Women In Ministry
by Sue Fairley
Dr Sue Fairley, (Ed.D., Griffith University), wrote as the Principal of Trinity Theological College in the Uniting Church in Queensland, Australia
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Women in Ministry, by Sue Fairley:
Cultural images do not change easily,
especially those weighted with the aura of sacred tradition.
(Carroll, Hargrove and Lummis, 1983:ix)
If there is one tradition that is heavily weighted with the “aura of sacred tradition”, it must surely be leadership within the church and whether women should be part of that leadership – especially in the ordained ministry.
The distribution of positions of formal leadership in the church has become the focus of concern for many women in recent decades. Women have sought – and in some cases obtained – access to the ordained ministry, a leadership position occupied almost entirely by men during most of church history.
Pentecostal and Charismatic women often demonstrated a biblical recovery of women’s leadership in ministry, both as individuals and also in shared ministry leadership either with a husband or in a team. Aimee Semple McPherson led the largest pentecostal church in the world in the 1920s, built the 5,000 seat Angelus Temple, founded the Foursquare denomination, and raised huge financial and material support for people during the depression and World War II. Kathryn Kuhlman pioneered a new era in healing evangelism from the 1950s. Janet Lancaster, known affectionately as Mother Lancaster, the first Pentecostal pastor in Australia, founded Good News Hall in Melbourne and published Good News for 25 years from 1910. Women have pioneered church planting and leadership in missions for over a century, including in Pentecostal missions.
To pick up the perspective of Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity I would like to refer to an unpublished report that Susan Hyatt presented to Hyatt International Ministries in Dallas, Texas in March 2001. She suggests that there is no uniform trend in terms of where women in Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity are heading. Some Pentecostal/Charismatic women are embracing a traditional, subordinate role.
But many others are unwilling to be disobedient to the Holy Spirit by obeying the dictates of distorted Christianity. We are discovering that Jesus taught the equality of men and women in every respect, including substance and value, privilege and responsibility, function and authority. We are uncovering the truth of biblical equality and we are proclaiming it far and wide by every possible means. Nevertheless, we are not driven by such a cause; rather we are seeking to be led by the Spirit in all we do.
Hyatt then shared her own experience as a Pentecostal/Charismatic American woman:
“I enjoy unfettered freedom and opportunity to advance the truth of biblical equality. Pentecostal/Charismatic women know in their hearts by the indwelling Holy Spirit that they are equal with men in terms of substance and value, privilege and responsibility, function and authority. However, because of cultural and religious baggage, most do not know this truth in their heads. This discrepancy between head and heart is the cause of many struggles for Pentecostal/Charismatic women. My job is to give the biblical truth that brings harmony between the heart and the head. My book In the Spirit we are Equal presents an historical and biblical argument for gender equality. Others are also advancing this truth among Pentecostal/Charismatic. For example, the leading periodical for women in the movement in America is Spirit-Led Women. You will notice a recent lead article “Ten Lies the Church has told Women” by a leading male Pentecostal/Charismatic editor and writer Lee Grady. This is an example of an encouraging partnership that is developing amongst some Pentecostal/Charismatic men and women to bring about biblical equality for women.
In general we are seeing two important advances. Slowly we are seeing a release from gender-defined roles for women to gift-defined living. And we are seeing a greater sense of egalitarian partnership between men and women. We are seeing an increase in Pentecostal/Charismatic women taking leadership positions in various areas such as communications and the arts, education (including theological education), business and technology, law and government. Pentecostal/Charismatic women are also increasing their influence in dealing with domestic abuse, pastoral counselling and medical concerns” (Hyatt 2001).
Traditional church attitudes
The Uniting Church in Australia has practised women’s ordination since its inception in 1977. Acceptance of women’s ordination is, in fact, one of the “bases of union”, indicating that congregations will be accepted into the denomination only if they endorse women’s ordination. Persons being ordained within the Uniting Church must also accept that principle.
