Number of American Clergywomen Increased Significantly in Past Two Decades

The Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, center, gives the benediction at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., on July 27, 2014. The Rev. Theresa S. Thames, associate pastor, left, and the Rev. Dawn M. Hand, executive pastor, right, joined her. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

The share of women in the ranks of American clergy has doubled — and sometimes tripled — in some denominations over the last two decades, a new report shows.

“I was really surprised in a way, at how much progress there’s been in 20 years,” said the report’s author, Eileen Campbell-Reed, an associate professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tenn. “There’s kind of a circulating idea that, oh well, women in ministry has kind of plateaued and there really hasn’t been lot of growth. And that’s just not true.”

The two traditions with the highest percentages of women clergy were the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, according to the “State of Clergywomen in the U.S.,” released earlier this month. Fifty-seven percent of UUA clergy were women in 2017, while half of clergy in the UCC were female in 2015. In 1994, women constituted 30 percent of UUA clergy and 25 percent of UCC clergy.

UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray credits the increase to a decision by her denomination’s General Assembly in 1970 to call for more women to serve in ministry and policymaking roles. She noted that as of this year, 60 percent of UUA clergy are women.

“All that work in the ’70s and ’80s made it possible for me, in the early 2000s, to come into ministry and be successful and lead thriving churches,” said Frederick-Gray, “and now be elected as the first female, first woman minister elected to the UUA presidency.”

Campbell-Reed and a research assistant gathered clergywomen statistics that had not been collected across 15 denominations for two decades.

The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, who co-authored the 1998 book “Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling,” welcomed the new report as a way to start closing the gap in the research.

“While the experiences of women and the evolution of church life and leadership have changed dramatically over the past two decades, there have been no comprehensive studies on women and church leadership,” she said.

Reached between recent convocation events at Andover Newton Seminary, the Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, a retired UCC minister, said the report’s findings were reflected around her.

“I was sort of looking around and seeing so many women and remembering that in my years in seminary in the ’60s how few of us there were,” said Crabtree, a trustee and alumna of the theological school. “So it’s definitely a sea change in terms of women’s ordination.”

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SOURCE: Religion News Service, Adelle M. Banks