Is there a stained-glass ceiling?

Local female clergy and officials discuss the obstacles faced by ambitious women

In a way, it isn’t surprising that in recent years, women have joined the clergy in record numbers. You can say that, of course, about any number of professions. But clergy are supposed to be open, warm and caring, traits traditionally identified as female.

The numbers speak for themselves: The Association of Theological Schools reports that the percent of women seeking master of divinity degrees in member seminaries multiplied almost seven times in 30 years, to 32 percent in 2002.

Individual denominations report large increases, too. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has ordained 464 female Reform rabbis since 1972, out of 2,767 total ordinations. The Episcopal Church reported 4,607 women ordained priests or deacons in 2004, versus 855 in 1987; women made up 29 percent of Episcopal parish clergy in 2004 (35 percent in Minnesota). The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America reports that the percentage of its ordained clergy who are women more than doubled from 1991 to 2005, to 17 percent. (In the Minneapolis and St. Paul synods, the figure is 28 percent.)

On the other hand, in 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, decided women could no longer serve as senior pastors. Roman Catholics, who make up a quarter of the U.S. population, don’t ordain women. And in faith traditions that do, challenges remain, and for ambitious women who want to move up through the leadership ranks, they’re sometimes nearly insurmountable.

A seat at the table
When Peg Chemberlin became executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches 11 years ago, she said, “All the leaders around the table-except one-were men.”

That table-the Council’s board-includes the bishops or executives of 20 denominations. Now, Chemberlin said, five are women-still only one out of four, but a big improvement over one in 20.

Chemberlin ticked off a list of women in leadership, including Sally Dyck, United Methodist Church bishop for Minnesota, and United Church of Christ Conference Minister Karen Smith Sellers. In addition, three of Minnesota’s four executive presbyters (governing body executives of the Presbyterian Church) are women.

“That’s significant leadership,” Chemberlin noted, adding that nationally, there are also signals that the stained-glass ceiling may be cracking: The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and The Episcopal Church, for example, both have women as national leaders.

On Nov. 4, Katharine Jefferts Schori took office as the first woman presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church-a first not only for her denomination but also for the global Anglican Communion, which has never before had a female priest leading one of its provinces. Some Anglican leaders oppose women’s ordination; several conservative U.S. dioceses asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to assign them another national leader.

In Minnesota, there’s been no flap. In fact, Jefferts Schori’s election “has caused nothing but enthusiasm and hope in our Minnesota people, male and female, as far as I can tell,” said The Venerable Irma Wyman (venerable is the traditional title for an archdeacon in the Anglican Communion).

Wyman has experience breaking secular glass ceilings: She got an engineering degree “when girls didn’t do that,” she said, and later became the first female vice president of a Fortune 100 company-Honeywell.

“It seems to me that the same rules hold in the church-a woman has to be head and shoulders above the males to be considered as a leader-and even then, there are reservations,” Wyman said. “Luckily, many women have met that criterion, and we’re beginning to see the emergence of women leaders in the church.”

Wyman recalled that in the late 1970s, she was told by an interviewer for ordination in another major diocese that “the quality of the women he was seeing was so far above the quality of the men that he predicted that after paying their dues for 20 to 30 years the church would be ‘taken over by women.'”

“It’s been interesting to me to watch his predictions become fulfilled,” Wyman added.

Blazing her own trail
Growing up, Rabbi Stacy Offner had no female role models for her career path: She graduated high school in 1973, while Reform Judaism ordained its first woman in 1972.

Yet although all the rabbis around her were men, “I was largely unaware that women could not be rabbis,” she recalled. When she decided in high school that she wanted to take that path, she got strong support and encouragement from her family, synagogue and community.

In 1984, Offner became the first woman rabbi in Minnesota, serving Mount Zion Temple. In 1988 she became founding rabbi of Shir Tikvah, a Reform congregation in Minneapolis, where she continues to serve. (The Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements ordain women rabbis; Orthodox Judaism does not.)

Offner said that a woman headed the Minnesota Rabbinical Association last year, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which is the association of Reform rabbis in the United States, had its first woman president a couple of years ago. Despite the progress, Offner said women rabbis don’t earn the same salary as men-and she attributes that to discrimination at the bargaining table. Women are seen as more likely to compromise, she said, and there is still an “assumption that we are not the main support of a household.”

Determined to serve
Like Reform Judaism, Unitarian Universalism preaches equality of the sexes. But Rev. Victoria Safford of White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church noted that women are sometimes “ghettoized” in religious education positions, working with children, a role that is “seen as a poor stepsister of ministry to adults.”

While Unitarian Universalists began ordaining women early in the 19th century, women ordained in the eastern United States were often not given a pulpit. A number headed west-to Minnesota and Iowa, where many congregations had a woman as founding minister. “They were determined to serve,” Safford said.

“From time to time I still hear people in pews say, ‘Boy, there’s a lot of women ministers,'” Safford said. “They say it like they’re joking, but you can hear alarm.” She said women now make up more than half of UU ministers.

“Equality is often perceived, at first, as takeover,” Safford noted.

Standing out in the crowd
In Lutheran-dominated Minnesota, Rev. Kwanza Yu of University Lutheran Church of Hope stands out less as a woman than as a person of color.

In 1983, Yu became the first woman of color ordained in the American Lutheran Church, which in 1988 merged with two other denominations to create the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). While she’s happy in her job, she had to overcome both racial and gender stereotypes along the way.