However, other denominations are still debating the issue and it is causing a great deal of controversy. Before I deal with some of the issues which face women in ministry today, I will explore some of the issues that have been identified in the literature.
The first issue is leadership and gender. In the past two decades the struggle to clarify the foundations for effective leadership in the church has been greatly complicated by the overlay of gender. When social scientists write about differences between men and women, popular culture presumes that these can be translated into gender-based leadership differences. The social science writings by scholars such as Mary Belenky and Carol Gilligan have focussed on the ways in which women differ from men in modes of understanding, psychological development, career paths, and frameworks for ethical decision-making. For many it is a relatively simple leap to presume that gender-based leadership differences exist. From that assumption they then work to develop gender-based theories of leadership.
Roels (1997) has explored a variety of gender-based theories of leadership and she believes that we “limit the flexibility of our responses to changing circumstances when we, first of all, label leadership styles as female or male…Every leader, whether male or female should be encouraged to build a full range of leadership strategies and responses…Both male and female leaders must struggle to find a biblical vision for leadership that diligently avoids the pitfalls of gender-based leadership (p.53). This biblical vision is expressed in Scripture passages such as 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul identifies administrative ability as a specific spiritual gift which is not restricted by gender.
A second significant issue is the controversy over women’s ordination which came to the fore in the last half of the twentieth century. This has occasioned increasing questions that have to do with women’s roles, female character, and sexuality. However, it was not always like that. Women’s leadership in Christianity is a dramatic and complex story.
Jesus himself challenged the social convention of his day and addressed women as equals. Many women were prominent members of his group. During the first and second centuries, when congregations met in homes, women were prominent as leaders. However, by the third century, the processes of institutionalisation gradually transformed the house churches, with their diversity of leadership functions, into a political body presided over by a monarchical bishop. This spelled the beginning of the end for women in church leadership.
Over the next two centuries, the legitimacy of women’s leadership roles was fiercely contested. Opponents of women clergy appealed to a gender ideology that divided society into two domains – the polis (city), a male domain – and the oikos (household), a female domain. This system gave a great deal of power to women in the household while attempting to segregate them from public, political life. This meant that women exercising leadership in churches were usurping male prerogatives. As the church became increasingly institutionalised during the third and fourth centuries, these arguments carried greater weight (Torjesen, 1993).
Understanding why and how women, once leaders in the Jesus movement and in the early church, were marginalised and scapegoated as Christianity became the state religion is crucial if women are to reclaim their rightful, equal place in the church today.
As the architectural space in which Christians worshipped became a more public space, and as the models for leadership were drawn increasingly from public life, women’s leadership became more controversial. Because the public-versus-private gender ideology restricted women’s activities in public life, the new leaders of the church were not as comfortable with women’s leadership in the churches.
From the fourth century to the twelfth-century councils struggled to impose celibacy on the clergy. As Christianity became a state religion and adopted the attitudes toward gender roles of Greco-Roman society, fewer women held church offices. During the medieval period the papacy’s struggle to assert its authority over the clergy let to a particularly perverse and destructive construction of female sexuality. Through the mechanism of the Inquisition a theory of sexuality was created that demonised sexuality be attributing the power of sexuality to demons. The resulting persecution fell more heavily on women than on men (Torjesen, 1993).
The struggle to impose celibacy on the clergy took more than six centuries! By the sixteenth century there was widespread consensus that the monastic system, which had formed a basic structural element of medieval society, had become corrupt. There was widespread disillusionment with monastic life, but out of this disillusionment there evolved a new theology of sexuality. Its most colourful proponent was Martin Luther, who initiated the German Reformation in the early 1500’s with a series of tracts addressed to the common people.
