from faculty or regional denominational officials.3 Still, the clergy job market does not fall under the complete control of these ordination gatekeepers. In local churches, pastoral lay committees’ choices remain pivotal. But, in many cases, congregational calling committees continue to prefer a youngish married male clergy as their senior pastor or sole pastor.4 Though the number of clergywomen has quadrupled in forty years in some denominations and doubled in the last ten years, there has been no similar increase in the proportion of women who are paid full-time as senior or sole pastors: the highest-salaried church positions are still going predominately to men.5

Why is this happening? Two fundamental trends are contributing to persistent discrepancies in the vocational experiences of clergy women and men.

1) Advocacy declined, and a backlash grew.

Thirty years ago, staffs were funded in main- line church bodies to focus on supporting clergy- women. Today these have greatly diminished or disappeared. Success in doubling and tripling the number of clergy women during these decades led denominational and ecumenical offices to turn reduced revenues and staff to other concerns raised by their constituencies.

Eventually, too, the success in meeting goals for women’s ordination fueled more organized resistance among dissenters within denominations. Church leaders who in the late twentieth century increased ordination rates and won acceptance for women clergy now conceded they greatly underestimated the patriarchy still extant. This left them unprepared, as they put it, to deal with “organized attacks from the right.”6 This resistance, along with mainline financial declines, led to a steady removal of organizational funds from these leaders’ control and consequently women’s ministry causes.

On the congregational level, even in the first decade of the twenty-first century, lay leaders could still reject an ordained woman as their pastor on the chance she might: A) change their Sunday worship to include more feminist imagery; B) engage in liberal political advocacy promoting social justice causes; or C) appear deficient in the desired leader- ship skills that are presumably needed for increasing church membership, vitality, and financial health. Paradoxically, there are clergywomen who did dem- onstrate those very leadership skills in revitalizing their congregation’s members and finances, which sometimes aroused even more anxiety and hence were subject to criticism.

2) A presumed consensus among women no longer held.

As the number of ordained women grew and diversified (accenting differences among women around politics, marital status, church position, theology, generational outlook), it became evident that clergywomen hold varied perspectives on theological values, worship styles, and mission priorities even within their own denominations.

By now, clergywomen are not as visibly united in support of denominational channels for women’s ordination as was true thirty years ago. Partly be- cause of an absence of such advocacy agencies in the denominations, it has become more difficult to get clergywomen to promote women’s church leadership causes. As before, individual clergywomen may see their calling to a particular kind of ministry or congregation instead of aspiring to a senior pastoral position or higher salary elsewhere; or they may have family or other demands that take priority. In a job climate of shrinking full-time paid pastoral positions, combined with the likelihood that seminary students must take on significant tuition debt, there are many women with M.Div. degrees now glad to get any church-funded position that credentials them for ordination and offers an opportunity to be actively engaged in ministry. Just as with male clergy, the competition for clergy jobs can create antagonisms between ordained women within a denomination as well as supportive friendships.

Also evident are divergent sets of values between generations of ordained women. Many Second Wave feminist church leaders who worked together in the ’80s and earlier to develop liturgies, support women’s ordination, and help women get pastoral positions ruefully acknowledge they often find tepid commitment to these causes among more recently ordained clergywomen. The present generation of female clergy may be less “feminist” in working for these goals, though that does not mean most are uninterested in mission needs or advocacy for social concerns. It is just that mission priorities of Third Wave feminists are often different.

Not long after Second Wave feminism spread into mainline churches and seminaries, women of color indicated their acute dismay regarding white feminists who seemed unaware and uncaring of the particular issues they faced daily. By the ’90s, Anglo-churched feminists had a somewhat better understanding and sympathy for Womanist concerns, which focused on equality for women of color and appreciation of their history and culture. Soon, both feminist and Womanist leaders were challenged by lesbian leaders to address their hopes and expectations of inclusion in ministry and leader- ship. Third Wave feminists ask, in essence, that all women, regardless of race, ethnicity, social class, or sexual orientation be treated equitably in church and society, and many commit themselves to redressing social injustices for women and men.

Tenor of the Times

The last four decades have seen the percentages of clergywomen grow exponentially, so that today at least a fifth of active clergy in each of the mainline Protestant denominations are women. In evangelical conservative denominations that permit women’s ordination, the number of clergywomen has risen to about 10 percent. These increases represent real growth in lay acceptance and appreciation of the gifts of women as their pastors. As we stated more than a decade ago: “Clergy women are reinventing ministry for the future, refusing the old definitions and expectations. Clergy women are expanding the very essence of Christian ministry and guiding the whole church to rethink and renew its leadership and membership.”7

Nevertheless, it is hard to see how the tenor of these times lends itself to a revival of the old unity or the old intensity around issues of women in min- istry. Global communications bring to widespread notice the wars in the Mideast, the political and religious conflicts in Africa, and the world’s horrific continuing struggles against poverty and disease – all issues that preoccupy contemporary churches. National unemployment and debt, the foreclosure crisis, the latest projections of further diminution of social services – all are immediate problems con- fronting clergy and their flocks.

