Past events

Issues In Women's Leadership:

Opening the Circle and Taking Flight:
Women Leadership in Pastoral Ministry

by Tara Fenwick, Asst. Professor
Department of Educational Policy Studies
University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, CANADA T6G 2G5
[email protected]

Article reprinted by permission.

This is an early version of the article  “Women learning through ministry: New images, new meanings” appearing in Clergy Journal, LXXIV (1), 37-40, 1997.

On Dorothy Naylor Mundle’s wall hangs a beautiful quilt stitched in colours of blues, purples, and greens. An artist was commissioned by her last congregation to design a pattern that would represent Dorothy’s ministry as a woman. The triangle shape, an ancient symbol of woman’s childbearing region, is woven throughout the quilt pattern in many sizes and the different colours of love. The triangles form a strong cross which is gently angled, its two arms becoming the wings of a butterfly in flight. Over the pattern is stitched spiralling circles which are not closed, but open at the top of the quilt, fanning out into empty space.

These themes of opening circles, nurture, unfolding and transformation could apply equally to describe many clergywomen who bring unique biographies, ways of thinking and approaches to ministry. Nason-Clark (1993) argues that women are changing the image of ministry by “redefining clerical roles, bringing enhanced sensitivity, better pastoral care, collective leadership, and a wider vision of Christian ministry” (p. 229). Yet women are still grossly underrepresented in the ministry. (Nason-Clark, 1984; Carroll et al. 1983; Lehman 1980). Despite the fact that women have been ordained in the United Church since 1944 [1] , in the Anglican Church of Canada since 1976, and in the Presbyterian Church since 19**, in Edmonton there are only two ordained women ministers out of eighty in the United Church, only three women priests in the Anglican Church, and only one woman ministering in the Presbyterian Church in the Edmonton area.

Six women in ministry

This article presents the stories of six women who are at various stages of life work in ministry, in various denominations of the Protestant and Catholic Churches [2]. Currents of similar gender issues, struggle, and unique approaches to ministry run through these tales, and will be discussed later. But what seems most evident in the stories is that experiences in the ministry vary tremendously according to a woman’s denominational frame, her own working style, her particular community and ministry context, her personal hopes and expectations, and her special way of interpreting what happens. What for one woman is a shattering rejection is for another a call to assert herself boldly. Joan McConnell (1994), who completed a study of United Church women in ministry involving almost 500 Canadian women, concludes “There is no one agreed-upon view of ministry held by all women” (p. 5). The theme is clear in the following stories.

Sheila Loosley: Highlands Baptist Church, Edmonton

When she came to Edmonton from England in 1957, Sheila and her husband were delighted to find members of the Highlands Baptist Church waiting for them at the airport. The congregation helped the young couple settle in to the city, Sheila began leading youth groups and teaching Sunday School, and today she is an Associate Pastor there. Highlands Baptist is located in a mature suburb in northeast Edmonton. The middle-class congregation of about 180 includes many young families as well as a stable core of long-term members. Many are actively involved in the contemporary-style worship service and the pastoral care church work.

Sheila’s original mandate was to establish a “network of care,” and this is how she conducts her work to this day. “I’m a team player,” says Sheila. “I really care about people.” Her key contribution to the pastorate was coming to know the “pulse” of the congregation: talking with people to know them and their everyday lives well, what they feel and experience, wonder and desire. “Small groups is where it’s at,” claims Sheila, helping people care for other people. Pastoral care at Highlands Baptist is extended through small congregational groups of Shepherding Deacons that Sheila develops and coordinates.

Perhaps the most challenging time she experienced in her ministry was when the senior pastor suddenly left the church amidst troubling personal issues. Families directly affected by these issues, people who loved and respected the man, and Sheila herself who had learned much from his model and encouragement of her ministry -- all faced a long process of healing from the pain and confusion that swirled after his departure. The deacons decided not to seek an interim minister, so Sheila guided the church family through the healing process. “But,” she says now with tears in her eyes, “we didn’t lose a single person.” She credits the strong lay leadership, and the process of talking and praying through many small groups, for restoring and reconciling the congregation. She marvels now at the way people came together and supported one another through the crisis. Says Sheila, “The church shouldn’t be built on a pastor -- it’s the people.”

Sheila is not ordained as a minister, but she emphasizes how secure she feels in her work. She explains, “My gifts have been really affirmed by the people in this congregation.” Both lay persons and pastors “drew me out,” encouraging her to preach and lead services. She discovered that “I have a real heart for worship” and that her focus is helping “people really experience who God is and what God is currently doing” in their lives. The male pastors always treated her, Sheila emphasizes, as a colleague and equal part of the team. She says she only felt intimidated about her lay status once, at a Baptist conference when a pastor asked “And where were you trained?” Her reply -- “Life trained me” -- seems to have become an important cornerstone of her practice. Sheila studies a great deal but believes, “the closer I get to the truth the less I know.” She adds that wisdom comes through pain, not books. In her time as pastor at Highlands Sheila has raised a family, lost a child, adjusted to life alone for a few years, then was reunited with her husband. She had planned to retire but the congregation has persuaded her to stay on.