Luther’s argument was based on Genesis 1:27 which states that male and female were created in the image of God. If God created the bodies of male and female, then the body is good because it is a bearer of God’s image. And if the body is good, then sexuality is good (Schick, 1958). When Luther reflected on Genesis 1:28, God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply”, he understood that not only was sexuality good, but, more than that, it was a divine ordinance. Therefore, Luther argued, vows of celibacy were contrary to the will of God and priests should be allowed to marry.
In the end, Luther’s ideas on marriage and child-rearing led to the formation of a new denomination and the split from the Roman Catholic Church. The teachings of the Reformers on sexuality were radical and liberating for women. However, marriage was still seen as patriarchal and women were still deemed inferior to man by nature. When the Protestant reformers, (as they came to be known), abolished monasteries, they enshrined in its place the sanctity of marital sexuality. The new ideal of womanhood became domestic womanhood. The authority and the autonomy of the nun following the religious vocation were undermined. The only true religious role open to women of the Reformation was as a helpmate to a man (Torjesen, 1993).
Major cultural shifts
The reaffirmation of sexuality by the reformers did not restore women to a position of equality with men. It would take many more centuries for this inequality to be challenged. In fact, it was not until the 1960’s and 70’s that many of these issues resurfaced and, for the first time, were really challenged. Why did it occur then, and why did so many women choose to enter the ordained ministry as well as many other traditionally male occupations?
Carroll et. al. (1983) suggest that: “What made the 1970’s watershed years was the occurrence of major social and cultural shifts following World War II, especially during the 1960’s, making it possible for women to consider (or press for) ordained ministerial status as a way of responding to God’s call” (p.8). It is hard to believe that only in the 1970’s did significant numbers of women feel that they were called by God to be ordained. More likely, many women down through the years have experienced a call to the ministry, but have found the opportunity to respond by becoming ordained blocked to them. When ordination was not possible, many of these women expressed their calling to ministry as lay volunteers or in the church-related occupations that allowed women to participate.
Not only has the climate changed to make it possible for women to consider these traditionally all-male professions, but there has also been a major shift in attitudes about the female role. Prior to the 1970’s, and especially in the 1950’s and 60’s, a woman’s role was to be a good wife and mother. Now it is totally acceptable for women to have both careers and families.
A final major shift that has made it possible for more women to enter the ordained ministry is the sharply declining birth rate. Since the early 1960’s this has allowed women the freedom to explore career options that childrearing responsibilities previously precluded. This has meant that many women pursue ministry studies in their mid to late thirties and forties.
However, the shift that has allowed women to respond to a call to ordained ministry does not guarantee that other clergy will accept women into the profession. Neither does it guarantee that they will experience theological education in the same way as their male colleagues.
Women and Theological Education
Getting denominations to accept the ordination of women was one thing but changing the way women experienced theological education was a different matter. This is another significant issue. A quick review of the literature in this field will demonstrate this. In 1980 the Cornwall Collective, composed of women who were working in ongoing projects within theological education, published a book titled Your Daughters shall Prophesy: Feminist Alternatives in Theological Education, outlining feminist criticisms of theological education and proposing some basic revisions, including some alternative forms of theological education. The Cornwall Collective criticized theological education for its division of theory and practice, its organization of disciplines, its reliance on claims of “objectivity”, and its use of the model of university education, which lack any concern for integration or spirituality. They called for theological education to be more holistic, more aware of its political nature, more community-oriented.
Five years later, the Mud Flower Collective produced God’s Fierce Whimsy, a book dedicated to “help” theological education, because the authors of the book found that theological colleges are “arenas in which lukewarm truth and uninspired scholarship are peddled” (p.204). The Mud Flower Collective offers much the same analysis of theological education as does the Cornwall Collective (Chopp, 1995).
The difference between the 1980 Cornwall Collective and the 1985 Mud Flower Collective could be interpreted as revealing increasing frustration at the inability to get feminist issues heard within theological education. This increased frustration, suggests Chopp (1995), identifies as problematic the very same issues that the Cornwall Collective found prohibitive to good theological education. The Mud Flower Collective cites such issues as the politics of education, the role of cultural pluralism, the standards of excellence, the relation of theory and praxis, the role of community, the claims of validity in scholarship, and the structure of theological reflection as the problems for women in theological education.
