Clergy Women Speak out about Their Experience
The nation may be having a “Me Too” moment, but sexual harassment is alive and well in the church. The target? Women clergy.
It starts early. As a student pastor, I noticed that my sermon feedback forms sometimes contained unsolicited, inappropriate comments. “Nice legs.” “Love your dress.” “Easy on the eyes.” “How do you keep that figure?” When asked if he had similar experiences, my colleague and supervisor Jeff was red-faced with shock. “No! Never!”
Pastor Laurena served two small yoked churches in rural New York. While still a newcomer to the ministry, she made a pastoral visit to a widower to plan his wife’s funeral. He greeted her at the door in his bathrobe and slippers. “Please pardon my appearance. I haven’t been feeling well. I thought, for sure, my wife would outlive me. Can you come in?”
Laurena did. After planning the funeral at the kitchen table, her elderly host opened his robe and flashed her. She ran. “The worst thing,” Laurena laughs, “was that I still had to do the funeral!”
Harassment is often expressed more subtly as parishioners refer to their women pastors as sweetie, sweetheart, honey, kiddo, girl, girlfriend, and in one case, “the witch.” In a particularly newsworthy case, Rev. Dr. Amy K. Butler, who pastored Riverside Church in New York City, one of the pre-eminent Protestant congregations in the country, received a bottle of wine and a tee-shirt from a former member of the church’s governing council. Both bore the label “Sweet Bitch.” When confronted about sexist labels and names, most parishioners will stop, but some persist.
Misconduct is experienced by even the most respected and experienced of women religious professionals. A female seminary professor relates that one day, while she was making copies in a common area, an older, influential, married male colleague stopped by and stood close behind. “Mmmm,” he purred, rubbing her shoulders and back. She also shared about incipient sexism. For example, male faculty members regularly expect her to take notes and minutes for meetings. Pastor, professor, and secretary?
Beyond the sexualized comments and behaviors, women clergy experience spectacular, gender-based, public challenges to authority that their male colleagues do not. An Episcopal priest, Anne, reminisced about her earliest days in ministry at a multi-staff church. One Sunday, a woman colleague served communion, a first for the church. The members didn’t like it. Indeed, some refused to receive the sacrament. Anne relates that the matter was resolved after the fact by a male priest, who took the most influential complainant aside, explaining to him that he was “not rejecting the woman celebrant, but he was rejecting Jesus. Those were sobering words, and the woman priest had no trouble from then on.”
Not all women clergy have the support of male colleagues. A smalltown pastor shares that she participated in an annual ecumenical community festival. All clergy were invited to preach, but when she took the pulpit, the men walked out and the women turned their backs. “I was grateful to the congregation I served who defended my role before their fellow townspeople. Still, it was a lonely place to be.”
Women clergy express disappointment that some of the most persistent challenges to their authority come from other women. A number of clergywomen indicated that they had been targeted by gossip within church women’s circles, a grapevine that critiqued everything: weight, hairstyle, clothing, parenting, and marriages. Sadly, female parishioners are sometimes the most vocal in rejecting a woman’s calling to ministry and place in the pulpit.
One pastor recalls the day that a local woman worshiped with her rural church for the first time. After the service was over, the woman berated her. “Women are not supposed to preach. We are to learn from men in submission and silence.”
In reflecting on their experiences of misconduct, many clergywomen report that they are unclear how to respond. Those who entered the ministry decades ago simply found that harassment “goes with the territory.”
Even if women wish to take action, they may not have a process or a support network that can assist them. Mennonite pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler reports that although churches have publicly embraced the “Safe Sanctuaries” movement that guards church members against sexual misconduct, few denominations have developed policies or procedures to address sexual harassment and bullying of women clergy. It’s problematic that the people who harass may also be the people who hold the purse strings and control compensation. Also, church personnel matters are typically handled by member volunteers who are untrained in matters of misconduct and bullying.
The harassment that clergywomen experience reveals an underlying ethos of gender bias that is pervasive, even among the progressive mainline protestant churches that have been ordaining women for more than sixty years. Female pastors are paid less than men. The 2019 Presbyterian Church (USA) salary survey (the most recent data available) indicates that women have lower effective salaries in every region of the country and in every ministerial capacity. Female pastors make on average thirteen percent or $8,503 less than their male counterparts. The General Assembly of the PC(USA) resolved in 2018 to urge their 166 constituent Presbyteries to “act decisively and embrace a goal of gender equity for all ministers.” Even with decisive action, the gap won’t be bridged any time soon.
An Alabama Methodist clergywoman relates that even when churches are willing to change, forces within denominations sometimes are not. “I was offered a significant raise by my church when I became the senior pastor. But the bishop at the time had the church reduce my salary by $5,000. The bishop told me it could be bad for my husband’s self-esteem if I made so much money since my husband was clergy as well, it might be hard on our marriage.”
Yet the problem is more than pay. The Hartford Institute for Religion and Research reports that only twenty percent of mainline congregations are led by women. Female pastors are much more likely to serve in smaller congregations, often with limited finances and big problems. Indeed, only a handful of large, high-steeple churches have women serving as heads of staff.
Lee Hinson-Hasty of the Committee on Theological Education has an insider’s perspective on the dynamics of gender as men and women respond to God’s call. In a blog post, Hinson-Hasty suggests that churches—and the committees that prepare candidates for ministry—still give priority to men, even as more women are ordained. On average, it takes women longer to move through the ordination process. Upon graduation from seminary, men are more likely to have been offered jobs. Once ordained, women not only are paid less, they are also fifteen percent less likely to have benefits like healthcare, pension, and insurance.