Now Sheila talks excitedly about the church projects. A recent 70-day program called “Spiritual Adventure” involved worship, drama, prayer and lessons centred on particular themes. Her pastoral team is currently exploring an “Adopt-a-School” partnership with a local elementary school to set a focus for congregational outreach work. Church members will participate in school hot lunch and snack programs, community projects with the children, one-on-one reading -- even acting as guest speakers and offering job shadowing opportunities for students. . . -- the possibilities are endless. Ministry is, for Sheila, truly “an adventure” in which she feels completely secure that she is doing exactly what she should be doing.

Dorothy Naylor Mundle: Chalmers - Castle Downs United Church

Dorothy closes her hand, brings it up to her waist and punches it gently in front of her three times. “That’s the image for my ministry,” she says. “Push - push - push. I’m always pushing at the boundaries.” Currently at Chalmers-Castle Downs United Church in North Edmonton, Dorothy recently worked through an amalgamation between her own congregation -- who had a part-time female diaconal minister and no building -- with a much larger congregation who had a full-time ordained male minister and a church. Each congregation favored a different approach to worship. Such a situation can result in a “takeover,” with the smaller congregation’s preferences being swallowed by the larger church. However in this instance, both groups negotiated on a level plane to arrive at an equitable partnership, collaborating to find a satisfactory consensus for all details -- from how sacraments would be delivered to the arrangement of ministers’ names on the church sign. Dorothy’s gifts in working through others and her direct approach were important: “I was good at naming the issues, and helping my people go into that situation strong and intentional.”

Dorothy and her husband Garth, also a United Church minister, have lived and worked in Boston, Los Angeles, small-town Ontario, and other parts of North America. One year when their three children were still school-age, the family travelled for a year in a trailer, taking jobs on the road. Dorothy has worked as a minister on and off over the years, sometimes devoting herself full-time to motherhood and domestic work, sometimes part-time or full-time in her own congregation, sometimes as a volunteer in her husband’s congregation. In contrast to her husband, Dorothy says that her own gifts are not necessarily preaching -- although sometimes, much to the enjoyment of congregations, she would call out corrections or questions during his sermon. Instead Dorothy believes that her forte is working with small committees, organizing and planning. People feel safe coming to talk with her, she says, and she has always found that congregations respect her knowledge and value her opinions.

Dorothy characterizes her ministry as truly diaconal in style as well as in name. Diaconal ministers in the United Church traditionally focus mostly on education and nurture in their work, and reflect this focus in all parts of ministry. Rather than the traditional up-front “lone ranger” style of ministry, doing for  people, the diaconal style works behind the sceneswith  and through  people. In preaching, for example, a diaconal minister may consult with others or break the congregation into discussion groups at some point; in delivering sacraments, lay members may be invited to actively participate. As Dorothy says, “I come to ministry as ‘a friend’, and we [the congregation] work together as friends.”

Dorothy began ministry in St. John, New Brunswick as a young woman placed in an inner city mission to work with needy families by herself. Looking back on her learning, she says now that she had a vision that the church’s call was more than “just spiritual.” She wanted to be an agent of social change but didn’t yet have the necessary “aggression” or “political knowhow.” Later in her career, when she was appointed to the United Church in Society committee and other national committees, she met people active in social justice and felt “opened up to the church’s agenda” on social issues. Dorothy recalls the development of her feminist identity: “When I read Betty Friedan’s book, I was thinking, ‘What are these women complaining about?’ I was aware there was something out there but it didn’t touch me.” Then as a woman minister she was asked to speak to secular groups on issues of inclusive language and clergywomen, which caused her to research the issues. She found herself meeting with others who wanted to discuss women’s issues, explore women in the Bible and examine faith concerns. When someone called her a “feminist” one day she was startled, until she took a breath and realized that yes, “I am a feminist.”

An important influence for Dorothy was another woman minister with whom she worked for five years in an Edmonton church. This minister was strong, assertive in negotiating policies of inclusive language for the church and guiding the congregation through “The Issue” (the homosexuality debate confronted by the United Church in the late 1980’s), yet always working through people, acting more as a resource to the congregation than positioning herself apart, “on a pedestal.”

Dorothy has learned to be strong, yet always working in the “diaconal style” of ministry. When a fundamentalist renewal swept the United Church, Dorothy went to the meetings and talked directly to those who were upset. “I face them, deal with it. No fooling around.” The same pastoral approach of strength through education and nurture took her through a congregational challenge when a church worker became pregnant out of wedlock. Dorothy’s gift of talking directly with people and bringing them together to focus on the most important concerns helped build a community of support around the girl. Dorothy recalls the love and the moving personal stories that bubbled up as people opened to one another in their discussion of pregnancy and marriage, until all were unanimous in saying “We can’t let her go!” Push, push, push -- gentle and patient, but strong and intentional.

Kathleen Bowman: St. George’s Anglican Church, Edmonton

Kathleen, one of the first women to be ordained in Edmonton in the Anglican church, was ordained deacon in 1984 and priest in 1985. St. George’s Anglican Church is situated near the University of Alberta in Edmonton. The mostly middle- and upper-class congregation, averaging about 85 in weekly attendance, includes many working professional women among its families. Partly for this reason Kathleen believes this church chose a woman priest, and has accepted her completely.

