Sex(ism) and The Single Rev

Post Author: Mariclair Partee

Where our foremothers had to endure being hissed at as priestesses, snubbed at the altar rail by disaffected churchgoers who refused to receive the sacraments from their hands, I grew into adulthood in the reality of a Church that had ordained women as priests since before I was born. When I discerned my call to ordination, it was in a parish that had called a woman as rector when I was 7. I didn’t have to experience the front lines of that fight, and I continue to be profoundly grateful to the women who did, often sacrificing personal happiness along the way. And so it troubles me to admit that one of the last great bastions of institutionalized sexism today is the Church that I love.

Where the secular professions have seen thirty odd years of legislative pressure and litigation, intricately developed human resource policies and intentional consciousness raising, our Godly corner of the world seems at times to have been preserved in amber. For many of us who are female ministers and pastors,  the stained glass ceiling hovers just slightly north of ordination, though for some even that isn’t an option. If we needed any better evidence of the perniciousness of sexism than our own collective experiences, it comes to us in a thoughtfully compiled and incredibly helpful new publication titled The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion Guide: Surviving and Thriving in Ministry (Alban; $17.00). Compiled by four young pastors in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)- Melissa Lynn DeRosia, Marianne J. Grano, Amy Morgan, and Amanda Adams Riley- this book grew out of their own experiences as women of the cloth in a vocational world still struggling with the realities of a Church in which the priest is a lady and pastors may become pregnant.

The authors endeavor to be a sort of pocket peer group for ordained women, and cover just about every aspect of the path we tread. The book begins with an essay on how to negotiate the call process, and includes helpful suggestions on everything from expectations of support staff to how to talk about salary. Subsequent chapters provide shared stories and advice for the particular situations of women serving as solo pastors as well as those in associate ministry (a short section on how to relate to the usually male senior pastor- and his wife- is brilliant, as this is definitely not the sort of ground covered in seminary), the single pastor, the married pastor, and the pastor with children, then transition into more general discussions of self-care, conflict resolution, transition, and nourishing a spiritual life through it all.

It happened that my copy of this book arrived in the same mail delivery as the Second Edition of Gloria Steinem’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (Holt and Company; $19.00), a collection of articles and essays written over her first twenty five years as a leader in the women’s movement, and the two serve as good, if bittersweet, companion pieces. It was at times hard to tell whether the story of the lone woman sitting in a meeting, silently humiliated, as members of an all-male board took turns telling crude, demeaning, sexist jokes was from Steinem’s experiences as a journalist in the 1960s or a young woman minister interviewing with her denomination’s regional governing body (in fact it was the latter). The advice given by both books is the same- don’t pretend that something is funny when it is not, or more generally, never forget that you are called to the work that you are doing, and no one has the right to take that away from you through belittlement or shame.

Above all, both of these books exhort, surround yourself with the humor and support of a good group of girlfriends, because sisterhood is key to survival. In a nod to some of their own roots in The Young Clergy Women’s Project, Riley, Morgan, Grano, and DeRosia state that the only antidote to the power of the old boys’ network is a young girlfriends’ network of shared wisdom and experience. Steinem noted that her only disappointment in her book’s reissue decades after the original publication was that the material remained relevant, and this rings true as well for the publication of The Girlfriend’s Clergy Companion. But as we continue along the path to a day when we can all simply be pastors, ministers, and priests, no descriptor needed, it is good to have our girlfriends as companions on the way.

Mariclair Partee serves as the Canon for the Ministry of the Baptized at the Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, PA. She decided against becoming a roller girl.

12 replies
  1. Alex says:

    Sarah said: “The point that has been made that if older women were members of YCWP there would be a greater range of maturity and experience within the group is actually the exact reason to my mind why this network needs to exist with a fixed upper age limit.”
    Yes! Exactly. As one of the founding members of this organization, I would not belong if there were no age window. Once I am over 40, there are a number of other organizations to join. But this organization is for a specific group of women with a specific life experience level.
    Is the AARP discriminating against me because I cannot join until I am 50? Yes, but not a prejudicial discrimination… there is a difference.

  2. Maria says:

    this is my last post in this thread. It is becoming apparent to me that you are not interested in understanding what I mean, or what this group is about, and therefore I will not engage further.
    For your wife, there are several other options, among those the Nazarene Women’s Network. They are on facebook, look it up.
    Your statement about us lacking depth and maturity because of age might be true in some cases, and certainly very untrue in others. And it is, most of all, insulting and in itself also a sign of the ageism you accuse us of.
    I have served as a priest for 12 years, several of my colleagues in this network even longer. We know, also, that our time here is limited, and that we need to retire from TYCWP soon to give room for younger women who need the network more than we do. That’s how it is, and how it should be. The needs are different in different stages in our lives.
    I wish you luck in your search for a community for your wife, and blessings in your future ministry.