Thus, the problems of women and for women in theological education are not merely women’s historical lack of participation, but how theological education is defined, formed and structured. Once a critical mass of women appeared in theological education, problems of the structure, purpose, and nature of theological education became more and more evident (Chopp, 1993).
This critical mass of women began to appear in many theological colleges around the world in the 1980s. As Chopp (1993) points out, once the students in theological education were white, young, and male, largely from working or middle-class backgrounds. Raised in the church, many aspired to serve God and become religious practitioners. Now these subjects are few and far between in our theological colleges. Many of the subjects today are women and men who are older and who have not been raised in the church. Lifestyle differences, theological pluralism, and cultural diversity are apparent in the student body of most theological colleges.
Women in theological colleges discovered very quickly that they were affirmed when they indicated a calling toward areas of service that parallel those assigned to the female by Western culture, while they were gently discouraged when they indicated they had other goals such as the ordained ministry. It takes courage to cross culturally established boundaries, and so many women put off “the call” as long as possible hoping it might go away.
The Old Testament provides many examples of people who struggled with the reality of their call to the service of God and the nature of that call. Women can certainly identify with that struggle. Behind them is a long tradition of the suppression of women’s gifts, and surrounding them sometimes is an atmosphere of questioning and suspicion. With few role models women often fight a lonely battle.
The years spent in theological college provide an opportunity for women to think and evaluate but not all women find that experience a helpful one. Some women found that on the whole, male faculty were warm and friendly, but some felt that male faculty were patronizing. It seems as if male faculty were more inclined to treat women seriously if they were academically superior. There was also concern expressed about the selection of textbooks and set readings that tended to be mostly written by male scholars, even though in many fields now there are renowned female scholars.
One of the most common complaints from women is the lack of women faculty. It is still rare to find women faculty members in teaching positions such as theology. This is true in my own experience – I am the only female on our faculty and my area is Christian education. Some women also felt that there is not enough being done in theological colleges to confront both men and women with the sex stereotypes that influence their thinking and acting.
A great deal of research is being done and pressure is mounting to make theological education a more inclusive experience.
In 1997 Kathleen Hughes was asked to present a paper at a meeting of Theological Schools in America addressing these questions: What changes can we expect from a program of theological studies? Is the student potential for change boundless or is it actually quite limited? Is it possible that in a course of studies students moves from very narrow and rigid viewpoints to broader understandings of the tradition of the church and so on? In considering the classroom as the locus of conversion of a person’s beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, values, viewpoints and perspectives, what is helpful in effecting such change?
Hughes (1997) found from her research with exiting women students that the change that happened in them was that all had learned to trust their own human and religious experience as valid and true. Further, they claimed that their intellects were stretched and their powers of discernment were sharpened. “Women regularly have a difficult adjustment to theological studies when they experience themselves as simultaneously a subtle threat to others even while they have little personal self-confidence that they can do theology, learn a new theological vocabulary, and so on. Each of these women said she began her studies wondering ‘Can I do it?’” (Hughes, 1997:5).
Many of the women also indicated similar questioning and doubt. “I am struck by what an awesome responsibility it is and wonder if I am equal to the task.” “I am deeply grateful to the faculty for their affirmation and belief in my call.”
These women actually helped each other to accept their own potentiality. As women students realised that faculty respected them and their opinions, and fellow male students were willing to dialogue with them as equals, their confidence grew. In our college many of the women students are actually the highest achievers.
General issues facing women in ministry today
Let’s turn now to some of the issues that face women in ministry today as we commence this new millennium. I would like to use a Scripture passage as the basis for my comments. It is from Numbers 13:1-2, 17-20, 25-28.
