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?

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