women in ministry
Clergy have long been expected to be paragons of piety and purity. As public religious figures, we’re assumed to represent the moral ideal — an example for others to follow — and as a result, we become archetypes rather than human beings. We are measured up against an image of what a perfect Christian pastor should look like.
Chicago. New York. Washington, D.C. In quick succession this year, three women have been chosen to lead historic tall-steeple churches in all these cities.
In May, the Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner became the first woman solo senior pastor at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church. In June, the Rev. Amy Butler was elected senior pastor of New York City’s Riverside Church. And finally, in July, the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli began leading Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.
“For women to speak in those pulpits and speak boldly as public voices in these very public buildings is very powerful,” said the Rev. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, who recently hosted a dinner party with some of New York’s movers and shakers to welcome Butler to town.
It’s been 40 years since the Episcopal Church first ordained women, and other denominations have long included women in their clergy ranks. But these new advances are occurring sooner in the lives of these three women than some of their older counterparts. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research reports that women clergy are much more likely to serve in smaller congregations.
Scholar Diana Butler Bass hailed the arrival of these women — all in their 40s and leading large, urban, neo-Gothic churches — but also wondered if they reflect the “General Motors phenomenon.”
“Are women coming into leadership only as the institutions are collapsing?” asked Bass, author of Christianity After Religion.
When Philadelphia’s St. Paul Baptist Church hired the Rev. Leslie Callahan as its first female pastor, in 2009, she was nearing her 40th birthday and the tick-tock of her biological clock was getting hard to ignore.
She delighted in her ministry but also wanted a husband and children in her life. The husband she couldn’t do much about — he just hadn’t stepped into her life.
Now Callahan is mother to 22–month-old Bella, who was welcomed joyously by what the pastor describes as “a pretty traditional Baptist church.” She describes Bella’s arrival as “a divine regrouping,” a different answer to her prayers than the traditional mommy-daddy-baby model she had envisioned.
Ever since unmarried sitcom anchorwoman Murphy Brown shocked much of the country in 1991 by deciding to raise her baby on her own, the culture has changed. Once unthinkable and later unacceptable, single mothers by choice today are met with less judgment.
In fact, according to federal statistics, more than 40 percent of births are to unmarried mothers. But what if, like Callahan, the single mom by choice is a minister, or a rabbi?