This report of the spies to Moses is one of the earliest “good news – bad news” stories on record. I will to use this passage to highlight some good news and some bad news in relation to issues that women in ministry are facing. We will use the terms “milk and honey” and “giants” to represent the good and bad news respectively.
Milk and Honey: The land now shows many positive aspects.
1. Women who have entered the ordained ministry are generally dedicated and competent individuals who have a strong sense of calling to serve God this way. In the past many of these women would have had to be content to serve as highly committed laity, frustrated perhaps, but resigned to their exclusion from the ranks of the ordained.
2. The situation of women being a curiosity in theological colleges has changed dramatically and most recently graduates found their experience of theological college to be positive. That is certainly true in my research.
3. The job market has improved although there are still some problems. The positive aspects deserve highlighting. Most recent women graduates have not found difficulty obtaining a placement and they have not been sent to declining congregations.
4. As women enter parish positions they are functioning competently as pastors and many have found that males who were not happy to have a woman minister in the beginning have changed their attitudes once they saw that the person was competent. Fears that having a clergywoman would bring on decline in the congregation are not supported.
5. Generally lay leaders have favourable experiences when their congregation is served by a woman pastor. This has had a spin-off effect for other women pastors.
6. Most women in ministry report generally positive relationships with other male clergy and church officials.
Giants: However, the land is not all flowing with milk and honey.
1. Clergywomen still face obstacles to their full participation in the ordained ministry of the church. In almost every instance of “good news” we could probably find a corresponding negative note. Women are less likely than men to be encouraged by either their parents or pastors to consider the ordained ministry. Cultural stereotypes continue to operate and deprive women of needed support at an important time of personal decision making.
2. In relation to the job market, there are still some giants to be overcome. The resistance of some church officials to women clergy in key leadership roles ranges from polite neutrality to refusal to allow women to participate.
3. There are still some lay people who struggle to accept women clergy and if they are the key leaders of the congregation, it can mean that a woman pastor will not be called to that church.
4. Single ordained women face some particular obstacles particularly in relation to suitable appointments. Many of the rural congregations find it more difficult to accept a woman – let alone a single woman. Single women clergy also often suffer from loneliness because of the lack of support from a spouse.
5. One of the biggest difficulties for married women clergy is the balancing of home, marriage and career. The temptation to be “superwoman” is strong. Some women feel that they have to conform to a higher set of expectations than men do. Even in more “modern” marriages where couples have worked to overcome traditional sex-role distinctions, combining fulltime ministry and motherhood poses a problem for a large number of clergywomen.
6. Linked with this is the problem of the spouse’s work commitment. Often this limits the possibilities of placement.
7. There is still the persistence of sexism in the churches as well as the culture, although now perhaps they are more subtle. For example articles written about the ordained ministry which only use the male pronoun; lists of successful clergy which are all male; typecasting women into particular kinds of clergy positions.
8. Climate of anxiety among laypeople in relation to declining membership and the future of the church. This anxiety fosters resistance to any innovation which might be suspected of further endangering the already fragile institution – women clergy are still seen by some as an innovation.
9. Resistance from the male clergy – some still believe that they are the only ones who should be ordained. The “sacredly masculine” image of the clergy is hard to shake!
10. The exercise of authority – the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” emphasises that ministry belongs equally to all Christians, although clergy have special functions for which they are set apart. These functions include preaching, teaching, administering the sacraments, etc. Clergy perform their special functions of ministry to enable laity to perform their ministry. Sometimes this can lead to a blurring of lines of authority which makes it difficult for any clergy person, but sometimes it is more difficult for women clergy, particularly if they have some very strong laypeople in their congregations.
11. There are not many appropriate female leadership models or mentors although this is improving now that some women have been ordained for quite a long period of time.
12. A challenge for Pentecostal/Charismatic women (according to Hyatt, 2001) is the process of renewing their minds in the knowledge that they are equal with men. Changing the mind is one of the greatest struggles we all face. What we think about women determines our behaviour in relation to womanhood.
