Women clergy are more likely to lead small congregations than large ones, but Adelle Banks of Religion News Service notes that the “stained glass ceiling” is showing some cracks as women begin to lead large historic congregations. In recent months, the Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner became the first woman solo senior pastor at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Amy Butler was elected senior pastor of New York City’s Riverside Church and the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli began leading Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.
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.”
“Now that they’re in crisis, it’s almost like the men are moving out and, ‘Oh well, we’ll just leave it to the women.’ Then if the church doesn’t succeed, then it’s the woman’s fault. It’s a kind of a double-edged sword.”
Gaines-Cirelli, 44, doesn’t view it that way.
“I think there are challenges and I think that we face them and I think that the fact that women are being counted among those who are capable of facing those challenges at the highest level is a very positive sign,” said the native Oklahoman.
The Rev. Fran Holliday was a teenager when she felt a call to the priesthood, but continually met closed doors until she read about the ordinations in July 1974 in Philadelphia. The story of one woman in particular, the Rev. Nancy Wittig, stood out.
“It was so inspirational to me,” said Holliday, now associate rector at All Saints Episcopal Church in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood. She wanted “to mark the event that was so practically and theologically important to the church” and invited Wittig to preside over three services in early August.
“These women were on the cutting edge and dedicated to living out the gospel. … They pushed the church to the gospel of full inclusion,” Holliday said.
The ordinations — and a House of Bishops meeting in Chicago several weeks later at which they were declared invalid — made international news, drew death threats and jeopardized the livelihoods and reputations of all involved.
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