  3. Sarah - from the UK says:

    I respond also to the discussion on here about age in regard to membership of the YCWP.
    To clear up any questions about my own background first, I am a 32 year old single woman who is a minister in the United Reformed Church, a UK based denomination. I am minister of three congregations and also a denominational ecumenical officer so regularly represent the United Reformed Church at meetings and events with other denominations.
    The understanding (imperative even) that what the Christian community should do together as much as it can without recourse to particular sub-groupings, be those denomination, age, gender or whatever is very important to me and is a concept I would defend. However, that is not to say that there is never a place for groups and associations that are based on age or gender or whatever. Many (most?) churches have particular groups aimed at children of various ages, at youth, for carers of young children and for the elderly. Many churches have fellowship groups here in the UK that consist of exclusively of retired women or of retired men. Groups that might theoretically have an open membership policy but the reality is that the content of the groups activity are not interesting (or who meet at the wrong time or location) to either the opposite gender or to younger people.
    The point that has been made that if older women were members of YCWP there would be a greater range of maturity and experience within the group is actually the exact reason to my mind why this network needs to exist with a fixed upper age limit.
    I routinely attend meetings and events where I am the youngest person by 25 or more years. I have no problem working with and being in a community with people who are old enough to be my parents and grandparents. I have plenty of access which I value very much to the pool of experience that age brings from my ministerial colleagues, and from within the wider body of Christ, both within my own tradition and ecumenically. My own tradition has a women in ministry network which is open to women in ministry of any age from which the particular experience of older women is available. I believe that many traditions and denominations have similar groups.
    What the YCWP offers is a space where, quoting the network’s own strapline, I’m not the only one. I am one of the young people who has stayed in the church and alongside the witness and experience of my sisters and brothers in the faith who have more chronological years than I do, I also need the particular support of others who are walking a similar journey to me in the now. It is hard being a Christian under 40 in the UK (and I don’t deny its hard at any age) but of the people I grew up with and am still in contact with, both within my family and at school, youth groups etc, I am the only one who still has any connection to the church. My friends outside the church no doubt care for me deeply but would admit themselves they cannot understand fully what my life is like. I have had older colleagues articulate similar sentiments. Yes, I love and value my older colleagues but I need the particular support too of the people who are my peers. I need a space with people who understand and can empathise, not because they experienced what I am ten or twenty or more years ago but because they do so today, in September 2011. For me, the YCWP massively helps to fit that bill.

  4. Andrew says:

    Maria, you seem to have missed the connection I was drawing from the parable…. yes, I agree in your comments about it but I was actually drawing a comparison of the article and too many women’s attitudes to the whining workers who were demanding their rights….. God’s idea of justice is far bigger and very different from our wordly view of it…. he bestows equal love to all.
    Unfortunately, all too often a group lobying for something very rarely finds the middle ground, and instead veers towards an equal injustice as an over correction ie the very common view of feminism by people (including women).
    My comment about it possibly being geographic can be supported. Certain denominations are geographic ie Southern Baptists who are Stateside….. and many Reformed denominations also tend to be found has having a geographic inclination in Europe, hence a theology which does not recognise any value of women having a position of leadership and authority over men…..
    Re the comment about the under 40’s Female Ministers group….. it suggests that the same problems do not apply to older…. Yes, the group would probably have more depth and experience in the matters concerned if it was specific to women regardless of age….. At the moment you are discriminating…. not very equal rights amongst women…..
    It seems your stance is perceived as being equal to the problem you are criticizing…. hey ho!

  5. Scott says:

    As someone who has watched and supported the YCWP for a couple of years now, and also have many colleagues with spouses above the age limit, I can sympathize with your desire to find a great group for your no doubt gifted wife.
    A grouping of age cohorts is not a form discrimination but is an attempt to tend to the needs and interests and issues of a limited group. Just like groupings geared to the specific needs of people in similar situations (race, creed, gender, nationality, etc).
    If they were to extend the age to under 50, it would not be any less “age discriminatory”, it would just include your wife in the group that discriminates. And, it would no longer be the Young CWP…but the Middle-Aged CWP. Perhaps, you can encourage your wife and her clergy companions of the same gender to get together as these younger colleagues have done. She would be blessing for all the women who will “graduate” from YWCP. Just a thought.