How can we begin to overcome “the giants” and reach the promised land?
I want to mention three ways in which Tillich suggests the church has exercised leadership in social change.
1. Silent interpenetration. Women clergy in some denominations are now becoming what we could call a critical mass. Their silent or not so silent interpenetration of the church’s ordained ministry should reduce the present inequities and overcome some of the obstacles to full acceptance of women clergy.
2. Prophetic criticism. Active, vocal advocates both women and men, for full acceptance of women as ordained ministers are crucial if the process of change is not to be interminably slow. Advocates are needed to ensure the representation of women in positions of leadership within the denomination.
3. Direct political power. The present situation of clergywomen can be considerably helped if clergywomen are better prepared for the situations that face them as ordained pastors. Women need to understand the “land” they are trying to occupy. They need to have a realistic picture of what the current situation of ordained ministry is like. This needs to include an understanding of what the job situation for clergy is in their denomination, what salaries are reasonable to expect, how to use the denomination system and how it works. There is a better understanding of power and the political process within congregations. What are appropriate leadership styles in dealing with situations for which they are very few cultural models for women?
If these and other issues can be addressed then women will not merely have reached the promised land of full acceptance into ordained ministry. They will have contributed to the quality of life in that “land” for all who occupy it.
Returning to the passage from Numbers we know that the people did not occupy the land that flowed with milk and honey for a long time because they were too afraid of the giants that dwelt there. However, there were two spies who were courageous enough to encourage the people to overcome their fears – Joshua and Caleb. We can all be like Joshua and Caleb and encourage women to enter the promised land and with the help of the Lord to overcome whatever giants they might meet along the way.
Susan Hyatt (2001) points the way to this promised land:
There is no reason why, in this era of Pentecostal/Charismatic outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, that we should succumb to religion. We must realise that the Spirit of God does not come to confirm that what we believe about everything is right and that what other Christians believe is wrong. Rather, the Spirit comes to help us in our human weakness, to empower us, to comfort us. And the Spirit comes to guide us into all truth! That is to say, the Spirit comes to open our understanding and to help us change the way we think.
To continue with our analogy, that may be our giant that we need to confront. It is my prayer that we will allow the Spirit of God to change the way we think about ourselves as women and men so that we can think of ourselves in the same way that Jesus did.
Carroll, J. ed. 1997. Being There: Culture and Formation in Two Theological Schools. New York: Oxford University Press.
Carroll, J., Hargrove, B. and Lummis, A. 1983. Women of the Cloth: A New Opportunity for the Churches. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Chopp, R. 1995. Saving Work: Feminist Practices of Theological Education. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.
Cornwall Collective. 1980. Your Daughters shall Prophesy: Feminist Alternatives in Theological Education. New York: Pilgrim Press.
Hughes, K. 1997. “Conversion of Heart and Mind” in Theological Education 33 (2): 1-10.
Hyatt, S. 2001. Report for Partners and Friends of Hyatt International Ministries, (unpublished) Dallas, Texas.
Mudflower Collective. 1985. God’s Fierce Whimsy: Christian Feminism and Theological Education. New York: Pilgrim Press.
Roels, S. 1997. Organisation Man, Organisation Woman: Calling, Leadership and Culture. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Shick, G. 1958. The Estate of Marriage in Luther’s Works Vols.1 and 45. St Louis, Mo: Concordia Publishing.
Torjesen, K. 1993. When Women were Priests. San Francisco: Harper.
Susan Hyatt’s report, quoted in this article, is given in full in the following article, “Women and Religions”.
© Renewal Journal #18: Servant Leadership (2001, 2012) renewaljournal.com
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Contents: Renewal Journal 18: Servant Leadership
Jesus on Leadership by Gene Wilkes
In the Spirit We’re Equal by Susan Hyatt
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Early Evangelical Revivals in Australia by Robert Evans
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Women in Ministry, by Sue Fairley: