Saturday, February 21, 2009

Awakening the "I can"

My new year's resolution this year was to read a poem a day. I don't like to set myself up for failure in choosing New Year's resolutions, but this seemed possible, and given that it's late February, and I'm still reading poems each morning, perhaps it was a resolution that "took." One of the ways I made this possible was buying several new books of poetry. I've been reading from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, edited by Neil Astley, (Hyperion, New York, 2003). One of this week's poems really caught my heart and I share it with you.

Variation on a Theme by Rilke
(The Book of Hours, Book 1, Poem 1, Stanza 1)
by Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me – a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of the noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.

My bookshelf also includes
Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (Riverhead Books, New York, 2005), so I decided I would look up the inspiration.

The Book of Hours, Book 1, Poem 1
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

Da neigt sich die Stunde and rührt mich an
mit klaren, metallenem Schlag:
mir zittern die Sinne. Ich fühle: ich kann –
und ich fasse den plastischen Tag.

Nichts war noch vollendet, eh ich es erschaut
ein jedes Werden stand still.
Meine Blicke sind reif, und wie eine Braut
kommt jedem das Ding, das er will …

The hour is striking so close above me,
so clear and sharp,
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there's a power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.

I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.

One of the things that I like about this edition is that it has the German original on the facing page to the English translation and my two years of German in college feel useful. While I like these translations for the most part, what is missing in this translation that Levertov highlights in her poem is "ich kann" = "I can – I grasp and shape the day." Perhaps what rang true for me is that Levertov articulates calling: "it was I, a bell awakened, and what I heard was my whole self saying and singing what it knew: I can."

This poem was a necessary antidote to some of the continued data analysis that I did this week. Letting the data speak: this graph represents placement and tenure in a given church, based on the 2008 directory of The American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts. So there are two men still serving churches as senior or solo pastors where they were called in 1976, there is one woman still serving a church where she was called in 1989. In 2002 there were twenty churches filled, all by men. In 2007 there were nine churches filled by men and two by women, and in 2008 there were ten churches filled, half by men and half by women. In this data set, seventeen percent of the senior or solo pastors are women.

I also spent time this week writing the essay for American Baptist Profile System: 3000 characters that must fit in no more than 37 lines that give churches a reason to set up an interview.

"What I heard was my whole self saying and singing what it knew: I can."

My prayer is today is one of thanksgiving for those people who affirm that calling for me in the various places where I am ministering, those who edited my profile essay, those who remind me to pray for myself and who pray for me, and for poems and poets who awaken me to the possible and to the "I can."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Historical Perspective

In 1977, I graduated magna cum laude from a prestigious New England women's college convinced of my ability to be a leader. I had been a student leader of a number of organizations on campus, in addition to working and doing well academically. That fall I enrolled at an equally prestigious graduate school of business in the Midwest to pursue a master's degree to give me the credentials and education toward a career in which I saw myself as a leader. (Playing in the background as I write—Ray Charles and Willie Nelson singing It was a Good Year from Genius Loves Company, "When I was 21, it was a very good year…) My business school entering class had 25% women, who were bright, articulate and energetic.

One of the first experiences I had, literally as I was moving into the townhouse where I would rent a room for the two years of graduate school from a divorced Jewish woman who was a legal secretary, was an encounter with two young evangelists who were canvassing the neighborhood. Imagine their surprise when they asked if I was saved, and I said yes. What followed was an invitation to their house church/bible study group, and my disclosure that I was enrolled in an MBA program. Somehow out of that came some discussion about women's roles in church, where we had some disagreement. The next week they came by and left a pamphlet arguing their case: women should submit, keep quiet in church, etc., authored by some man I had never heard of with a copyright in 1929. That was probably the final confirmation I needed at the time that church had no room for a woman who was and wanted to be a leader. I did not regularly or even occasionally attend church for another fifteen years.

