The Skeleton in the PC(USA) Closet Is a Woman

February 20, 2013

The WQ (“women’s question”) remains one of the most elusive and baffling aspects of ministry, even within a mainline denomination such as the PC(USA). The WQ has been a part of my life-long learning process since the 1970’s, when I felt a strong call to the ministry but believed the Bible prevented me from aspiring to pastoral leadership. Since then, and with the help of marvelous evangelical scholars, I’ve explored the WQ biblically, theologically, organizationally, and personally. And now, as a PC(USA) teaching elder ordained for over 25 years, I face the WQ from a different angle. The current question revolves around whether women can make good, even great, senior ministers of larger-than-average congregations.

Last August I posted a few essays on what the New Testament has to say about women in the ministry. In a post last week I stated that factors having nothing to do with my gifts were preventing me from getting a pastoral call in the PC(USA). Based on conversations since then, I believe it is time to reveal the skeleton in the PC(USA) closet: well-qualified women are not being called to senior pastor positions in multi-staff churches.

I have no statistics at hand, and I know there are a few exceptions, most notably the Rev. Christine Chakoian at Lake Forest and the recent call of the Rev. Dr. Agnes Norfleet to a 2600 member church in Bryn Mawr, PA. But by and large, what I have experienced and observed in the last ten years is this:

  1. The “golden demographic” for senior leaders, pastors of large churches, is male, age 45 or under, and married with school-age kids at home. These guys seem able to move from call to call without any trouble, and sometimes with multiple options to choose from. Large churches are willing to take huge risks calling a relatively inexperienced, but young and energetic, male as a first-time senior pastor.

  2. If you are female, being an associate at a large church, even being executive pastor of a large church, does not seem to “count” as qualifying experience for a senior pastor position. But it does if you are a man.

  3. Even in a system that might favor pastors with previous senior-pastor experience in a similarly sized church, that system automatically eliminates female pastors from serious consideration because of the Catch-22 involved.

  4. Nevertheless, in order to satisfy presbytery EOE guidelines, Pastor Nominating Committees (PNC) continue to interview female candidates without ever seriously considering them. I have been tempted to charge churches for my time and effort in preparation for these for-show-only interviews.

  5. For evangelical women, the situation is even more one-sided. “Evangelical/conservative clergy woman” is often an oxymoron for those churches in which I, for one, would otherwise feel the theological fit is perfect. And I am too conservative for the so-called progressive churches that would be more likely to call a woman.

  6. The denominational structures and policies of the PC(USA) have given women every chance, and for this reason I do not think it is the PC(USA) itself that is the roadblock to female senior leadership.  In my experience, it is the male elders on PNCs who approach their pastor-seeking task as a business executive search. A disproportionately large number of older, often retired, businessmen populate PNCs, and my experience of them is a latent sexism typical of their generation, and they would never overtly admit it exists. But it stacks the deck as to the questions they ask, how they perceive one’s ministry track record, and what they think is required for the job of senior pastor. To call it out into the open is to close the door of opportunity with that church.

I share my thoughts on this subject not because I am bitter, which I am not. I have had plenty of conversations with God over the years as I have felt the futility of the pastoral search. But as I stated last week, God is in charge of my “career,” and I am in charge of my responses to God alone. I am grateful for the two stretching and faith-building pastorates I have held and trust that nothing of my past experience will be wasted in my future. I am also grateful for dozens, if not hundreds, of male clergy colleagues who have welcomed my partnerships in projects through the years. But among them, the pastors of large churches have not equipped their elders to recognize and call women into senior leadership behind them. The church at large and all those PNCs currently looking for a senior pastor are squandering the gifts and talents of many, many women clergy. This reality makes me unspeakably sad. ECO has a great opportunity to right this wrong at all levels of its organization, after all it has gone through to say that women serve on parity with men. But its short track record in this regard is not hopeful, and I fear that the matter will be even worse in that setting than it is in the PC(USA). Please, ECO, prove me wrong!


12 Responses to “The Skeleton in the PC(USA) Closet Is a Woman”

  1. Paul Becker Says:

    In observation #6, you call out the male membership of PNCs who view their task as being akin to a business executive search. This kind of situational transference may be in play, causing the church to mirror the culture. However, I think that is only part of the equation. When the issue of ordained women in positions of executive leadership is raised, I hear women from the pews expressing difficulty with the idea, more so than men. This dynamic is amplified by the fact that most churches… mainline churches… have more women involved in the attendance and life of their congregations than men. I don’t see how that dynamic is accounted for or even named in this piece. That said, the situation is not satisfactory.

