The great steeplechase


I’m at a women’s banquet at our seminary. It’s an alumni thing, and I’m sitting around the table with some amazing pastors. The Interim Seminary President (not current) gets up to speak.

ISP’s past retirement age and always very eloquent. He talks about what an amazing impact that women have on the ministry. He says that one of the main things that has occurred is that the Associate Pastor position used to be a bit of a boy’s training ground (think fraternity hazing or military boot camp) where the man would be abused until he stepped off of that stone and got his own church. Then he would perpetuate the abuse by doing the same thing to the next guy coming up.

When women entered the scene, two things happened: First, we wouldn’t allow the abuse. Women wouldn’t put up with it. We struggled to make the position one of dignity and respect.

I nodded thoughtfully and wondered if it was true. Was this the case? Is that how the position was seen? We were in the South–was it true as well in other parts of the country?

If so, and if this idea is still lingering in our church family systems, it would explain some of the really strange dynamics that some APs have to endure. I always promised myself I’d never be one, because I heard so many horror stories. (Happily, I was wrong. I’m an AP now, in a healthy situation.)

Then he gets to number two: Second, there came the establishment of the career associate. Women want to be associates for their entire time in ministry.

I’m pretty sure that the woman next to me is choking on her chicken, but I can’t tell for sure because I’m doubled over in pain.

The horror echoes through the church courtyard, as we all turn to each other asking, “Did he really just say what I think he said? Did I misunderstand him?”

There was no mistaking it. He said it.

I knew that it wasn’t the case for me. At that point, I was thirty. I had been a Solo Pastor for a few years, and I was very content, but I knew that it wasn’t the job I wanted for the next thirty-seven years. And I was quite sure that I wasn’t cut out for a career Associate position either. I wanted to be a Head of Staff. Not right away, of course. I was willing to put in the time and work to get there, but in due time that’s what I expected.

I was horrified that people would look at the brilliant, talented women in that church fellowship hall and assume, “Aahh…now they all want to be career Associates. What a gift for the church.” And with ten years in the pastorate, I’m beginning to watch male colleagues excel far beyond the females. I see men with less experience get jobs that more qualified women apply for.

But here’s my conundrum: In the ensuing years, I’ve also become more aware of the particularities of different situations. Clergy women often marry up, so their jobs are tied to their husbands’ and they can’t engage in a national search. I also had an email exchange with a group of women clergy. One of them said, in effect, that she’s not in it for a big steeple, and she seemed offended that someone would assume that she was. Another woman, a mom, could see the value of her associate pastor position, as she took care of her small children. Another woman maintained a part-time pastoral position so that she could pursue other vocational passions in her life. They were looking at their careers with their whole lives in view. I fully respect each decision.

Yet, I’m often asked for names of women for major church positions, and after asking around, I embarrassingly come up empty-handed. Honestly, it happened three times last year, and I was told, “If you can’t come up with any names, then you need to quit complaining about the lack of women and people under forty not being in these HOS positions” (if you’re PCUSA and want me to give out your name, please email me your PIF).

And so I’m gulping hard, and with great fear and trepidation, I’m typing this. Is the stained glass ceiling there because of us? Was the ISP correct? Please tell me it isn’t so….

Of course, in an ideal world, men and women would have every opportunity open to them, and it would be up to the pastor to choose. It’s just that we’re going to have to have some women available to crack that stained glass ceiling.

So, what do you think? I certainly don’t want to blame any victims in this. And men, I didn’t mean to scare you away. I invite your comments too. Is there an assumption that men are in it for the big steeple and women want to be career associates? Why?

14 thoughts on “The great steeplechase

  1. I think the isp named something (badly) for which there is some truth. I think that before the advent of women pastors, there was no such thing as a career associate. And I think by some women choosing that path, it’s cleared the way for men to do the same–choose to be career associates. Of course, it helps if the job isn’t totally awful!

    My experience with counseling male and female graduates–both first and second career–is that more women than men WANT associate pastorates (And I’m not sure why that is–it may be a lack of confidence, it may be a collaborative spirit, and it may simply be that single women get that associate positions are usually in or near to cities—wanting the possibility of peer-aged friendship, especially for younger women–is a big draw.