In light of these factors, no matter how worthy or urgent gender equality continues to be as a social issue, how likely is it that the church’s at- tention will be galvanized to ensure that ordained women have clergy career opportunities comparable to ordained men? Who or what groups will endeavor to make sure ordained women have fair and equal opportunities? 

These questions pose a challenge for mainline clergy leadership today, a leadership cadre that includes, thanks to the successes of four decades, clergywomen too. 

Adair Lummis, a faculty associate at Hartford Seminary, is a sociologist of religion who has long engaged studies of clergy and ethnic groups in Christianity and other faiths. She has also conducted policy research for various denominations and seminaries. She is co-author of Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling (Westminster John Knox, 1998); Healthy Clergy, Wounded Healers: Their Families and Their Ministries (Church Publishing, 1997); Islamic Values in the United States (Oxford University, 1987); and other books. 


  1. 1  This estimate is made based on two cross- denominational surveys in 1980-81 and 1993-94 of clergy women and men; J. W. Carroll, B. Hargrove, A. Lummis, Women of the Cloth: A New Opportunity for Churches (Harper and Row, 1983), and B. B. Zikmund, A. Lummis, P. M.Y. Chang, Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling (Westminster John Knox, 1998).

  2. 2  According to Fall 2010 figures of the Association of Theological Schools, men who were enrolled in M.Div. degree programs in the U.S. outnumbered women 21,765 to 9,331. ATS statistics indicate that 4,253 men completed the M.Div. in the U.S., compared to 2,025 women.

  3. 3  For case studies of ways in which female seminarians are “cooled out” from considering a pastoral career, see, for instance, B. Finlay, Facing the Stained Glass Ceiling: Gender in a Protestant Seminary (University Press of America, 2003). For an evangelical seminary, see M. L. Jensen, M. Sanders, S. Sandage, “Women’s Well-Being in Seminary: A Qualitative Study,” Theological Education, 45 (2010), pp. 99-116.

  4. 4  A. Lummis, What Do Lay People Want in Pastors? Answers from Lay Search Committee Chairs and Regional Judicatory Leaders (Duke Divinity Pulpit and Pew Reports, 2003).

  5. 5  Barna Group, “Number of Female Senior Pastors in Protestant Churches” (2009) leaderjhip-articles/304.

  6. 6  Karen Hessel, Summary of Major Findings of the 2003 Survey of the NCC Justice for Women Network articles_hessel.html.

  7. 7  Zikmund, et al, p. 133. 

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Waves of History 

Though the word feminism wasn’t coined until the 1890s, a women’s movement had already been stir- ring for sixty years or more in the u.S. and britain. the modern history of the fight for the rights of women is customarily divided into three waves.

First-wave feminism refers to the activism for women’s rights that began in the 1830s and culminated in 1920, when the nineteenth Amendment was ratified, securing for American women the right to vote. first- wave leaders borrowed ideas and tactics from the abolitionist movement that dominated the nineteenth- century political climate. A first-wave highlight was the Seneca falls (N.Y.) convention in 1848. it called for full participation for women in public life, demanding professional and educational opportunities, the right to divorce, the right to own property, and the right to vote. About 100 women (and some men), mostly Quakers, signed the Seneca falls Declaration. the first wave dispersed after the right to vote was legalized and other social issues (unionization, anti-war activism) moved to the foreground.

The second wave erupted in the 1960s amid the civil rights struggle, rallying around passage of the equal Rights Amendment as a central goal. Second- wave feminism challenged inequality in the workplace and universities, in sexist language, and in public policy relating to reproductive rights, maternity leave, and domestic violence. Second-wave accomplishments changed American culture – Roe v Wade, title IX, The Violence Against Women Act, women’s studies. “the personal is political” became a motto. the second wave stalled by 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan and the defeat of the ERA. However, the ERA continues to be introduced into congress each year; advocates hope it will one day prevail, since thirty-five states of the necessary thirty-eight have ratified it.

Third-wave feminism refers to transformations in the movement since the early 1990s, addressing the issues of younger women in a pluralistic, global milieu. the third wave gives more attention to ethnic, class, and sexual-preference differences among women that were often minimized by second-wave political strategies. Some third wave arguments reflect post-structural or postmodern theories of history and gender. others turn political attention to the threats to women in cultures beyond the West. third-wave advocacy by writers, bloggers, scholars, and public figures covers
a wide range of issues, including date rape, human trafficking, anorexia, pay inequities, rights of same-sex couples to adopt, sexual harassment, immigration problems, genital mutilation, and honor killings.

Increasingly, a feminist fourth wave is under discussion, seeking new emphasis on spirituality and social justice an expressions of women’s rights and dignity.

– Ray Waddle

Sources: Sisterhood, interrupted by Deborah Siegel (Palgrave, 2007);;