Statistics, Stigma and the Stained-Glass Ceiling

What can elicit a firestorm of stigma, bias and unfair generalizations better than the release of some brand new statistics on the state of the church?  Even more specifically, those that portray women as underrepresented.  The release of the National Congregations Study last week has precipitated just such a milieu of articles and commentary. 

The study shines new light on what has become known as “the stained-glass ceiling”, a term referring to the limits women clergy find regarding their vocational opportunities.  Specifically, it reported that only 11.4% of congregations have a female head clergyperson or leader (p. 47). As a result, good United Methodists are reflecting on our own research that shows that 27% of women are ordained in our UM system and only two women occupy the primary leadership position in our 100 largest churches.

While statistics in our denomination exceed the national averages, it is important to remember that the numbers reported in the NCS include religions and denominations that do not ordain women at all.  The fact that the UMC ordains women is a positive first step that we took in 1956.  However, our progress in supporting and promoting women clergy has seriously stalled over the past twenty years.

Enter “the Stained Glass Ceiling,” a metaphor for the limits placed on women’s call to ministry.  Jeremy Smith’s December 2014 blog, “Why Do the Largest #UMCs Not Have Female Pastors?” provoked a variety of comments.  Sadly, many of them seem to propagate the same stigmas that have held women back for the past 60 years.  Let’s look at a few of them:

Women don’t do new church plants.  My first appointment in the United Methodist Church was to a new church start.  I pastored that church for nine years.  It was one of the most spiritually rewarding times in my career, but new church starts do not always, or even frequently, result in mega churches.  In fact, according to the North American Mission Board, across all denominations, only 68% of new churches survive the first four years.  Do women accept the challenge of starting new churches?  You bet we do! Is that entrepreneurial spirit and faith rewarded?  Rarely.

Women will support women.  It is true that some women, placed in powerful positions, will use that power for the good of women, although statistically it would be nearly impossible to measure.  Anecdotally we learn that women who are raised to more influential positions lose their voice, or become part of the existing power dynamic that continues to marginalize those who are already pushed to the sidelines.   It is too easy for those in advantaged positions to lose touch with the struggling.  Rather than give away influence, those with power, even women, tend toward accumulating more, even if it means ignoring their greatest supporters.               

The local church has no bias toward womenOur local churches are full of wonderful, spirit-filled people.  Many of them understand that society has changed dramatically in the last 60 years.  However, even churches who believe they are welcoming to women treat them dramatically different than they do men.  Women are asked about their plans to have children, their income compared to a spouse, their nail polish, shoes and weight and their menstrual cycles.  Churches will even accept a woman pastor for a year or two, with the stipulation that they never be asked to do so again.

Women don’t want to lead.  This may be the biggest stigma of all against women.  Women want to lead and have led in our churches.  Perhaps the bias is that women’s leadership does not look like men’s.  Women bring a new set of skills and methods to the task of leadership.  This may turn the arena of leadership, established by men, on its head.  It might also be uncomfortable for those accustomed to old leadership motifs.  However, it does not mean that women don’t want to lead or can’t lead.

Women across the United Methodist Church are still hitting their heads on the stained-glass ceiling.  It is a painful reality that the Church still discriminates against women.  Yet, Jesus Christ, in the tradition of the prophets before him, implored us to make level the mountains and valleys so all might have equal access to power and influence.  What are the possibilities if we let go of our fears and allowed all people the opportunity to lead in the United Methodist Church?  What might it look like if we acknowledged the statistics, let go of the stigma, and broke through the stained glass ceiling?  Perhaps we might see the kin-dom of God.

Leigh Goodrich was the former Sr. Dir. Of Leadership and Education of GCSRW. 

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