    And I think that many women (and men) are choosing careers that are part of full and multi-layered lives, and are simply unwilling to sacrifice other things important to them (children, geography, proximity to family and friends)to pursue a different level of career.

    But as much as I believe all these things to be true, I think there is another truth to be reckoned with—I know women who WANT to be senior pastors, but struggle their way to that position. Strong leadership is seen as bitchy, prophetic speech is called strident, decisions about whether or not to have children and how to care for them if one does are all seen as a statement on one’s femininity. These women get frustrated and drop out, stop out, or just stay in jobs that don’t use their best skills.

    I think a lot of it goes back to the experiences of the youngest clergy women. If the experience is a bad one, that population simply doesn’t gain the experience necessary to be a contender for a senior pastorate.

    And of course, a good bit of it also has to do with how we define experience. I know several fabulous second career women who will never be senior pastors because they don’t have time to get the experience–what would happen if we redefined experience? (For that matter, I’d never be a contender for a senior pastorate–my ordained experience is in chaplaincy, which doesn’t “count,” not that I’m particularly called in that direction anyway.)

    Okay, I’ve totally hijacked your comments. Sorry!

  2. I don’t feel like I have any read on the overall situation so I will only speak to my own experience. My wife and I are both ministers, and out of seminary neither one of us felt a call to “have our own church.” We felt a call to be associates. Not as a step up, not as a learning experience, but as a call to do specific areas of ministry. We felt no call to the responsibilities of a solo pastor or head of staff.

    As we pursued our second calls we felt the same. People at our respective churches kept telling us that we were ready for our “own church,” (there it is again), but we felt our calls to be Associates. At that point neither one of us was sure if we ever wanted to be a solo or head of staff. We never saw being an Associate as a means to an end.

    When it comes time for us to search again, I think we may then feel the call to something other than Associate – Co-Pastors, solo, or head of staff.

    Just my $.02

  3. Oops. Sorry, Ruth. For all the offensive things I said in this post, I didn’t even think about that one!

    I got the term from Linda Hirshman, who encourages young women to “marry down” so that their careers are not always the ones which are compromised in the necessary two-career negotiations that many couples go through.

    I know of many women clergy who can’t move because their husband makes 250k and so it just wouldn’t make sense for them to uproot the family for a 50K job. But, of course, it’s a crass term that only applies to the bottom line and I shouldn’t be using it…

  4. Shawn,

    Another development: I wonder if it’s sometimes harder for men who feel called to an AP to get jobs now. Just as I’ve heard of many HOS search committees who are really only considering a male, I know of AP committees who are really only considering a female.

  5. Shawn’s on to something there. Though I can’t think of a particular church at the moment, I bet there’s many a church out there with a female AP or two, so when the HOS search begins the committee is less inclined to seek out a woman so as not to have an entire staff of women–not that that’d be bad, just what they might think. Gender diversity on staff is an issue. And if the APs tend to be women, the HOS will tend to be men??

    To muddy the water: The church of Scotland, my current context, rarely has Associates at all. Once one is ordained, one gets their “own church” or several as the case may be. So the “ladder” to move up is only in size of congregation, which would mean more responsibility but NOT more money as all ministers no matter the church budget, are paid the same.

    Maybe women are just smarter and don’t want to play the fake “moving up the ladder” game. (I say that with great caution so as not to be another oppressor telling the oppressed they should just be happy for what they have.)

  6. I really do think our country has not yet adjusted to what dads’ roles need to be, if a mom is working, especially if the mom is working at a typically over-40-hours-a-week job. Professional women have to balance work and kids; professional men work and don’t worry about balancing. (See Hochschild, The Second Shift, for a good sociological look at this.) If married men spend any time AT ALL with their kids–even just 10 minutes playing catch–it’s considered being a great caring sensitive modern kind of guy. Professional men don’t usually think “hmm, how can I balance this job with my childcare responsibilities?” The wives just pick up the slack.

    (Of course, that’s all generalizations, but if we’re talking about large-scale patterns, generalizations are appropriate.)

    The only women senior pastors/heads of staff I know either don’t have kids, have grown children, or have a husband or partner who stays at home with the kids.