    • revmary Says:

      Paul, thank you for this observation that objections are raised by women more so than men. It was certainly true in the 1980s that women had a conceptual problem with female clergy, but I have been less aware of women’s doubts lately. I do not question the possibility that it still exists, however. Otherwise, as you say, a majority of church members (and, presumably, PNCs) would be all for openness to female candidates. What we may be talking about here is deeply embedded =cultural assumptions=, which in itself is disheartening, considering all the work that has been done in this area to teach a biblical worldview about spiritual gifts and the priesthood of all believers. ::sigh::

  2. Paul Becker Says:

    I failed to offer something constructive in my last comment. ECO can begin to erode the gender leadership barrier by it’s placement of women in positions of leadership and plenary speaking within its own organization and public gatherings.

  3. Denominational structures do not reward the leadership of evangelical women, in fact there is suspicion. Interim positions go to more liberal thinkers, as do presbytery/synod/ GA committee chairs. And when progressive women crash and burn it is generalized. Evangelical women are sidelined if good preachers or asked to be ‘team players’ and not preach if put in leadership. This is not just PNCs, it is culture and it is systemic. Some question our capability in one of these two areas and then women must prove that we can do both in a multistaff church. Very often women either take the role of executive pastor or take a small church to exercise gifts. Or we do the MOPS, retreat, women’s luncheon circuits. Degrees and publishing alone do not increase opportunity
    Supposedly a strong woman can be ‘threatening’ to some men. If this is so, and I’m not convinced it is, then men need to be freed to grow apart from the passive/manipulative feminine model and we all seek Christ as disciples together.

    I am grateful to have my calling and gifts affirmed, and believe that one day a congregation will respond to that unique and matched call that God has on us together. Meanwhile I await more opportunities to preach, teach, and lead.

  4. Paul Becker Says:

    Evangelical Ms… You say that when progressive women in denominational structures crash and burn it is generalized. While it may be true that leadership assumptions are laid unfairly against female evangelical pastors, I think that there is something much more fundamental going on. Something as fundamental as Christology.

    (Hyperbole Warning) The Progressives offer a feminized Jesus whose identity as a lamb is embraced but not His identity as the Lion of Judah. The Lion is for fundamentalists. The lamb Jesus saves everyone according to their own path. The lion Jesus reserves and uses the authority to judge and condemn. Men in the culture are repulsed by the progressive Jesus and are thereby underrepresented in the church. In the meantime, women in the church wish their men would be more engaged. Who is to blame? Women. They’ve ruined everything. Church is all about submission and yielding and peace-faking and making sure everyone is OK by being soft with discipline and having no sense of militancy (even against Hell) blah, blah, blah. (Remember the Hyperbole warning)

    ECO needs to promote a complete Jesus: A Jesus of submission (Mt 1-7), a Jesus of strength (Mt 8-25), a Jesus of sacrifice (the combination of submission and strength as demonstrated in Mt 26-28). The complete Jesus has something to offer males and females who are one in Christ and made complete in him. Evangelical pastors, male and female, who offer a complete Jesus and permit the culture of their congregations’ worship and life to be transformed will attract men and the respect of women in the pews. And then an only then, will the gender of the person begin to matter less.

  5. Paul Becker
    I do not disagree with you, simply was trying to avoid the usual and obvious progressive women do not offer a gospel of power (Rom 1: 16-17 type). They are busy watering it down and as you say ‘feminizing.’ Of course there is no connect or eternal significance without Trinitarian orthodoxy: God the Sovereign Father, Christ–Christ the lamb, Christ the stormstiller, Christ the Savior–and the Holy Spirit.

    We have lost our discipline but that is not a gender question, it is a community-and-call question. ECO has this challenge but seems to be uniquely aware of the need for mutual accountability and forbearance. The polity works nicely to lift leaders apart from age, gender and more, in fact, it looks a lot more like a priesthood of all believers. Hope that it catches fire.