Getting a job was tough and at one point Kathleen says “I was insecure,” believing that “men get parishes and women don’t.” After graduation, completing a clinical pastoral education appointment and final evaluation, a newly ordained Anglican deacon will often be placed as an assistant in a parish. If all goes well the person will be ordained priest in about a year. When Kathleen was ordained, one was normally an assistant for two years before taking charge of a parish. However Kathleen spent six years as an assistant at St. John’s Anglican Church, and then found two more part-time interim appointments that she had to leave shortly when the new priests came in. She has no doubt that her gender is the reason for the long wait -- and Kathleen adds that as church resources dwindle positions are becoming rare for both men and women clergy.

Kathleen agrees that a single woman faces particular difficulty in meeting and marrying anyone outside the congregation, because a minister’s whole life is centered around the church. Yet, to date, anyone inside the congregation invites not only scrutiny and judgment, but also possible entanglement in ethical issues. But Kathleen married a parishioner with whom she’d worked on committees, subsequently had two children, and found that the congregation was delighted and largely supportive. Her choice to balance ministry and child-rearing raised concerns among some women in the congregation, but Kathleen suspects that working moms face scrutiny in any profession. Generally she believes her marriage has helped her relationships in the congregation: “It’s made me kind of normal. For some of the older ladies, I could be their daughter. I fit better into their perception of the way ministers should be.”

For Kathleen, arranging priorities is an important key to balancing family and ministry. The needs of the kids must come first, and Kathleen always takes one day off with no interruptions. There are infinite amounts of work in the ministry, explains Kathleen -- always someone more to visit, a new program that could be planned -- but one must learn to work till the day is over and then simply stop. Her husband is understanding, she says, sharing childcare responsibility and taking over family management on evenings, emergencies, and Sundays when she’s committed to her congregational work.

Kathleen’s style of ministry is meeting with people, working through committees, and developing a consensus among a group before initiating anything. Whether implementing a new program in the Sunday school or new prayers for worship, Kathleen begins by getting people talking together: the group develops the idea and puts it into action. As a self-professed introvert, she’s had to learn how to develop a “social persona.”

Experience in ministry has taught Kathleen how to head off conflict. A new priest is eager to please, she explains, and may jump into new ideas or issues suggested by parishioners without properly “checking them out” with parish stakeholders “who have interest or power.” Decisions must always go through appropriate channels. But the best approach, feels Kathleen, is to establish a network of relationships -- talking to people about their family and friends, sharing one’s own stories, learning to connect with them as “real people.” Kathleen believes clergywomen especially must learn to walk a thin line between being tough and assertive enough to survive in a congregation, without becoming so domineering that people are threatened or put off. When she first graduated, Kathleen held some feminist views which she has modified “to survive.” She has learnt, she says, to balance her more radical ideas -- such as changing words in the middle of the liturgy -- with conservative expectations of a parish. Even now when she reads her own description of her ministry published three years ago in a book of stories about Anglican women priests, she laughs and acknowledges, “I’ve mellowed out considerably.”

Kathleen feels that in preaching and ministry in general women draw from a unique set of connections and perspectives, forged through different gendered life experiences. She remembers when she was pregnant and worried about risk, she was called to the hospital to baptize a dying baby. As she ministered to the family participating in this sacrament, she was struck in a powerful way with the sense that to live fully is to accept danger and take risks. From the hospital that day Kathleen went to a Diocesan meeting debating financial expenditure, where a man spoke to the need in life to take risks. She says today, “that man may never know how much his words meant to me at that particular moment . . . We call these things the work of the Holy Spirit.”

Diana Jackson: Two-point charge in Edmonton area

I was like Jonah -- I love that story,” explains Diana Jackson of her call to ministry. A male minister encouraged her to follow her urgings to enter ministry. Diana is now the only clergywoman in her denomination in the area, ministering to a two-point charge in a rural area near the city, and living by herself in one of the tiny communities. She admits she is lonely.

Seeking a call was a long and frustrating process for Diana, especially when many of her male colleagues had secured a position shortly after graduation. At one point she and another woman who had been shortlisted for a job were rejected just before the interview process began. The Interim Moderator of her presbytery apologized to the women for the situation, but Diana was beginning to realize that her gender barred her from serious consideration by many churches. She explains, “You hear by word-of-mouth about certain churches -- that they won’t even consider a woman.” By the end of her year looking for work Diana was fast losing hope. She had to turn to secular employment and took a part-time job data processing -- when suddenly the call to her current appointment came.

Diana is now in her second year of ministry, adjusting to the job and what for her is an isolated life in the country. She has no mentor or professional support group. On a personal level dating, she believes, is impossible within the “fishbowl” of a small community. Her average weekly workload seems enormous and filled with tough challenges, everything from the worship and pastoral care to the church administration and full calendar of community events she is expected to participate in, even typing the bulletin and ordering church supplies. Stress and exhaustion have taken their toll along with the isolation. Most tasks present a brand new and sometimes scary learning experience: “One congregation mentioned they’d like a Youth Group. I don’t have much experience or confidence with kids. I know they need to be disciplined in . . . gentle ways, but I don’t know how. I just treat them as adults (and hope they’ll behave).”

