More than at any point in recent history, women are guiding and nurturing communities of faith in leadership roles within churches, parishes and synagogues.
An October 2018 report by the Rev. Eileen R. Campbell-Reed, an academic entrepreneur, seminary professor, author and consultant, confirmed this. Campbell-Reed’s report, which examined Christian denominations in the U.S., found that in 2016, 20.7 percent of U.S. professional clergy were women, up from 2.3 percent in 1960.
“In the last two decades clergywomen in the U.S. are experiencing impressive and steady expansion,” wrote Campbell-Reed. “In several denominations, the percentage of ordained women has doubled or tripled all the growth of previous decades.”
In 2017, women were 57 percent of Unitarian Universalist ordained clergy and congregational pastors, and half of United Church of Christ clergy and 38 percent of pastors, according to the report.
In Episcopal churches, women made up 37 percent of ordained clergy and 33 percent of pastors, nearly identical to the percentages for Evangelical Lutherans. They were followed by the United Methodist Church, in which 29 percent of clergy and 27 percent of pastors are women, the report said, and Presbyterians, at 29 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
In 2006, Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected to serve a nine-year term as the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States — she was the first woman to hold the position. As of July 1, 2019, six women had been elected as diocesan or suffragan bishops in the Episcopal Church that year — the most ever elected in one year in the church’s history, according to the Episcopal News Service.
“What a day for the church; what a day for women,” Bishop Todd Ousley, the head of the church’s Office of Pastoral Development, told the news service at the time. He suggested that there has been “a dance” between society’s changing attitude toward women as leaders and “the church’s efforts or, at certain points, the church’s resistance to making this shift.”
According to a Dec. 17, 2019, article by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism have been ordaining female rabbis for decades, while Orthodox Jews have barred women from many ritual roles. An effort by Yeshivat Maharat, an Orthodox seminary, to train women as spiritual leaders was met by pushback in 2017, when the Orthodox Union adopted a policy prohibiting its synagogues from hiring female clergy, the agency reported.
The report by Campbell-Reed noted that the Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention do not permit women in clergy.
But in Catholic churches, women do serve as lay leaders of parishes, and in 2005, Campbell-Reed’s report stated, the number of lay leaders outnumbered priests as designated leaders in parish ministry, according to statistics gathered by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. In 2009, over 80 percent of those lay ecclesial ministers were women, the report stated.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s position statement on women in ministry states, “Women participate equally with men in the priesthood of all believers. Their role is crucial, their wisdom, grace and commitment exemplary. Women are an integral part of our Southern Baptist boards, faculties, mission teams, writer pools and professional staffs.
“While scripture teaches that a woman’s role is not identical to that of men in every respect, and that pastoral leadership is assigned to men, it also teaches that women are equal in value to men.”
Maureen Fiedler, author of the 2010 book “Breaking Through the Stained Glass Ceiling: Women Religious Leaders in Their Own Words,” told NPR host Michel Martin that “we’re in the midst of a massive cultural change in the world of religion. And what you’ve got is people starting to come to terms with what it feels like to sit in a pew and have your preacher be a woman, to have a woman read the Torah in the synagogue.
“I think you’ve got a massive cultural change going on that is a direct result of the fact that women have now, for several decades, assumed leadership roles in secular life, whether it’s politics, the judiciary, academia, the business world,” Fiedler said. “It’s gradually being taken for granted.”