  6. Bill Goff Says:

    Dear Mary,
    Since I am an old retired Presbyterian minister, I am out of touch with what is happening insitutionally regarding the call of qualified women to senior pastor positions. I can only respond personally and tell you that I feel your hurt for being excluded from such positions. If you were the pastor of a local church, I would be inclined to attend and participate with your congregation.
    Part of the problem is education which must assert biblical truth against cultural (and church) conditioning. When I was a student at Fuller Seminary (in the later part of the last millennium) there were about ten women students at Fuller. One of them, the late Rev. Sue Ellen Porter, a Presbyterian, spent many coffee breaks and lunches arguing with me and others about the inclusion of women in the ministry of the church. Most of us eventually agreed with her after being forced to reexamine the relevant Scriptures.
    Several years later I enjoyed a sabbatical in Jerusalem where I attended a Southern Baptist Church. Pastor Bob Lindsay allowed me to teach a Bible study on the theme of the role of women in which I argued for the full inclusion of women in the life of the church. Over thirty years later I was able to visit this church again and to attend the Sabbath morning Bible study. I was delighted to see that the Bible study was led by a competent young woman pastor – a graduate of Fuller Seminary!
    I look forward to the day when neither gender or gender preference will be important considerations for including talented and godly leaders in all levels of the ministry of the church.
    Mary, I would welcome contact by you so we could discuss this issue in more detail. You can contact my by email and I’ll give you my phone number. Have you considered writing study guides on the inclusion of women for denominational use?
    Thank you for raising this important issue.
    Bill Goff

  7. Jodie Says:


    I have thought long and hard about what PNCs want and what congregations want in their pastors heads of staff of large churches vs what they say they want. I have made it a hobby to study this phenomenon.

    I do not think theology or spiritual gifts have anything to do with it. Sexism does, but not in the way you think. Age too has something to do with it, but not in the way you think.

    The answer is simple really. So simple it is sad and embarrassing. At the end of the day, what people really want is an Alpha Male.

    But what makes an Alpha Male special is that he is a man all the men want to be, and all the women want to be with.

    The sexist part comes from recognizing that a woman who men want to be with, and women want to be, is not an alpha female (although in the under 30 generation that rule is breaking down). An Alpha Female in the pulpit is not a stand in for an Alpha Male in the pulpit. She qualifies in all other respects just as much as the man except for that one characteristic. She is not the person the men want to be or be with, and the women want to be with or be.

    I think it is subconscious cultural sexism from both genders. Folks rarely admit that is what they want. But it explains a lot. It is just as harmful to male pastors and their churches as it is to female ones. Churches run their pastors out, congregations split, people fight, and they come up with all kinds of theological reason and excuses for why they don’t like their pastors, but at the end of the day, the real reason they don’t like him is because he is not the alpha male they long for.

    The PNC process would be much easier if they just put that in writing: Wanted: Alpha Male, ordained pastor, good preacher, highly educated, and ethical. All others need not apply.

    I predict that in another 15 years you will see a sea change. Today’s under 30 crowd looks to alpha females the same way the over 40 crowd looks at alpha males.

  8. Al Sandalow Says:

    Mary, I agree with the observation of the glass ceiling for women. Let me make two observations:

    1. 90% of the PNCs I have interviewed with and 100% of the PNCs that have offered me a call had a majority of women. 75% of the time my Sessions have a majority of women. 100% of the time my congregational meetings have more women attending than men.

    2. In my time in ministry I have discovered two people who intentionally tried to exclude women leaders; one who tried to block all women elders, another who wanted to be sure the church never had a women pastor. Both were women.

    This is not to suggest that there are not men who don’t want women in their pulpits, but it’s not just men. Women can rule the church whenever they want.

  9. Art Seaman Says:

    In the first section, the writer says she has no statistical evidence. That should tell us a lot.
    I have done three interims since I retired 6 years ago. In all three churches the most common comment I heard from women in the churches has been, “we don’t want a woman minister.” While I think nothing in ministry cannot be done equally as well by a woman as a man, it is telling that the women in the pews have an attitude that is set in the ’50’s.
    I think this is an issue that does need to be addressed. Good leadership is vital to the church, and if we exclude on the basis of gender, then we fail.
    My guess is that there are a very small number of tall steeple churches–three in my presbytery, and the leaders of those churches have had long pastorates. Hence, the availability of pastorates is small and maybe the sample is too small to be significant. Surely, a study by one of our seminary Ph.D candidates would be worthwhile.
    One thing I do know from study, is that most women in ministry are second career persons, and may not have the credentials to apply successfully for the larger congregation.
    Again, it would be helpful to support the WQ issue with facts and figures.

    • revmary Says:

      I agree, Art. I presume that our Louisville staffers do not have the time for such a study, but I like your idea of PhD research to get at this. Any takers?

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