Finding a position for herself as a single young woman in a leadership position, within the culture of a small rural community where most women devote themselves to children and husbands, is also proving difficult for Diana. Things are not always stated directly, and when people have concerns it’s sometimes difficult to ferret them out and deal with them. She says, “at this time last year I thought I was offending people without even trying.” The only power issues in the congregations seem to stem from women her own age. Diana sighs, and says she wonders sometimes if God has a wicked sense of humor in sending her to this charge.

Being the only woman and one of the few ‘recent grads’ in her presbytery is also a struggle, for Diana feels she represents a different point of view than the prevailing perspective. She drives several hours into the city for meetings that she often finds frustrating: “I’m not part of the ‘old boys’ club’ . . . My question is often ignored or bypassed .” One of the ‘old boys’ remarked to her that recent grads have “modern” views that don’t necessarily fit congregations.

But Diana finds herself growing more confident in her ability to sensitively assess a new situation and choose appropriate action. Listening to the moment, to people’s unspoken questions and feelings, is key. Diana tells the story of a recent funeral for a woman whose family was struggling with -- Why? She chose to use the Lazarus passage, and saw something there for the first time: Jesus gives words of hope to Martha, who seeks such words. But to Mary who is weeping and does not ask for words of comfort, Jesus gives no words. He simply cries. Diana says, “I felt the most open to understanding where the family was at that moment. I told them, There will be a time when you can hear words of comfort but now it’s okay to cry.”

In fact, Diana says she is becoming aware of how important a funeral is in a small community as a rite of passage --the church is packed with people who don’t often enter church. It’s a different way of ministry, she says, and she thinks deeply and carefully about delivering funerals. She is also finding that she has a special connection with children and youth, and that she has gifts listening and being present to people in pastoral visits. Flexibility is key to Diana’s style of ministry. She was surprised when a minister who partnered with her for Lenten services wanted to plan the hymns six weeks ahead; Diana has a different approach to time management. “I’ve learned I have to be more spontaneous, more open to what God wants me to do each day. When an opportunity with people opens up I need to be able to say, to heck with what I’ve scheduled, this is more important.”

She is becoming stronger in accepting and working through mistakes. Once she stopped a sermon once to ask a mother if she would mind putting her car keys away from her toddler, who had been jangling them loudly and wailing throughout the message. The woman was outraged and stormed from the sanctuary. A second woman took it upon herself after worship to let Diana know that she was appalled at her treatment of the mother. Of course Diana was devastated, but later talked the incident through with each woman and reconciled with them both. Diana eventually became close to the second woman, and learned that she had lost a child and now viewed children as the most important part of life.

A difficult issue now for Diana, besides stress and exhaustion, is her isolation - geographically and professionally. The small congregations haven’t the financial resources to relocate her to a larger town, nor to grant her any professional development funds. To leave would force her into unemployment for at least a year, Diana believes, trying to find a call where few positions are available even for men. Meanwhile she seeks joy in reading scripture, visiting people, working with young people, and continuing to learn what she can from each moment. Diana reflects, “Things take time to work themselves out.”

Mary Thomas: Retired United Church Minister, Edmonton

Mary claims that her father was the model for her faith. Assertive and progressive, Mary views herself as a bridge for people between the old and the new. In her 35 years of ministry she has helped bring the church “from irrelevant language and boring liturgy and male images of God” to become a more close-knit egalitarian community, tolerant and understanding of difference, in close relationship with God rather than remote from God in a hierarchy. Mary began her career as a deaconess in a church where she was put in an “office in the basement” and treated like a non-entity by the male minister. She says now she felt oppressed and angry, but didn’t have “enough consciousness” to speak out on her own behalf. Then in the mid-1960s Mary left Canada to attend a theological seminary in Chicago. Here she was introduced to “a whole new world”: liberation theology, social activism, anti-racism, powerful music and drama, speeches by Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King -- experiences that radically changed her.

After graduation, Mary was placed in an inner-city Toronto church where she quickly got active knocking on doors, implementing a new Headstart program and finding resources. Eventually she was ordained. The senior male minister of her team developed a grand scheme to partner three churches, in which Mary naturally became involved. Unfortunately the plan “crashed,” and Mary believes she took the fall because “it’s much easier to get rid of a woman.” Her confidence shaken, she went back to teaching for a year before applying again for ministry. This time she found an assistant position in Lloydminster (a small prairie city with a population of 15, 000 on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border), working with a male minister who slowly helped her rebuild her courage. From there Mary was called to Southminster United, a new Edmonton church of her own where she remained for ten years.

Mary declares that after her early experiences, most of her ministry has been characterized by open acceptance of her presence as a woman. Elders were cooperative and worked as a close team alongside her, colleagues respected her, and people trusted her “once they got to know me.” Men were often her strongest supporters, she believes. If there was a problem at all in the church, it stemmed from the fundamentalist renewal. Mary’s approach has always been direct. When she was openly challenged by the fundamentalist group she called together the whole church and insisted that the issue be stated plainly and publicly.

Mary supports people whose rights are threatened. In one case, Mary confronted a powerful woman in a particular church: “She needed something to control. I would never let her have power over others in the church.” Intolerance is a denial of others’ rights that incenses Mary. At one conference meeting, after listening to a minister lecture others about the perversion in the church, Mary rebuked him openly. “I stood up. ‘This isn’t the love of Jesus Christ,’ she said. ‘I don’t have to take this any longer.’”