Also in 1977, the Ministers Council of the American Baptist Churches USA commissioned sociologist Edward C. Lehman to study the receptivity of congregations and denominational and lay leaders to women in ministry, looking at the barriers both individual, cultural, denominational, and organizational to women in ministry and factors for placement of women as pastors. The study surveyed and/or interviewed all of the ABC women seminary graduates for 1977 (31 in total) and all of the ABC women seminary graduates from 1972-76 (70 in total). The study included a sampling of male seminary graduates in similar numbers, all of the 117 executive and area ministers, 500 laity, 100 pulpit committee representatives and 2160 members of American Baptist Women. [
Project SWIM: A Study of Women in Ministry by Edward C. Lehman, Jr. and the Task Force on Women in Ministry of the Ministers Council, American Baptist Churches, 1979]

Of course, my immediate reaction to this study was to wonder if things have changed at all in the past thirty years. Key points:
• There were few fence sitters—people either were receptive to the idea of woman in ministry or they are not. This was across denominational leaders and laity, although proportions varied within the groups surveyed. (p. 30)
• Higher education and income were the highest demographic factors that would correlate with receptivity to a woman pastor, not gender, age or occupation. (p. 41)
• The East was more receptive than the Midwest, which was more receptive than the West (not a significant sample size in the south where American, formerly Northern, Baptist churches have little presence). (p. 42)
• Church members who emphasized the importance of the "conversion" function of the church were least receptive to women in ministry, while church members who emphasized "social reform" functions were most receptive. (p. 45)
• Similarly, those who advocate Biblical literalism were much less receptive to women in ministry than those who interpret Biblical literature in more complicated ways. (p. 45)
• Respondents who were not receptive were least likely to think that women should perform "church-specific" roles, roles that symbolize church: senior pastor, deacon, leading worship, preach, conduct funerals and weddings, or administer baptism or communion, while they had less issue with women who took on the elements of a pastor's job that were more traditionally female and not as symbolic of church: religious education, youth, teaching. (p. 36)
• Churches with declining membership were more receptive to women in ministry than churches that were holding their own or growing. (p. 40)
• Cultural stereotypes around women in professions carry over to women in ministry. Perceiving women as incapable of providing strong leadership to make churches flourish was strongly and consistently associated with lack of receptivity to women in ministry. (p. 50)

I'd be happy to hear other's perceptions around this list, but I don't think these elements have changed as the factors around receptivity of women in ministry—the proportions of people becoming receptive may have shifted somewhat as cultural acceptance of women's equal rights has gained ground, but these are the dividing factors still.

Those are individual and cultural issues. There are also social and cultural organizational issues about church and American Baptist churches that also contribute to receptivity.
• American Baptists prize local church autonomy, so denominational national leaders and state executive/area ministers have much less influence when making suggestions for change than local leaders. (p. 54)
• People who were receptive to women in ministry perceived that their local leaders were as well, and opposition to that was just being caught up in tradition or being "old and set in their ways." (p. 59)
• People who were not receptive perceived that their local leaders were not receptive too, and their opposition was based on theological reasons or that "women were not qualified." (p. 59)
• Churches are voluntary organizations where people are free to leave, and take their support with them. This makes churches less willing to risk controversy because it will damage the stability of the organization. Women in ministry were perceived as controversial at the time of this study. (p. 60) Is that still the case?

The study also included some interesting information about the factors that influenced success for women seminarians in placement. I'll have to come back to those, because one of the key success factors is participation in the American Baptist Placement System and I have to go and work on that profile document now. :-)

We are creations of the times in which we live, as well as being creators of the times in which we live. My own recollections of 1977 confirm what this study, now an historical document, reveals. How has that changed?

My prayer for this week, as I begin to write an essay for the placement profile that describes who I am as one called to ministry, is for clarity and for freedom from thinking only inside the box, whether it's a box that others put me into, a box that I create for my own safety and comfort, or the boxes that I use for others without recognizing their complexities too.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Confessions of a Data Geek

Other people have pastimes that absorb them during odd moments—knitting, puzzles, talking on the phone, reading, watching TV—add your favorite. One of mine is data analysis and pattern analysis. I can spend hours manipulating a block of data looking for the information in it. This past week I thought I would see what the church directories could tell me about women in ministry. I downloaded the most recent published online directories from the websites of The American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts (TABCOM) and from the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ (MAUCC). It's a lot of data to organize. I made it about a quarter of the way through a first pass on each of these data sets, so any conclusions are subject to change as the data set becomes more complete.

Out of the 77 ABC churches in this first data set which comprise three of the eight associations, with settled pastors, 25 out of 65 of the male pastors had been their church more than 10 years, and 3 out of the 12 female pastors had been in their church more than 10 years. In this incomplete set of data, 15.5% of the settled pastors were women, with an average tenure of 6.5 years, while the men had an average tenure of 10.9 years. There are only eight churches, or less than 10 percent, who have more than one minister—an indication of size. None of the five interim pastors in this sample were women. I leap to no conclusions from this data because the sample is incomplete. I'll keep you posted.

In the first set of UCC data comprising two regions of the state, I've looked at 107 churches. There are more UCC churches in Massachusetts and at first glance they have larger memberships. About one-third of the settled senior pastors are women in this set, but when you include associates and interims the number goes up to fifty percent. There are 144 ministers for 107 churches, so a significant number of women are associate pastors, and interim pastors, and many more churches have more than one pastor. I think that the tenure dates might not be so different for this list, relatively, although I did spot one women who had been in her church since 1980. One question to explore is whether women do have more of the smaller membership churches in the UCC, although one of the largest UCC churches has a woman as senior pastor.

But I have lots more data to organize for mining. What I hope to gather from this data are directions for questions to ask lay people and clergy. What prompted churches or rather congregations to hire women? Was it a conscious choice or simply the best available candidate at the time? What keeps them from hiring women as pastors? The ABC has a lot more ethnic churches—is it obvious what role culture plays in this vs. theology? What is it like to be the first woman minister in a church, or the second or third? How long did the search process take for women vs. men?

Along side this data mining, I just started reading the results of a 1993 national survey and study among Protestant denominations on women in ministry, published in Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling by Barbara Brown Zikmund, Adair T. Lummis, and Patricia M. Y. Chang. This brings some historical perspective to my data mining. They divide their results "into three denominational clusters that reflect the differences in how authority is perceived and located within these denominations: congregation-centered, institution-centered and Spirit-centered." (p. 7) Allowing for the fact that all of these typologies are arbitrary, I will be focusing my study on congregation-centered denominations where " the essence of the church is found in the gathered people, the congregation. In these denominations, authority centers on local congregations." (p. 8) They include American Baptists, United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalists, and Christian Church/Disciples of Christ among these denominations in their study, and also look at Southern Baptists and Brethren.

What they found true among institution-centered denominations (Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church) is that if the hierarchy/tradition, where authority is more centered, although slow and thoughtful and orderly in wrestling with the idea, embraces the idea of women in ministry then "as a consequence, once institution centered denominations make the decision to affirm the ordination of women, they live out the new order with remarkable vigor." (p. 12)

Where the authority rests in the congregation, rather than in the institution/hierarchy, as my initial data mining confirms, affirmation and acceptance of women in ministry is much more varied. I will say that my perception is that the hierarchy in the UCC is much more supportive of women in ministry and has more influence on congregations than the denominational relationships with congregations in American Baptist Churches, and might that go some way toward explaining the higher number of women ministers in UCC churches? Where is influence being used to support women in ministry?

Today, the Executive Minister of TABCOM visited my church on his rounds and was expressing a vision for local association reorganization and of affiliation of ethnic churches and mission focus. One of our members, who attends ordination councils as our church's representative, said that many of the ethnic church leaders opt not to participate in the association of local churches because the association is allowing ordination of women. Now what do we do with that?