    And now for your enjoyment, an awesome exchange with my then-seminary roommate (from China) when our church hired a new senior pastor in 2004:

    She: “They hired a woman to be the senior pastor. What will happen to the associate?”
    Me: “Him? He’s staying, of course.”
    She: “How can they have a woman senior pastor and a man associate pastor?”
    Me: “What’s wrong with that?”
    Me: “Anyway, she’s older than he is.”
    She: “Oh. Well, of course that’s all right! She’ll be a wonderful senior pastor!”

  7. I think men are more victims of the “running with the big dogs” syndrome than women are. This is a general statement — there are certainly some women who want to be big dogs, too. Women are freer (and more courageous) to make decisions about what they truly want to do with their lives. I would not want a big church with a staff. I would not want to live with the expectation of 50+ hours a week of driven work. I know some women would thrive on that, but I think more of us are able to see that other things can be more important to some of us. I love it that I get paid to read and write and sit on the porch sometimes and reflect on the meaning of it all. Big dogs don’t get to do that. AND — I would only accept an associate position someday with the understanding that “porch time” is part of my contract; I refuse to be a workaholic.

  8. I have a friend, a Head of Staff in a large church, who says that churches should work the other way around. We should start out in HOS positions and work to Solos, because Solos are so much harder that HOS positions….

    Now, he was either trying to make me feel better as an exhausted solo, or he was the only HOS who would ever admit that his job’s not that hard!

    Anyways…I imagine it’s all in what one is called to. I don’t have any particular ill-feeling against women or men who feel called to large churches. We’ve all heard the Freudian steeple jokes…I say, “Sometime a steeple is just a steeple.”

  9. As a second career female pastor in her ninth year (and fourth senior pastor) as an associate, your post stirred up all sorts of emotions for me. When I first entered ministry, the idea of being a career associate appealed to me. In the area where I serve, we actually have several male career APs. They made that choice long before it was “cool” for a man to limit his availability for family reasons. And they are excellent pastors. Looking at them, I realized that being an associate is a valid calling. And after nine years of being one myself, I believe that it requires specific gifts and graces that not all pastors possess.

    As you mentioned many see the associate position as a training ground. As a result one of the challenges of being an associate with any amount of experience is that many congregants tend to treat APs as inferior. Some of my younger male friends have complained of being treated like infants in their AP positions. I suspect that women are more accustomed to that kind of treatment and can therefore handle it with more grace.

    Being a career AP appealed to me for a number of important reasons. First, I have a family–husband and three kids. And I didn’t want to give up being present with and for them. And this is a valid reason for women and men who wish to put family first to choose this path. THe buck does not stop here and there are times I can simply go home when the Senior cannot. Second, I didn’t think I had the gifts, graces, and abilities to be a solo pastor (HOS didn’t even occur to me).

    However, I long ago felt God calling me to a solo pastorate. It isn’t an issue of ladder climbing. I currently serve a large (3500 member) church and I don’t aspire to serve another high steeple church. It’s an issue of living out the call of God on my life.

    Unfortunately, opportunities to serve as a solo pastor have been slim. As a United Methodist, I have limited input into my appointments. And it seems that those making those decisions aren’t exactly sure what to do with women clergy (at least in the South where I serve). In fact, I have noticed that we are much more accepted in the secondary (wifely?) role than as a solo or senior. And this is not an issue of experience because male colleagues with the same amount or less experience are being appointed as sole pastors all the time. And it appears that it is very possible for a woman to find herself a career AP whether that is what she is called to do or not.

    I’ve rambled on too long, but thank you for the opportunity to put some of my thoughts into words.

  10. Tribal Church asks, “Do you see pitfalls in the way that pastors are compensated there? Are most pulpits filled?”

    I’ll eventually write a post about the Church of Scotland’s policy of paying all ministers the same, but at this point I’m not sure at all. I do think it cuts down on pastors climbing the ladder so that they can pay for their kids to attend college. Similarly, they can move to a smaller church without worrying about how they’ll pay the mortgage.

    That said, it’s a denomination in crisis and I haven’t seen how the policy will change much. Also, it leads to congregations relying on the national church to pay their pastors, which presents issues of its own.

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