Choose leadership, consider challenges, panelists tell ordained women

October 3, 2006

How women choose to lead and the implications of making that choice was the subject of an October 4 discussion at the "Imagine: Claiming & Empowering Ordained Women's Leadership" conference.


The conference is the first church-wide gathering of ordained women in the 32 years since women were admitted to the orders of priest and bishop. The conference, which also includes some lay presenters, runs until October 6 at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina.

Presenters at the session, all ordained women, included Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) dean and president Martha Horne, Utah Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish, Atlanta-based Emmaus House director and vicar Claiborne Jones, and New York Bishop Suffragan Catherine Roskam. The panel was moderated by Lynne Grifo, associate coordinator of the Episcopal Church's Office of Ministry Development.

Jones, the first presenter, enumerated 10 aspects of choosing to be a leader that she said women must consider. She said that women need to:

• recognize that they have choices. "It's not a great situation still, but you do have choices," she said. "If you don't believe you have choices, it's a lot tougher."

• recognize that they have to bear the costs of their choices.

• understand that the answers of "no" that come to them "can be redemptive." Jones told the story about seeking an associate job at the parish where she served as the school's chaplain. The rector told her no because he thought she was ready to be a rector.

• "seek the unwelcome truths about yourself and the way you operate in systems and parishes." Jones said those unwelcome truths can be affirming and can show where improvement or change is needed.

• trust their own inner vision. Despite needing to listen to others' perceptions, Jones said, one must follow an innate sense of the rightness of a choice.

• celebrate their choices, even if they don't work out as planned. Jones gave the example of throwing a "not-elected" party after not being chosen as a bishop. Women must celebrate having put themselves "out there," she said.

• disbelieve what their fans tell them and not reject what their enemies tell them. "Take in the truths from those who seem to be enemies," she said. Those people often have "less to lose" and so will say things that friends and family may not.

• envision themselves in the call they are considering, and consider whether, in addition to everything else, it will be fun. "It it's not going to be fun, don't do it," she said.

• understand that they cannot be paralyzed by fear and believe in "authentic humanity as the place where resurrection takes place."

• learn to honor and to handle their anger. "Women's anger is treated totally differently from men's anger in our culture," she said.

Irish, who became the Episcopal Church's fourth woman diocesan bishop when she was elected in 1996, said she felt supported in her choice to be a leader.

"Leadership has never been scary to me," she said, explaining that her "liberal LDS [Latter Day Saints]" family gave her the confidence she needed.

Irish said, however, that while she felt called to the priesthood, the call to the episcopate came to her from the church, not herself. In addition, "I wasn't one to break barriers. That's not my style," she said.

She acknowledged that she could afford to make the choices she's made. "I give thanks every single morning of my life and acknowledge that that is not the condition of most people," she said.

Horne, the first and only female dean of an Episcopal seminary at this time, said women leaders need to understand that their advancement can make other people anxious. For instance, while she said she has had the support of many male colleagues, "even the most supportive men can become very ambivalent at times about their support." Sometimes men begin to worry that they will be diminished and lose their place.

Horne gave the example of how in an academic year when more women than men enrolled in VTS, some people expressed the fear that the school would become "a girls' school."

Now that she has announced her retirement from VTS, Horne said she has heard that "it has been said that perhaps it's time to end the matriarchy." VTS, founded in 1823, has had 13 male deans.

Horne echoed Jones' concerns about anger and how women's anger is characterized. "Anger is like a very, very sharp knife in your kitchen," she said. "You can cut yourself on it. You can maim -- destroy even -- other people with it, and yet there are times when it's the only instrument that will do."

She said the "judicious use" of anger in leadership is needed at times, but leaders need to "modulate, manage, swallow, stifle inappropriate expressions of anger."

The women who have been first in certain leadership roles, Horne said, have felt a responsibility to the women who follow in their footsteps.

"One of our goals has always been to prepare a place for you so that people couldn't say, ‘well, we had a woman and she screwed up and we can't have another woman.' In some ways, at times, we have not always been as courageous as we would like to be," she said.

Criticism of hierarchical institutions, particularly the church, has been a theme of the conference. However, Roskam presented what she called "an ode to hierarchy."

"I hear a lot about doing away with hierarchy, as if hierarchy is a dirty word," she said. "I want to tell you, first of all, that that is very culturally conditioned. It is white. I think women are more prone to it than men. It is middle class and it is ‘boomer.' It is very boomer to be anti-institution, anti-hierarchy. I want you to rethink that."

Roskam said she wondered if something other than hierarchy "is really going to be helpful" in the world "which thrives on hierarchy."

A transformed hierarchy ought to be the goal, she said. "We don't have to do it the way it's always been done."

She compared the United States' corporate model, in which leaders decided to create a specific product and then everyone else has to figure out how to implement it, with the Japanese approach where leaders propose a product and consult with every worker about how to produce it. Such a process can be very productive, Roskam said, even though it seems to take longer to make decisions.

"I want you to be open to re-thinking hierarchy because I think part of your unwillingness to look at hierarchy is based in your unwillingness -- our unwillingness -- as women to claim authority," she said. "If you don't claim it -- if we don't claim it -- and we bring other models in, it will affect our identity as the Episcopal Church more than anything."

Claiming the ministry of all the baptized must be balanced with the aspects that make the Episcopal Church what it is, Roskam said.

"Key to that is the episcopate -- has been and, I hope, will continue to be," she said. "Claim your authority. Let's keep our identity, but let's renew and revitalize authority in a way that is missional and gospel-oriented."