While she is a strong fighter for her beliefs about social justice and new theology, Mary’s ministerial approach is gentle, building community. She tried always to educate and “empower the laity,” to involve everyone actively and conduct the church work collaboratively through committees. Her struggle to implement change has been a “hard road,” learning much along the way about calculated risks, gentle persuasion and “bringing people along” at a comfortable pace. She has been criticized for her views but learned not to take it personally. “I never thought I had to be perfect, and that saved me.” She focused on figuring out the most important things to do, doing the best she could, and not worrying.

The key for her has been taking the time to really talk with people, visiting them in their homes, and forming bonds. About ministry Mary says, “Leave the meetings to others -- get out and visit, for gosh sake. I was a drop-in person -- they loved it. I’m very open and friendly. And I always tried to be my real self. People know when you’re genuine.” And as Mary thinks back over her years as a woman minister serving a church suffering the birthing pains of traumatic change, she reiterates with some passion, “I am SO grateful to be United Church!”

Mary-Lou Cranston: Faculty at St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta

At age 18 Mary Lou became a nun in the Roman Catholic church, at a time when nuns were cloistered, habited, and completely dependent upon the church, and when Father dictated community life in all “matters of conscience.” Today Mary Lou, still a nun, lives in her own apartment, wears a skirt, and teaches theology at a university. (She completed her PhD in the late 1980s at Gregorian University in Rome, considered by the Catholic Church to be the most prestigious theological university for priests.) She reflects with some marvel on how her own life reflects dramatic changes in the situation of women religious in the Catholic Church, and speculates that the creativity and courage of nuns have been a powerful agent of change for the whole Church. These women were most open to progress, willing to learn and take risks after Vatican II directed religious orders to “return to the charisms of their founders,” and announced a transformation to “the Church in a modern world.”

Mary Lou maintains that women religious have always held authority and respect in Catholic communities as visible representatives of the Church. Mother Superior’s opinion was valued alongside Father Priest’s, and nuns often participated in delivering sacraments, counselling parishioners, and church decision-making. Educated as a Math and Physics teacher, Mary Lou taught school as a nun for several years before she was appointed to an Interchurch Commission on Social Justice. This work opened her perspectives and she says, “I felt a need for theology.” Her community gave her “terrific support” psychologically, spiritually, and financially, and her graduate studies began. As one of two women among 200 men at the Gregorian University, where all classes were held in Italian and the predominant culture was strongly patriarchal, Mary Lou recalls today that daily life was a struggle -- “but I wouldn’t trade it for anything!”

She doesn’t dwell on the oppressed status or condescending treatment of women. Her male colleagues said they tried to respect her as an equal, but Mary Lou felt the dominant attitude was “You are a very lucky woman, to be extended this privilege.” She knew she was no luckier than any of the young men. She was dumbfounded when one of the male faculty wondered why she would continue her studies when “it’s not leading you anywhere.” Mary Lou knew that she obviously wasn’t to be ordained, but the memory still stings of the day on which she watched her university colleagues, now all priests, lined up in their resplendent robes at the Toronto seminary for their induction . On that day the seating plan for the ceremony did not even include her. There was some awkwardness about where to even place her during worship, so Mary Lou was sent to sit in the back with the nuns. As she looked in front of her she recognized a man who had sat beside her through their courses in Rome; she realized suddenly that although she had exactly the same education as he did, had forged similar experiences through her eight years of graduate study and received the same academic honors, her anatomy ultimately chained her to the back seat and prevented her from going through the door into active ministry that was open for him.

But, says Mary Lou, as a woman she has the benefit of two perspectives. Her science education trained her to think in rational logic like “the system,” and she has learned its theology from the inside -- she can even understand the jokes told in Latin and Italian among the priests -- but she also has learned to tap her unique woman’s ways of knowing that she believes are more flexible, intuitive, capable of multiple views, derived from experience and relationship-oriented. On moral concerns, Mary Lou struggled to learn traditional law-centered thinking, although it led to conclusions that simply seemed wrong or odd from her woman’s perspective. For example, in the issue of sterilization of handicapped women, the “logical” reason was supposedly “defense against rape.” No, thought Mary Lou, the issues have more to do with power and the meaning of motherhood.

A woman’s lens provides access to alternative ideas and ways of thinking. For example, Mary Lou doesn’t necessarily hold with the view that Catholic women should fight to become ordained and thus find a place as part of the existing system. Instead, Mary Lou would rather devote energy to reframing the whole system of ordination. The issue is messy anyway, what with the current shortage of priests, the practice of ‘stockpiling’ consecrated hosts that are distributed in the priest’s absence often by women religious, and the issue of confession which is often heard by women religious. Mary Lou tells the story of one Penance Celebration where the longest line of Catholics waiting to say confession formed, not outside the three formal confessionals in which priests sat, but beside a nun who was simply attending the service. Despite her gentle protest and the lack of privacy, parishioners pressed her to hear their confessions -- the priests obliged by granting them all a general absolution before the service proceeded. Mary Lou believes that despite the appearance that policies on women’s ordination may appear now to be closed issue, in pragmatic reality the church work goes on with men and women doing what needs to be done, making places and spaces to do it in.

