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.

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