Cast Wide the Net

Why Gender Still Matters

Continuing the toolkit into the future

By The Rev. Paula Nesbitt, PhDChair, 2012-15 Executive Council Committee on the Status of Women

Women have broken through stained-glass barriers in all aspects of ministry. From 2006 to 2015, women held the two highest leadership offices in the church. More and more dioceses have women as part of their final slate of nominees in bishop elections. As one looks at the female-to-male ratio of seminarians, ordinands, and even rectors, it is logical to think that barriers and inequalities are part of the past. Gender no longer matters, and it shouldn’t–unless it’s used to prefer some over others or to ignore disparities that persist.

The power of visualization

The ordination of The Rt. Rev. Mary Gray-Reeves as Bishop of the Diocese of El Camino Real, Nov. 10, 2007

Gender matters because of the power of imagery. In this photo of a newly consecrated female bishop, surrounded by a female presiding bishop and dozens of female priests and deacons, it not only speaks to ordained ministry as a welcoming vocation for women, just as it has been for men over the centuries, but it also imparts that any leadership role is possible and open to women’s gifts for ministry. Too often women have seen all male faces in such a photo, where imagining such possibilities for women’s ministry is more difficult.

Ultimately gender matters because diversity in all forms of ministry holds a transformative potential not only to imagine one’s vocation, but to question the assumptions that we and others make, and to struggle for a future where children and youth across a spectrum of gender, race, and other traits can develop and share their gifts for leadership naturally in a church that welcomes them. When we come to the time when this is our lived reality, gender shouldn’t need to matter.

The stained glass ceiling: going or gone?

Over the past 50 years, the church has moved from excluding women altogether from ordained ministry to women having held the highest ordained leadership position—Presiding Bishop. Women are part of more and more diocesan slates of finalist nominees in elections for bishop. In parishes across the face of the church, women serve as rectors and vicars, as well as in key staff positions. It’s easy to believe that the stained glass ceiling has been shattered, and that gender no longer matters as a measure of inequality or exclusion. To many, gender appears to be a dead issue, as if left over from 20th century consciousness-raising.

Often a passionate desire to be rid of gender inequality can affect what we see and perceive. The visibility of talented female clergy leaders can mask the reality that male clergy leadership is still the norm, especially in the House of Bishops. Yet when a perception surfaces that gender doesn’t matter, it’s difficult to have a conversation about why gender gaps and disparities still exist. Are they simply a matter of different choices that women and men might make? Or for women who face steep challenges in trying to live out their ministries, is it simply their fault? Or not?

So does gender matter for newly ordained women today? Does it matter for men who are entering the ordained ministry? And does it matter for those prepared to move into church leadership? The following statistical trends from the Church Pension Fund and other sources point to some areas where gender now matters little, but also to where it significantly matters. Where any group is disadvantaged, it limits the opportunity for the diversity of all gifts and skills in the ministry. It also can keep alive bias, as well as limit our imagination of the possibilities that the church is called to be.

What the data say

Here is what some of the recent statistics from the Church Pension Fund show: gender still matters in terms of compensation when comparing different types of positions that clergy hold in the church, by clergy age, and by the years they have of credited service in the church. A persistent gender gap is visible across different positions, rising from about a seven percent difference among men and women who are parish associates, assistants, and curates or are in specialized ministries, to more than thirteen percent among senior clergy, who supervise paid clergy staff (Figure 1).

Some may argue that times have changed, and younger clergy in the first few years of their ministry likely will not have a gender gap, unlike clergy who entered the ministry thirty years ago. The data in Figures 2 and 3 do show that the largest gender gap is among clergy with more than 20 years of church ministry experience, or those over age 45. However, even among the youngest clergy, and those just starting their ministry, women earn a median of eight cents less for every dollar a man makes. The gender gap increases to eleven cents less for women with more than 5 years of credited service or who have reached age 35.

Although the differences in earnings may seem minor, they do affect the future earnings of clergy and amount that a pension will offer in retirement. Additionally, for every year that a cost of living increase of a given percentage is applied earnings by, it increases the gender gap in actual dollars. This can have a sizable effect over time. Furthermore, when clergy seek or are called to a new position, their previous earnings can be a factor in whether they are considered an eligible candidate, if compensation has been too low or too high, or in the amount that is offered at the time of the call. While compensation itself shouldn’t a goal in ministry, it is a means that allows a sustained and focused commitment to ministry for most clergy. Inequalities suggest that gender still matters.

Because clergy do not have to identify themselves by race, the Church Pension Fund data does not have statistics on race and compensation or how race might interact with gender gaps. In 2006, the Church Pension Fund explored possible racial differences in compensation, based on clergy whose had identified as African American or Hispanic in various church agencies or boards. As such, it could not identify and include all clergy by race. However, this pilot study did find that the gender gap was significant (women earning seventeen cents less than every dollar earned by men), the racial pattern varied markedly by race. African Americian men and women earned eight and twelve cents more respectively for every dollar their Caucasian counterparts earned, while Hispanic women and men earned fourteen to four percent less respectively than Caucasians clergy. This suggests that minority race as a category does not produce the same gaps in compensation, and that racial differences may vary internally for reasons that need further investigation.

Another aspect of ordained ministry involves the placements that clergy hold. These may vary by vocational interest, what positions are available at the time when clergy are looking, whether or not clergy can relocate to other regions, family and care-giving needs, and other personal circumstances. However, constant gender differences emerge in the types of positions that new ordinands take, according to Church Pension Fund data. Across different age groups, newly ordained women are somewhat more likely than men to take positions as parish associates, yet men much more often are called as solo rectors (Figures 4 and 5). 