The gender issue that Mary Lou chooses to fight right now in the Church is the gendered work roles assigned to women, especially women religious, within the parish. Nuns have traditionally polished the silver, ironed the linen, and hemmed the priest’s trousers. Nuns also are usually not paid honoria for their contributions. A priest who presides at a wedding receives a stipend but the woman religious who plays the organ does not. This is a blatant example of inequity and devaluing of women’s work that Mary Lou wants examined. The issue is slippery however: resource-poor parishes need the work done, and the women whose gifts are called to do it are usually glad of the opportunity to serve.

Right now Mary Lou is deliberately choosing to live within the system. Her ministry extends to her students and colleagues, the many boards and committees she serves, and the public presentations she is frequently invited to offer. She has learned to “name the pain” of her experiences, rather than running from it -- the pain of finding one’s way as a woman in a male-dominated church, in all its colours and varieties. She refuses to be “the little nun who behaves,” but she believes she has the freedom to carve out the space she needs to forge her own ideas, share them and nurture others’, innovate gently, and nudge changes in the larger system.

What do women bring to ministry that is special?

Throughout these very different stories told by Sheila, Dorothy, Kathleen, Diana, Mary, and Mary-Lou are woven many threads of similar hue and texture. Some threads have been teased apart and are described in the following paragraphs to answer questions that the reader may be wondering. 1. What do women bring to ministry that is special or perhaps different from prevailing ministerial approaches and images? 2. What unique struggles do women experience in the ministry? and 3. What strategies in conducting their ministry and meeting particular struggles have the women interviewed here found to be successful in their own work?

Three commonalities in ministering style in the Edmonton women’s stories here are also echoed to some extent in literature about women in ministry. First is their collaborative approach. All of the women stressed the importance of working alongside with and through people especially in small groups, accomplished by spending lots of time listening to people. Second is their unique woman’s perspective and presence in a congregation wrought through a lifetime of both biologically and socially gendered experience. Third is their propensity to position themselves as active change agents in congregations. Many of these women demonstrate an unusual creativity and a certain distinctive courage in their ministry, enabling them to help push churches into the next millennium.

Collaborative style of ministry

Dorothy frequently referred to her “diaconal” style of ministry, which focuses on education and nurture, as the approach she brings to every part of ministry including Word and Sacrament. The same could be said for many of the women ministers portrayed here. Most emphasized that they liked to work with small groups, whether in brainstorming new program ideas, sorting through a difficult issue, or planning worship. Kathleen Bowman says she works through consensus, never imposing structures and dictates. Mary Thomas stresses her approach of “educating and empowering” the laity. Betty Marlin, a Diaconal Minister on Faculty at St. Stevens College in Edmonton [3], explains that most women ministers think in terms of “how can we do this?,” in contrast to a more autonomous ministerial leadership style.

A key to the craft of building close-knit and collaborative small groups who can effectively carry out the church’s ministry is creating relationships. Most women talked frequently of their initiatives to get to know people well -- what Sheila calls “bonding” and “getting the pulse of the people” -- as an essential aspect of ministry. These women often actively approached people to talk, not just when there was a crisis but as a thread of everyday work. Listening is a delicate and gentle art, and women ministers here talked of being present and open to others, and sharing themselves. Dorothy believes that “women come to ministry the way they do everything else -- not broad strokes but tiny strokes.” Though this statement may not accurately describe all women, the image of a patient artist seems to fit many of the stories told here -- delicately creating strong colourful relationships through “tiny strokes” of frequent conversation.

A woman's perspective and presence

Many women recalled incidents confirming the importance of women’s images in the church. Anglican women have remarked to Kathleen their powerful spiritual experience of having Eucharist delivered by a woman representing God. Women ministers provide role models for young people, as Sheila found when one mother in her congregation thanked her for being such a significant influence and model in her teenaged daughter’s life. For many lay persons, women are still a novel sight in the ministry -- and like anything unusual, they invite curiosity and renewed interest. Betty Marlin tells the story of a woman in Calgary approached by a boy in her congregation, who asked: “Can a man  become a minister?”

Women ministers bring a life history that enables an intimate understanding of the issues faced by many women in their parishes. Some have personally coped with or become champions for women’s issues such as sexual harassment, maternity leave, or inclusive language in the church. Some experience pregnancy and motherhood, or the psychological and physical stresses of balancing family and career in a time when working women still assume the bulk of domestic responsibility along with certain critical judgment of their choice levied by certain individuals. As one of the women interviewed in this study remarked, men ministers often have a wife who not only assumes most responsibility for the family care, but also does much of the church work as a volunteer partner.

Women’s presence among the ranks of other ministers has also wrought changes. Kathleen believes women have changed the “old boys’ club” community, and that some men have remarked on positive improvements: ministers tending to be more sensitive and open to each other, less competitive, more honest about admitting stress and difficulty in their work, and more open to confronting issues about balancing ministry and family life.

Women ministers also seem to have developed a strong sense of identity and mission. Whether this results from fighting against constraints to find a unique place for themselves in a patriarchal male-dominated system, or having to wait and work long to secure a position, many indicated their sure sense that ministry was exactly where they should be. Many also demonstrate their predilection to confront issues directly yet delicately, unafraid of controversy. Several have also developed what they call a “feminist consciousness,” committed to equal rights and making space for all voices. Such a presence in congregations where women usually outnumber men cannot help but provide powerful models.