My prayer this week is for clarity and insight as I look not only at patterns and data, but also at the human hearts, dreams and fears behind those patterns. How can I remain both centered in my faith and hopes, and visionary in thinking about church in the 21st century?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

On the Journey: Bursting Bubbles

During this fifth and final year of my M.Div. career I have been looking forward. In the summer I wrote copious essays for the Center for Career Development in Ministry and had a two day psychological and career evaluation resulting in a report that will go to the Committee on Ministry as part of the ordination processs. I began Watchcare: an American Baptist mentoring relationship that is part of the ordination process—an experienced pastor meeting monthly for 8-12 months with me as the ordination candidate. In the fall I went to Green Lake, Wisconsin for a five-day denomination sponsored conference for American Baptist seminarians and new pastors. I wrote to faculty following that conference:

I recently attended the Introduction to American Baptist Life conference for seminarians and new pastors. While there I attended a session on women in ministry where national staff shared some rather depressing statistics about placement for women in the ABC-USA: only 413 churches out of 5500, or 7.5%, have women as senior or solo pastors, with another 1100 women ordained as music ministers, CE directors or associates. One person said that admissions officers had an ethical obligation not to accept women into seminary if they didn’t think that placement would be likely or possible. One faculty member from Northern Theological said that she is in charge of placement for American Baptists and is having great success placing women, because theology now trumps gender—a 24 year old woman with moderate to conservative theology can be placed more readily than a liberal man with experience—of course that’s in the Midwest.

A couple of us convened a welcoming and affirming Baptist group ad hoc during the conference and fully half of the people attending and supporting welcoming and affirming churches were from ANTS, and three-fourths of the identified GLBT folks were from ANTS—there were four in total who felt safe to identify as GLBT in that circle.

Those things certainly gave me pause. I have one final elective course to complete in order to graduate in May 2009 (concurrent with an extended unit of CPE). I am writing to the group of you in hopes that
1) the idea presented briefly below can be approved for a directed study for Spring 2009, and
2) that one of you will leap at the opportunity to be my faculty partner in this study. I am sending this to faculty who are either American Baptists and/or sympathetic to women's or GLBT issues.

This journal/blog serves as a reflective part of that directed study, which was approved and supported by a number of the faculty. I plan to be posting weekly during this spring. More about the study will be forthcoming.

Yesterday I heard an investment advisor discussing the precipitating events that brought us to our current economic crisis. She called the first a "housing bubble" where nationally we were buying houses we couldn't afford, lending without understanding the value of what secured the loans, and investing in derivatives of both of those too good to be true practices. I suspect I have been living in my own "bubble" during my time in seminary: I did my field education work under the mentorship of a woman pastor, in a welcoming and affirming congregation, have studied in an ecumenical and progressive seminary environment, while attending and being sponsored to the ministry by a church where radical social action and progressive views are the norm.

In October at the seminarians conference, coincident with the run-up to the national elections and the economic collapse, my bubble also burst. It was clear from the range of political and theological views expressed that I, and most of the colleagues from my seminary, along with two-three other seminaries in the Northeast, were in a minority as progressives. We found each other, and could occupy one or two tables. The American Baptist Churches-USA, as a denomination, is a place where pastors who are uncomfortable with the extreme fundamentalism of more conservative Baptist fellowships are migrating—those were the new pastors I met, and is a denomination, like many others, that has been torn by the question of how to deal with people whose sexuality is not heterosexual. I know that some Southern Baptist women ministers moved their affiliation to the ABC-USA when the Southern Baptist convention said that they would no longer support ordination for women. Being uncomfortable with extreme fundamentalism, however, does not make you a progressive or even a moderate, and I would judge that a majority of the seminarians and new pastors and leadership at that conference are well to the right of center—there seemed to be more people excited about Palin than Obama, even among the sizable contingent of black seminarians.

There were a lot of women at the conference—maybe even half. If American Baptist churches aren't hiring women as pastors, what happens to us? Fifteen years ago, women made up 5% of senior/solo pastors in the ABC-USA. Today it is up to 7.5%, while many seminaries are up to more than 50% women.

I remember from my own experience in blowing bubbles, after you blow bubbles and they pop, after a while the floor becomes covered with a soap film that can be slippery and treacherous. It becomes hard to remember and appreciate the iridescent beauty of that gently floating bubble, when you slip as you step.

Today my prayer is for balance, both as I step forward in slippery territory and as I remember and claim the beauty in the bubbles of ministry that I have done and am called to do.