Women of faith: Female clergy are shaping American religion from the pulpit

Published: Thursday, April 12 2012 5:50 p.m. MDT

"The belief that women entering the clergy was causing men to disaffiliate with religion is just masking the changes in the occupation that were already underway," Nesbitt says. "A majority of men coming back from war during the 1960s and 1970s were already not returning to church and numbers in seminaries were down before the feminization of the clergy."

Regardless of the impact of female clergy on male church population, Lummis points out women clergy have an ability to attract those who may not usually be affiliated with religion. Social minorities like the gay and lesbian community, non-traditional families and ethnic populations discriminated against are some who are attracted to women's congregations because they feel they are more open to others.

"Part of it is sociological," Lummis says. "Until fairly recently, even though women made up most of the congregation on Sunday morning, they were never the leaders. So being discriminated against helps them understand and be more sensitive."

Former Miss California Nicole Lamarche is one of those who proclaims herself as "radically inclusive." Having been an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ since 2007, Lamarche has been under fire by those outside her congregation for supporting controversial causes like marriage equality. In 2009 she spoke out publicly against Carrie Prejean's comments on gay marriage during the Miss USA pageant and was featured on Larry King Live to discuss the topic.

"Anytime you are prophetic or speaking in the way of preaching, it's not always popular," Lamarche says. "You're destined to tick people off. Jesus did that all the time, and I see that as part of my ministry. I am on the edge and challenge people to be more faithful and compassionate with each day."

According to a 2009 Gallup poll on political ideology, women are more likely than men to consider themselves moderate or liberal. While 44 percent of men said they were politically conservative, only 37 percent of women shared the sentiment.

Despite the political ideology, however, McDuff says women clergy as a whole do not have a visible liberalizing effect on their congregations.

"There really isn't much evidence showing a theologically and socializing liberalization of congregations led by women pastors," McDuff says. "The only effect can be seen in the openness of the congregation to accept a woman as a religious leader."

That openness is something that is still sought after among the more conservative churches in America. When Wells entered the ministry in 1993, she and her husband lost friends as part of the backlash. While visiting certain churches, she wasn't able to speak at the pulpit. And once she had to change her robes in the back of a church and hang her coat on a nail because it was frowned upon to use the head pastor's office.

But Wells says those things are behind her and as she's gotten older, she's learned how to shrug off such experiences. She says since her call, she's seen more women receive calls to serve in the ministry. And as she reflects on her experience outside the neighborhood Wal-Mart, she points out the importance of women's compassion in the Lord's service.

"Women will open up more, they will go after things with an attitude, whereas men are sometimes more macho and not supposed to cry," Wells says. "Women will cry with you, hug you, and love on you."

Email: jbolding@desnews.com

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