  6. Maria says:

    Hi again Andrew.
    I am not completely sure what you are upset about. It does seem that you are very upset, and I will try to address your concerns in order of appearance.
    I work in the Church of Sweden. We have had women priests for over 50 years. We have three female bishops. We live in the most equal society on earth. And yet, I too have experienced sexism and discrimination because of being a woman. It is not a geographic thing. It may be that certain organizations like your denomination have managed well in trying to eradicate those oppressive structures, but it still does not mean, sadly, that women do not experience sexism.
    Men do too.
    The thing about feminism is that both men and women have everything to gain from it. It calls for women and men to be payed equally for equal jobs, it calls for people to be allowed to choose for themselves what their future careers and lives are going to look like. Regardless of gender, and what others think is appropriate for their sex.
    This radical equality is the fundament of feminism. Feminists are not man-haters. And feminists are not people who want everyone to be the same.
    Granted, there are feminist fractions who do not agree with me. Just like there are Christians that think killing is great.
    Regarding God and rights… In the passage you referred to, Jesus is not talking about justice between people, he is talking about the Kingdom and who has the right to go there. Not even the craziest misogynist would claim that women don’t get into Heaven, so I fail to see how it is relevant to this discussion. Au contraire, I believe that God wants us to use whatever talents we’re given (Matthew 25:14-30) for the spreading of the Kingdom, and that goes for all people. Even women are supposed to, and to remove obstacles for women to do this is a good, and feminist, thing to do.
    And finally, regarding our cut-off in age: I am sorry if your wife feels discriminated against. I am 37, and I honestly think 40 is too old to be called young. I would rather see the limit at 35. The project is called the Young Clergy Women Project. Extending the age limit to 50 would make that name a bit strange. Just like the junior league in whatever sport can’t be for adults.
    If she does have a big problem with this, tell her to write the board herself.

  7. Andrew says:

    Maria, thanks for responding. I would just like to respond. There is no doubt that there are plenty of places where the male domination is a priority to maintain by some. Maybe it is a geographic thing. Here in the UK, my tribe (Church of the Nazarene) are seeing a large increase in women ministers. We are not perfect, but we have always theologically but maybe not practically lived as male and female on equal terms. If you do a search re women ordination in our denomination you will see that at times we have been more forward thinking and doing compared to many.
    The point that you responded to re ‘getting over it’by commenting ‘We are women, simple as that. There is no changing that.’ is interesting. I live in the real world also, but maybe a very different approach. Yes we are all equal, but we men are unfortunately men, simple as that. There is no changing that.
    The bad examples I have seen within my own denomination re feminism (not different from anywhere else) results in potential supporters perceiving something very different… usually fundamentalist in attitude as it happens….. guaranteed to not work. I do think Jesus tended to point things out, and lead/live by example. The issue of ‘rights’ is interesting – if you use a lectionary, last weeks illustration of rights (Matthew 20:1-16) is a case in point. Yes it is about equality, yes to justice….. but our version of human rights is quashed…. no preference, no positive discrimination….. but God view of equality.
    We essentially agree on the important bits…. equality, and no doubt diversity within…. but the feminist movement was good intended but is too often badly/disasterously put into action all to often.
    By the way, please extend your interest group to maybe under 50 years of age…. my Ordained wife may then feel welcomed and accepted (too ageist!)…. and not discriminated against…. just a thought.

  8. Maria says:

    thanks for commenting.
    I do not doubt that you are a good person. It seems you would not be one of the persons telling the demeaning jokes. I do agree with you that we are all primarily human and Christian, and that shouting loudly from a soapbox might not be the wisest tactics for implementing change.
    However, I do not think that “getting over being a woman” is the answer either. We are women, simple as that. There is no changing that.
    There is also the pretty major issue of the experience of being treated like a less knowledgeable, less competent and less important person simply because of being a woman.
    I think we live in different realities. Many women have never really experienced exclusion because of gender, and even fewer men have experienced it. It is not a personal matter to those who haven’t. But for those who have it is very personal, and very damaging. It is, actually, a matter of rights, whether you like it or not. The deeply human and Christian right to be who you are called to be.
    This is not ranting, it is a sad and sorrowful stating of a fact that should have been left behind decades ago.
    So, please, if you want to reflect Jesus – lead by example. Listen to the stories, be a person that lifts others up. Walk with those who are oppressed and excluded. Telling them to “get over it” was never Jesus’ way.

  9. Andrew says:

    Unfortunately the methods employed by feminists have all to often resembled too many similarities to the worst of fundamentalist thinking and discussion.
    My wife is an Ordained Minister, but doesn’t fall into the age bracket of being a ‘young’ one it seems. I am also an Ordained Minister….We have different ministries in different locations.. Unfortunately, we often find ourselves thinking that the best way to improve things is not by many of the tactics too often used to convince people, but to actually reflect a person called Jesus in approach…. no soap box, no hysteria, no ranting about rights and how unfair things are….. but just leading by example……. Feminism
    , as a movement needs to get over being a woman… when it does, it may be more effective!

  10. Siri Erickson says:

    Thanks for sharing this piece. While on sabbatical this summer, I read “A Church of Her Own” by Sarah Sentilles, which also covers some of this same ground. It is crucial to be surrounded by other girlfriends as we do this work.

  11. Suzanne says:

    Mariclair, thank you so much for these words. Great post! As one of the many YCW out there who have experienced sexism in the church, I really appreciate your words, as well as those of the books you note. Now I need to go add these to my reading list!


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