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In church leadership, are women undermining women?

In church leadership, are women undermining women?

Writing for Patheos, the Rev. Frederick William Schmidt suggests that one of the principal challenges facing women in positions of leadership in the church are other women who work to undermine them.

Don’t get me wrong. The male chauvinists are alive and kicking, but they are often the front-men for women who object even more vociferously to women in leadership than do men themselves.

Almost fifteen years ago I wrote a book on women’s ordination. Based on interviews with fifty women, ten each from five different denominations, I explored the formal and informal barriers to the ordination of women. It never occurred to me that the book would still be in print or that it would still be relevant, but it is. My research and work has moved onto other subjects, but I’ve continued to track the influences that shape women’s opportunities for leadership in the church and I’ve noticed some patterns that were less apparent to me fifteen years ago.

This is one of them. Time and again, in parishes large and small, it’s often women who make it hard for women to lead. The interesting thing about this dynamic is that the women who object to “strong” women are not just “strong” as well, but are overbearing bullies or passive-aggressive bullies who object to a woman who is more self-possessed. So what is the real issue, if it isn’t one of style?

Do you believe this is an issue? If so, why, and what can be done about it?


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Baba Yaga

Mark, you’re not convincing me, I’m not convincing you, and perhaps we’ve both devoted enough energy to the topic. I’d like to move on. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and have a good weekend.

Pamela Grenfell Smith

Bloominton, Indiana


Yes. It’s a very serious problem.

The Episcopal Church and its congregations and dioceses need MUCH better grievance procedures. In too many cases, people who are bullied or abused by church leaders have nowhere to turn, and too often people are punished for reporting abuses of power.


@ Pamela Grenfell Smith – I remain confused as to your assertion that Rev. Schmidt is using “harsh and judgmental language.” This is particular vexing given the lexicon of Christian orthodoxy: “sinner”, “damned”, “condemned to death”, “righteousness is like flithy rags,” etc.

I believe that Rev. Schmidt is quite correctly broadening and refining the categories of thought that one can and should apply to conflicts of this type. In fact, limiting oneself to the nomenclature of Christian orthodoxy and theology would constrain the ability of both the clergy and the laity to clearly discuss and resolve these problems.

Mark Goode

Baba Yaga

Cheryl Dellasiga’s wonderful work on relational aggression offers a variety of helpful resources and interventions right here:

Perhaps I missed something but, as I read, Wendy Dackson’s essay in “Ecumenical Ecclesiology.” identifies the practitioners of relation aggression as the bishops and prelates of the Anglican Communion. Yup. True word.

As for Dackson’s assertion that girl bullying among adults is rampant in the churches – we all have different experiences, of course. I have not found it to be so. If it is so, well, the church is for sinners – and I point again to Dellasiga’s suggested interventions.

Clearly, Schmidt has raised a serious topic about which several commenters have given witness. I thank him for that and I thank Jim for bringing Schmidt’s voice to the Cafe.

I’m standing by my two main points. First, clergy leadership can and should model and teach healthy conflict management. Second, using harsh and judgmental language against one another is not good for the life of the parish church.

Pamela Grenfell Smith

Bloomington, Indiana


This from Wendy Dackson, posted with her permission: Wendy Dackson • Read Cheryl Dellasega’s ‘Mean Girls Grown Up’ and ‘Girl Wars’. This starts early in life. It is known as relational aggression (where violence is committed through relational means like coalition forming, gossip-spreading, and social exclusion, and undermining confidence and authority, rather than through physical intimidation). Because the grand masters of the art of relational aggression tend to be adolescent females, it is more popularly called ‘girl bullying’.

Girl bullying is rampant in the churches, but not merely practiced by adolescents or females. Your altar guild is rife with it. Your house of bishops will be rife with it. Read my essay ‘Integrity, Alternative Aggressions, and Impaired Communion’ in *Ecumenical Ecclesiology: Unity, Diversity and Otherness in a Fragmented World*, ed. Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, T&T Clark, 2009, for a take on how this has played out on the global Anglican stage.

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