Increasingly, denominations realize that, if change is to come, action is needed. Both the United Methodist Church (UMC) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have taken creative initiatives to raise awareness of the experience of clergywomen with videos that show male pastors reading aloud the outrageous, sexist comments that are routinely said to their female counterparts.
Imagine a grey-haired pastor in a clerical collar stating, “Now that you’re pregnant, your belly sticks out further than your boobs,” or a bearded, young, hipster pastor saying, “I keep picturing you naked under your robe.” The spontaneous shock and discomfort of the men highlights the seriousness of the problem. They were incredulous, demoralized, angered. One male pastor said afterward, “My heart is broken.”
The resulting short films, “#HerTruth” and “Seriously? Actual Things Said to Female Pastors in the NC Synod,” aired at the conferences’ annual meetings and were greeted with standing ovations. According to the UMC Commission on the Status and Role of Women, the object of the videos was to make church members uncomfortable with the sexism that female pastors routinely experience. The Rev. Chrysti Dye, who chairs the North Carolina commission, said “There’s a collective hope that you’re lifting the veil on a culture in society and in the church of demeaning women, sexualizing them and objectifying them. We want to wake up everyone.”
Despite the harassment, sexism, and gender bias, women clergy persist. They do so because God has called them to ministry. That holy purpose counter balances the hardship. Some women even affirm that their church work is uniquely rewarding in gender-specific ways.
Jane, who specialized in pastoral care as a minister with a multi-staff church, feels that her identity as a woman allowed her to make a healing difference in the lives of her female parishioners, especially women over sixty.
A 75-year-old woman made an appointment to see Jane. “Her husband had been dead a good ten years. She confessed that she had an affair when she was in her 20s and her husband was in the service. It had paralyzed her for years. I was able to put a priestly hat on and offer her God’s forgiveness through prayer. She wept and said it was a gift to be able to let this burden go. She said she never would have said this to a male pastor.”
Katrina echoes Jane’s belief in the special ability of women clergy to help and heal. She has a memory that she deeply cherishes. She was pastoring an elderly woman, widowed for over 40 years, who one day offhandedly mentioned that she always accepted hugs because she didn’t get enough physical touch in her life. “After I learned that,” Katrina says, “anytime we’d happen to sit next to each other at coffee hour I’d reach for her hand under the table. We would carry on regular conversation above the table while secretly holding hands below. Her eyes would shine at me, overflowing with love in these brief moments of physical connection and care.” It was an act of caring that would be off limits to male clergy, whose handholding might be construed as a sexual advance.
Woman clergy also find blessing in their special capacity to balance mothering and pastoring.
Melodie remembers the Sunday morning that she was charged with leading worship and caring for her two-year-old granddaughter, “In the middle of the sermon she stripped off all her clothes, stood on the front pew, and announced, ‘Memama, I’m naked!’ That was the end of worship that day! Everyone laughed!”
I’ve had those special moments, too. In a program with children, I asked each of them to write their name on a piece of white paper. The other kids were then invited to add the gifts and special abilities that they saw in one another. On my paper, someone scrawled, “A good Mom.” I don’t have children. Not long before, we had gone through a miscarriage. “A good Mom” felt like a blow to the gut. I learned that it was written by four-year-old Lizzie with the help of her older brother Matt. Lizzie had decided—and told her parents—that if anything happened to them, she wanted me to be her Mom. I kept that paper taped to the door of the pastor’s study for years.
Clergymen may not have the same experiences of harassment and gender bias. They may be paid more. They may serve larger churches with bigger bank accounts. They may have better benefits. But I bet that never happened to a male pastor.
Thank you to the many clergy women who shared their experiences with me.
Melissa Florer-Bixler. “When Your Sexual Harassers Sit in Your Pews” in Sojourners, July 11, 2019. Accessed online at sojo.net.
Sam Hodges. “New Video Calls Out Harassment of Women Clergy” in United Methodist News, June 25, 2019. Accessed online at umnews.org.
Hinson-Hasty, Lee. “More Presbyterian Women Ordained than Men 2001-2016” in Theological Education Matters, August 13, 2018. Accessed on-line at presbyterianfoundation.org.
North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. #HerTruth, Nov. 10, 2016. Accessed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZk4ssVKHpA&t=8s
North Carolina Synod of the ELCA. Seriously? Actual Things Said to Female Pastors in the NC Synod, October 10, 2018. Accessed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTcaAkG86QQ
Presbyterian Church (USA). Living by the Gospel: A Guide to Structuring Ministers’ Terms of Call as Authorized by the 223rd General Assembly. Louisville: Office of the General Assembly, 2019 (updated 2021). Accessed online at https://www.pensions.org/file/our-role-and-purpose/the-connectional-church/living-by-the-gospel/Documents/pln-619.pdf/
Rick Rojas. “Pastor’s Exit Exposes Cultural Rifts at a Leading Liberal Church, July 11, 2019 in The New York Times. Accessed online at http://www.nytimes.com.
Yonat Shimron. “New Video Captures Sexist Comments to Women—Read by Male Counterparts” in Religion News Service, June 20, 2019. Accessed online at https://religionnews.com/2019/06/20/new-video-captures-sexist-comments-to-women-ministers-read-by-male-counterparts/https://religionnews.com/2019/06/20/new-video-captures-sexist-comments-to-women-ministers-read-by-male-counterparts/.