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Chicago. New York. Washington, D.C. In quick succession this year, three women have been chosen to lead historic tall-steeple churches in all these cities.
In May, the Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner became the first woman solo senior pastor at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church. In June, the Rev. Amy Butler was elected senior pastor of New York City’s Riverside Church. And finally, in July, the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli began leading Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.
“For women to speak in those pulpits and speak boldly as public voices in these very public buildings is very powerful,” said the Rev. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, who recently hosted a dinner party with some of New York’s movers and shakers to welcome Butler to town.
It’s been 40 years since the Episcopal Church first ordained women, and other denominations have long included women in their clergy ranks. But these new advances are occurring sooner in the lives of these three women than some of their older counterparts. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research reports that women clergy are much more likely to serve in smaller congregations.
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.
Sociologist of religion Cynthia Woolever said the movement of first-career women to these significant sanctuaries is occurring in the isolated realm of mainline Protestantism, where about 20 percent of congregations are led by clergywomen.
“If you look at conservative Protestant churches you find very few; in the Catholic church: zero,” said Woolever, editor of The Parish Paper, a newsletter for regional offices of mainline denominations.
“It’s wonderful that women are being given those kinds of opportunities to serve in those very large churches, but it’s a very small slice of the pie.”
All three of the senior pastors have had to jump gender-specific hurdles.
In June, Butler used the hashtag “nevergetsold” when she tweeted about how a funeral director didn’t believe she was a minister. She once had to get an emergency room security guard to log on to her former church’s website to show him her photo there so she could pay a late-night visit to a sick congregant.
“Look, I know you’re his girlfriend,” the guard told her before she convinced him otherwise.
Kershner said that early in her ministry when she was a hospital chaplain, she often entered rooms where she was rebuffed because she wasn’t a “real minister.”
In every place she’s served as the first woman pastor, Gaines-Cirelli has heard a variation on this theme: “I was so worried that we were getting a woman, but I think that you’re going to be just fine.”
Comparable pay was yet another hurdle.
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