State of Episcopal clergy growing more complex, researchers tell ordained women’s conference

‘New ecclesial landscape’ requires new mapping techniques
October 4, 2006

Two researchers told the "Imagine: Claiming & Empowering Ordained Women's Leadership" conference October 3 that more needs to be done to document the stories of women clergy.

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.

Matthew Price, a Church Pension Group (CPG) researcher, and Paula Nesbitt, an Episcopal priest who teaches at the University of California in Berkeley, said much is known now, but noted that current ways of gathering information about clergy can exclude some people.

Price presented CPG's annual State of the Clergy report for 2006.

Among the report's 12 key findings are that:

• roughly equal numbers of male and female ordinands have become active in the Church Pension Fund, but, with many more men than women retiring from active service, the gender balance of the active clergy will change;

• age is a more important variable than gender in determining the probability that an ordinand will be employed in the Church;

• newly ordained males and females receive roughly the same compensation in their first jobs;

• for all active clergy "there is a persistent gap in compensation between men and women even when adjusting for position within the parish and years of credited service";

• there are "significant differences" among the provinces of the Episcopal Church in the percentages of men and women who are being ordained; and

• the "career paths of clergy women appear to differ significantly from those of clergy men."

The full report is available here.

Price noted that 88 percent of younger clergy women go into associate, assistant and curate jobs while males are "significantly less likely" to take those jobs and instead to become solo clergy in their first call. Women stay in those assistant jobs longer than do men in those jobs, he added.

However, "there are very few rewards for experience," as women leave those first jobs, Price said. Women's second calls tend to be in smaller congregations than men's second calls and those congregations tend to have smaller budgets. As male priests increase their compensation in their second call, women tend to move laterally in terms of compensation and thus the salary gap begins in the second call.

"Women express a very high desire to get out of parish ministry," Price said, but few actually leave.

"Being in parish ministry and being miserable isn't good news," he added.

Price called the State of the Clergy research a satellite photo of the church's clergy and said that more research needs to be done, especially about women's career paths. For instance, more needs to be known about why their paths lead where they do. Price said he suspects that women face a constellation of issues when they make career choices that men may not have, or that may have less impact on their decisions.

Nesbitt, a long-time researcher into aspects of ordained Episcopal women's lives, applauded CPG for noting in its 2006 report that its information is incomplete because its routine methods of collecting data don't capture the different ways that women minister in the name of the Episcopal Church.

"This is feminist research method, this is multicultural research method" for CPG to acknowledge that it needs to "start looking at narrative detail regarding the career paths of clergy," as the report says in its conclusion.

Nesbitt said there is a "limbo list" of women who minister in a multitude of ways "and who are not paid a cent" by church institutions and so escape notation by CPG.

The issue of the salary gap raises questions about whether women are negotiating for more money and meeting resistance, or whether they are not negotiating because they are willing to take that "rare and precious" call "at any price," Nesbitt said.

She wondered if ordained women's career paths are different from men's because they meet obstacles which men do not encounter, or if women are really called to ministries that are different from men's.

More research needs to be done on how women proceed through their ministerial lives in ways that aren't about rectorships, deanships and the episcopate, she said. Then research is needed on how that movement is changing the church.

Nesbitt wondered, for instance, about the implications of the Roman Catholic Church's refusal to ordain women, compared with the Episcopal Church's 32 years of experience. Due to a decline in male vocations, she said, Roman Catholic lay women and religious are now pastoring congregations where lay people have much more say in the community's life.

"Extreme resistance begets extreme change," Nesbitt said, adding that, had the Roman Catholic Church simply agreed to ordain women, those women might be concerned about climbing the ladder rather than transforming their church's ministry.