Yu said that women who are ordained no longer wait long to get their first call to a pulpit (a friend of hers waited four years back in the 1980s). But after 10 or 15 years, she added, women tend to “hit the ceiling.” While most men at that point in their careers become the sole or lead pastor at a larger congregation, Yu said, women remain at smaller churches with fewer resources-or get out of the “business” altogether. “They decide to seek other ways to serve people,” Yu noted, “and become a psychologist or hospital chaplain instead.”

A place for newcomers
Rev. Susan Tjornehoj is among those who have taken on the solo pastor role. She’s led Christ Lutheran Church in St. Paul, with about 300 members, since 2002.

Tjornehoj said her congregation’s makeup may have fostered an openness to new things that helped create a climate for her leadership. The multicultural congregation includes refugees and immigrants from Eritrea, Liberia, Cambodia and elsewhere. “It’s a place for newcomers to find a home,” Tjornehoj said. Also, Tjornehoj was already connected to the church; she’d been a member since 1996, and is married to the previous pastor.

Tjornehoj noted that many congregations “have not yet had the opportunity to receive the gifts of a woman pastor,” not only because parishioners are resistant. Often, she said, “It is difficult for us as women to see ourselves in leadership roles.” But the times may be a-changing when it comes to visualizing and accepting women in congregational leadership. “For young people,” Tjornehoj said, “it’s a no-brainer.”

Equal (lack of) opportunity
According to Susan Nelson, a priest/teacher in training at the Minnesota Zen Center, her tradition is “pretty good about equal opportunity.”

“There’s just not a lot of opportunity for anybody,” she continued with a laugh, referring to the small size of the Buddhist community here.

Three local Buddhist congregations have male head teachers or guiding teachers. But many lay leaders are women; a husband/wife team leads Compassionate Ocean Dharma Center (the wife is the ordained member of the team); and as of Nov. 1, a woman-Byakuren Judith Ragir-is guiding teacher of Clouds in Water Zen Center. Women continue to enter the pipeline; in the past five to seven years, Nelson said, “almost all the ordinations in the Twin Cities Zen Buddhist community have been women.”

But due to the scarcity of paid positions, they’ve had to be creative about how to practice their calling. “Several of us are doing chaplaincy training,” preparing for hospital and hospice jobs, Nelson said, herself a chaplaincy intern at Fairview Southdale.

Ceiling as policy
In the Catholic Church, the stained glass ceiling is de jure, not de facto. Women may not become priests, bishops or pope.

The sisters also cited practical reasons for women’s ordination: Many areas in Minnesota and elsewhere are priestless. “It’s pretty hard to do pastoral care” when one priest must cover several parishes, noted Sr. Carolyn Puccio.

Only one of the three considered leaving the church over the issue. But attending both a Lutheran and a Unitarian seminary “made me recognize my deep Catholic roots,” Mitchell said, “and I decided to live the work of a priest in order to show people that it can be done.”

Pastor Yu advises…
Every day, women are living the work of priests, rabbis, pastors, bishops and deacons, but getting there is no easy path. While Yu clearly loves her job, she said she’d advise would-be women seminarians to give it serious thought, pray about it, and prepare for the frustration of “hitting the ceiling” at some point down the line.

Or, as Offner puts it: “We’re still very much on the journey.”

Women of God: A half-dozen religious women told us who they look to for inspiration

The Minnesota Women’s Press asked a number of local women religious leaders, “Which local female clergy member or spiritual leader inspires you?” The answers we received were as varied as the beliefs of the women we spoke with.

Rev. Carol Tomer (Lutheran) of Pilgrim Lutheran Church in St. Paul:
Pastor Lynn Peterson, of Calvary Lutheran in Golden Valley. She lives out her “adopting heart” personally and as the prophetic call of the Christian community.

Rev. Barbara Mraz (Episcopalian) of St. John the Evangelist in St. Paul:
[Rev.] Marianne Budde. I was her assistant for probably 10 years. She is really grounded in things like family systems and she’s a very conscientious pastor. She has grown her church [in size] remarkably. Most of all I appreciate her intelligence and ability to articulate Christianity in a way that makes it palatable to intellectual people.

Sr. Razina Motala (Muslim) Masjid As’ Salaam in Maplewood:
We don’t have female clergy but I always say if you need role models, go back to the women in [Muslim] history, [in particular] the prophet’s youngest wife, Aisha, and his favorite daughter, Fatima. [The prophet’s] teachings were narrated by Aisha and a lot of people went to her for advice after he passed away. Fatima went through a lot of hardships when Muslims were persecuted. Rather than take the easy way out, she knew her sacrifices would not be in vain. She knew that this world is a test for Muslims.

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman (Jewish) of Temple Israel in Minneapolis:
Rabbi Stacy Offner. She is true to herself and a powerful leader and a very devoted friend.

Rev. Kendyl Gibbons (Unitarian Universalist) of First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis:
Diane Thibodeaux, Holding Forth the Word of Life church in north Minneapolis. The church has dealt with a series of problems that would just knock your socks off. They started with nothing. Some women were unable to leave abusive relationships because they had nowhere to leave their children, so they started Agape, a childcare center open 24 hours a day, and hired some of the women to work there. They’ve worked with abusive men who want to change and with children who’ve been abused-all on a shoestring.

And Suzanne Mades of Wesley United Methodist downtown [Minneapolis]. The church has fallen on hard times and their future is questionable, but she’s poured herself into the church, opening a warming center for the homeless, meals every week, and building a faithful religious community, regardless of what will happen in the future.

Rev. Louise Bender (Presbyterian) of Presbyterian Church of the Way in Shoreview: We have just celebrated the 50th anniversary of ordination of women in the Presbyterian Church USA. I really admire those women who came first, whether they’re still with us or not, because they paved the way, making an easier road for those of us who came later than it might otherwise have been.