Some have argued that staff positions offer opportunities to learn through observation, to obtain mentoring, and a somewhat more predictable schedule. Others have countered, saying that the benefits can be eroded by unhelpful supervision, the inability to broaden and deepen skills and experience, or becoming tagged as the youth minister or other specialized ministry that make it challenging to move beyond that specialty. These have been key issues for women.

Yet clergy taking a solo rectorship may feel as if they are learning to swim in the midst of a range of swift currents and eddies, having to learn many facets of ministry and congregational leadership at once, along with time pressures, and often limited financial resources. The benefits involve the opportunity to develop skills quickly, and to accumulate valuable experience that can provide a foundation for future vocational calls.

Although these data don’t say whether an associate or solo rector position was the new ordinand’s preference or not, other research such as the 2009 “Called to Serve” study of Episcopal female and male clergy suggest that among those who have not been called as a rector or vicar, younger women were significantly more likely than their male counterparts to have applied for such positions. The study reveals other gender gaps such as a marriage penalty for women that doesn’t exist for men, women’s greater care-giving responsibilities and constraints, limited mobility, and difficulty in dating if single. Taken together, the discrepancies reveal a picture of continuing unequal opportunities and outcomes by gender. Unfortunately, gender still matters.

What can be done for gender to matter less?

For women Information and imagination are important vocational allies, in addition to ongoing spiritual discernment. Become familiar with the compensation guidelines for your diocese. The annual compensation reports by the Church Pension Fund also offer useful information, especially if you are considering a placement in another diocese or region. Share information with other female clergy about all aspects of the type of position you are considering. Listen to their experiences and think about what might be helpful for you. Also gather information from male clergy and their experiences in applying, being called, and holding the type of position you are seeking. They too can offer some invaluable wisdom.

Above all, use your imagination to think about what would make the placement you’re seeking one where you not only can minister but could vocationally flourish. What if any conditions would need to be different? Is this possible over the short or long-term? What might you be able to do to help, or ask, for it to become reality? Not every placement is an ideal fit, but sometimes norms, expectations, and practices can shift in ways that make a positive difference. Also, imagination is the path to creating your own form or direction of ministry that may fit your special circumstances and gifts.

For men Information and listening are critical. Men have been powerful allies of gender equality, mentoring and helping women to use their gifts for ministry and leadership in groundbreaking ways. Because women’s visibility as leaders in the church can lead to assuming that the need for advocacy and support is over, it is important to keep abreast of information such as the State of the Clergy and Compensation Reports put out by the Church Pension Fund in order to know where advocacy and support are still needed.

Also, ask the women you know about their experience, what challenges they face in ministry, and how these are similar or different from your own experience. Listen to what they have to say. Consider ways in which gender differences might be signs of deeper transformations in ministry and expectations that could benefit all, such as opportunities for family leave without stigma for men or women, for equity in titles and treatment by others, and in many other small but significant ways. Gender equity opens up fresh opportunities for men to rethink and help change some of the traditional norms and expectations that have limited their own ministry as well.

For search and transition committees, vestries, and others Information, imagination, and self-reflection can help to avoid stereotypes, or repeating what has been familiar in the past and limiting the full range of gifts for ministry that potential candidates or clergy hold in your midst. Information from the Church Pension Fund State of the Clergy and Compensation Reports, as well as the CPG’s Called to Serve study, are helpful ways to begin thinking about how gender still matters. It also can be helpful to listen to the experiences of female clergy not involved with your search or congregation, in order to gather information on some of the subtle ways that gender differences can creep in, such as how questions are asked or how responses may be considered in different ways depending on the gender of the speaker.

Be sure to use both imagination and self-reflection in considering how each candidate personally might function in a given position. What gifts does their gender offer to their perspective on ministry that can benefit your context? What shifts in expectations need to be made in order to support the fullest and best use of their gifts for ministry? If money is tight, is it equally tight for male as well as female clergy, or are there subtle expectations that women can get by on less? If female clergy have young children, are they regarded in the same way, or with the same support, as male clergy with young children? Continue to probe what are the ways in which gender still matters that limits the potential of your clergy. These suggestions are important regarding race and ethnicity as well.

Gender as part of a wider process of transformation

Although the Search Toolkit and “Why gender still matters” have focused on inequalities between women and men in the ordained ministry, these are part of a much larger transformation that is ongoing in both the church and in wider society. Biological, medical, and social scientific research have long pointed to the broad diversity in many of the ways in which we attribute and identify gender, personally and to one another. The categories male and female, common in western society, are insufficient to address the many who are questioning how gender addresses their humanity, or who may identify as intersex or transgender. The diversity widens again when considering both gender and human sexuality together. Both the expression of gender and sexuality also are conditioned by culture and by experiences of oppression, especially as racial and ethnic diversity are considered. All of this means we are on a path to a place where clergy and all discerning a call to ordained ministry, across a spectrum of gender, race, and other traits, will be able to offer their gifts and skills for spiritual and church leadership naturally, grounded in their authentic humanity.

Cornel West in his book Race Matters points out that both of the two axes of social change, structure and behavior, must work together. Simply changing the structure without a parallel commitment to changing the ways of thinking and acting won’t bring transformation and equality. Behavioral change needs to be encouraged and supported by an open and inclusive structure, but also by listening, learning, and imagining a church where gender doesn’t limit the gifts and graces of the spirit for church leadership.

Cast Wide the Net

The Rev. Meghan F. Froehlich

Missioner for Transition Ministry