Women as change agents

It is this last characteristic that seems significant to women’s position as forces of change within the various denominations represented here. Many related stories of introducing congregations to new forms of worship, new collaborative ways of working, and new views on issues. The stories show not only unusual creativity, but also genuine courage. Women confronted the “fundamentalist renewal,” campaigned for inclusive language and policies that recognizes the rights of all groups, fought for stronger and more valued status for women in the Church, and gathered congregations to openly confront intensely difficult personal concerns. As Dorothy Naylor Mundel says, “push, push, push.” McConnell (1994) reports that United Church women find themselves in a church “between paradigms,” Mary Thomas is perhaps not unlike many of the women in this study in viewing herself as “the bridge” between old and new. Perhaps women ministers, despite their dramatically increasing numbers, still find themselves positioned outside the system: from the time they decide to pursue ministry as a career they must be willing to take risks and fight for what they believe. Mary Lou believes that women have learned to creatively effect change through their own struggles for rights to speak, minister, be recognized and be included: women are uniquely positioned to help lead the church through the currents of change battering its doors.

What unique struggles do women experience in the ministry?

For most women ministers, getting a job is still the most difficult gender-based struggle they must face. The issue of placement differs among denominations. Some congregations assume responsibility for “calling” their own minister, while in other denominations a church official appoints the minister. Although McConnell (1994) claims that cultural perceptions have changed, making the choice of ordained ministry now a viable option for women, various studies show that women candidates are still frequently passed over when congregations seek a new minister, and that women are over represented in the junior positions of the church  (Nason-Clark, 1984; Carroll et al. 1983; Lehman 1980). Sometimes names of ordained women aren’t even considered by a church seeking a new minister -- search committees may perceive that “our congregation isn’t ready for a woman.”

The difficulty for women is not only financial (many must take volunteer work or paid secular work while they continue to seek a call) but also professional: while they wait they miss out on essential years of experience. And as McConnell (1994) discovered, a significant majority of women entering the ministry do so as a second career. Many are thus struggling to find placement in their middle years, some supporting children as the time spent waiting for a church ticks on.

Women who find employment in a parish must cope with difficult issues and tensions which apparently are contributing to a dramatic increase in numbers of stress leaves among women ministers. Betty Marlin believes that one difficulty faced by women is high congregational expectations that a woman be “all things to all people.” Women ministers themselves are often complicit in this expectation, striving to reach out, nurture, and meet as many needs as possible. This creates problems when increasing parish demands that the minister respond to everyone’s “beck and call” conflict with a woman’s family needs. Women ministers themselves can easily become caught in supporting this mindset, laboring to meet superhuman expectations in order to “prove” themselves: the “I’m-as-good-as-any-man” syndrome.

In addition, Betty believes that significant pressure still exists for a woman to “prove” her capability in a church, a perception supported by women’s comments in this article that they had to work harder than men ministers to gain the same credibility. Kathleen and Diana both claimed from their own experiences that women’s mistakes, inevitable for anyone in the early years of ministry, are remembered longer and “count more” than men’s mistakes. Mary Thomas believes that “When a man has a problem in a church, it’s assumed to be something between the congregation and him. But when a woman experiences difficulty, it’s her fault.” When a “disaster” situation, as when a woman minister was ousted from a large Edmonton church, women ministers perceive that the resulting acrimony and betrayed trust cast suspicion on all women in the area.

Betty Marlin suggests that clergywomen in some congregations may be under more intense scrutiny than clergymen with respect to their personal lives. Certainly some women in this study indicated concern about negotiating dating and marriage or even choosing to remain single under the congregation’s watchful eye. Motherhood in ministry can also be difficult for some parishioners to accept, as Kathleen’s story indicates.

Dynamics of informal authority within a congregation present practical difficulties for any minister. For some women a particular source of tension may emerge from their relation to one or more women who tend to hold power in a particular parish: some call such women the “matriarchs” or “queen bee” of the congregation. Betty Marlin explains that a woman minister can unintentionally create competition, and must work hard to gain the trust of informal women authorities. In many of the women’s stories in this article, criticism or challenges to the minister’s authority seemed to come from more from women. “Actually,” said one minister, “my strongest supporters tend to be the men.”

But overall, the women in this study stressed the acceptance they received from their congregations. Many were encouraged to enter ministry, and mentored to extend their ministry, by men. Many commented that  “once the congregation got to know me. . .” -- or as one woman said, “once they realized I wouldn’t nag or natter at them” -- they received full support from their people.

What strategies in conducting their ministry and meeting particular struggles have women found to be effective?

What seems most clear from the stories of ministry told by these women is that the best strategies are not single actions or band-aid solutions pulled out to remedy a crisis, but rather a general attitude to people and an orientation to work that is organically entwined with everything they do and who they are. This attitude is one of truly caring to know people. Through the connective links they build through their congregations and the close relationships they continually nurture, these women could mobilize groups of voice and action, and respond quickly to issues inside and outside their churches because they knew and trusted their people.

Regarding the potential for unmanageable stress, all women agree that this is imminent if a minister does not set clear boundaries for her work. Some talk of carving out particular time-bounded spaces in their everyday lives for work -- when the time is up, they shift their energy to family or other parts of their lives. Sheila stresses the importance of finding a focus in ministry where the work is endless and overwhelming, deciding what one does well and what most needs doing. For Mary Thomas, the most important focus was talking to people: Get out there and visit! For Sheila, sometimes the focus was remembering that being  is more important than doing all the time. Through her most stressful ministerial crises, solitude and prayer were essential. Dorothy takes time off, negotiates vacations, and won’t take on more work more than she feels she can to do a good job. And Mary says, “I never tried to be perfect. That’s what saved me. I just did what I could and let the rest go.”

Perhaps the most striking strategy used to allay the load of pastoral care, administration, education, and planning worship by all these women is the amount of work conducted by the congregation itself. The multitude of tasks is spread among everyone, through collaborative groups that must be actively built, educated and maintained -- usually by the minister.

Finally, most women referred to the importance of support systems -- access to conversation -- in staying strong through their struggles. Says Dorothy, “When I need help, I talk” -- to a few trusted colleagues and honest friends who will say what they really  think. Sheila stresses that one must “Be honest with others, be honest with yourself, and be honest with God.” Mary Lou credits her “tremendous” support from other women for providing much-needed ballast throughout her incredible journey in the Catholic Church.


The women portrayed in this article tell of life in ministry in Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, and United churches marked with some struggle and frustration. But what sings most from these stories is women’s strength and joy. Of course it’s true that women in ministry face particular challenges that are gender-based. The women themselves, however, stress not their oppression but their wonder and satisfaction at the remarkable things they witness happening among the people in their churches. Women bring many special things to ministry, and in this article only three have been highlighted: women’s collaborative working style which can create strong connective networks through the congregation; women’s unique presence and perspective in a religious leadership role which provides new ways of thinking, new images of God, and new role models for congregations; and women’s courage and creativity, which positions them as effective change agents. In demanding a place in the church patriarchy, women’s presence inherently demands change.

Nason-Clark (1993) presents a strong call for more equitable gender relations in churches, beginning with actively increasing the number of women ministers in Christian churches, and supporting those who have found a church. The contemporary church, argues Nason-Clark, must support and celebrate equally the knowledge, experiences, and religious participation of both women and men at all levels. Equitable gender relations maintains the integrity of the scriptural message to challenge patriarchal structures and power, and work towards love, freedom, and release from bondage. Equitable gender relations enhances the viability of local church to respond quickly to congregational and community needs, by tapping the gifts and skills of all able and willing volunteers. Finally, equitable gender relations ensures the mission of the church in society, by equipping men and women equally as partners to proclaim the gospel and live its principles of freedom. But as long as women remain underrepresented in the ministry and few congregations and male clergymen have experience working with them, the gender role ideology both in churches and in the broader society will be slow to change and churches will effectively deny themselves the unique strong presence and rich gifts that women bring to ministry.

As McConnell (1994) concludes in her exploration of the contemporary situation of women in United Church ministry, “We have come a long way, but we have so-o-o-o far to go. We must not tire of naming the issues. We must continue to celebrate the positive steps. We must call injustice and discrimination when we see it. We must continue doing advocacy. We must not tire!” (p. 22)


Bowman, K. (1993).Kathleen Bowman. In (Ed.) P. Bays Partners in the dance: Stories of Canadian women in ministry. Toronto, ON: Anglican Book Center.

Carroll, J., Hargrove, B., and Lummis, A. (1983). Women of the cloth: A new opportunity for the churches. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Lehman, E.C., Jr. (1980). Placement of men and women in the ministry. Review of Religious Research 22  (1), 18-40.

McConnell, J. (1994). Women’s voices: 1994. Women in Ministry Committee of the Division of Ministry Personnel and Education. Conference of Manitoba & Northeastern Ontario.

Nason-Clark, N. (1984). Clerical attitudes towards appropriate roles for women in church and society: An empirical investigation of Anglican, Methodist, and Baptist clergy in Southern England. Unpublished PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, England.

Nason-Clark, N. (1993). Gender relations in contemporary Christian organizations. In Ed. W.E. Hewitt The Sociology of Religion: A Canadian Focus  (pp. 215-232). Markham, ON: Butterworths.

[1]The numbers of women in United Church ministry quadrupled between 1983 and 1994, with 1053 women in ministry (including 682 ordained) in Canada in 1994 (McConnell, 1994).

[2] Six women were selected from names suggested to the author, to represent a broad range of experience in the United Church, Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptist, and Roman Catholic Churches. Each woman was interviewed in a tape-recorded conversation held in May-June, 1996. Interviews were approximately two hours in length. Participants were asked to narrate their history of work in the ministry, including critical incidents of both joy and disappointment, and to discuss their approaches to ministry and what they considered to be their unique gifts. Each participant resides in the Edmonton area and has worked or is working in Christian ministry in the Edmonton area. Some of the women are represented here using their real names and the names of their current or past churches. Other women have chosen to be represented by a pseudonym for various reasons.

[3] Betty Marlin was the seventh woman interviewed for this article. Bettyprovided both names of participants and invaluable background information about issues faced by United Church women ministers for this article.

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