The Rev. Cheryl Penson had ben preaching up a whirlwind , but halfway through her sermon she paused and drew a deep breath.
Like a mother gathering her children, Penson seemed to pull the spirited words and expansive gestures that carried the first part of her sermon in toward her, compressing them into a warm, staccato whisper. She began speaking in a measured cadence, making sure every member of Lane Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church could hear the point she was about to make.
“Mark, in his gospel, as does the Apostle, Paul, uses the body as a metaphor for the Christian community,” she said.
Just before she took the pulpit, Penson’s husband and co-pastor, the Rev. Charles Penson, prayed that God’s anointing would be upon her. “Like Yahweh’s blessing upon Aaron in the Old Testament,” he said, in a deferential, loving voice. As his wife preached, he handed her a towel, and the congregation clapped and waved their hands in recognition of the nuptial gesture.
Today in America there are twice as many women senior pastors as there were a decade ago. Women like Penson are providing capable leadership in many denominations, but females still haven’t assumed the larger pulpits in the same numbers as men.
According to the California-based research institute The Barna Group, one in 10 U.S. churches employs a female senior pastor. That’s a remarkable increase in a short time, considering that, until recently, women in the pulpit were an anomaly.
Those numbers are encouraging for people who see the issue of females in ministry as one of equality and justice, but even the optimists admit that women have a long way to go in terms of reaching parity with their male colleagues.
Despite decreasing membership and ongoing internal debates over social issues, mainline Protestant churches have opened new horizons for women in ministry in the second half of the 20th century.
Today, 58 percent of women ministers, as compared to only 23 percent of their male counterparts, work in mainline Protestant churches. Until recently, however, those women were mostly relegated to serving as associate pastors or as children’s or music ministers.
Among those churches with the longest-standing traditions of ordaining women is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which started almost 40 years. Today, two of the four female ELCA ministers in Mississippi are senior pastors.
The Episcopal Church has ordained women since 1976 and it is currently led by a woman, Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori. Thirty percent of priests considered senior pastors in the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi are women.
The Presbyterian Church USA started ordaining women in 1956 and over the past decade the number of women serving as ministers of word and sacrament within the church has increased by 75 percent to just under 1,200. Today, four women serve as senior pastors of PCUSA churches in the Magnolia State.
When the Rev. Sandra Sisson left homemaking to enter the seminary in 1983, she was afraid people would laugh at her. At that time female ministers in the PCUSA were still rare. Sisson eventually became the first female teaching elder ordained in the Presbytery of St. Andrews.
Sisson, who today pastors Okolona Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church in Aberdeen, is convinced that women’s history of teaching religious education and directing ministries has paved the way for them taking over as lead pastors.
“Women were the primary educators for a century or more,” she said. “It just makes sense that we’d eventually start leading congregations.”
Mainline churches, like the PCUSA, are often criticized for being too liberal, and those who oppose women serving as senior pastors see it as another concession to contemporary culture.
However, one church with a conservative pedigree has ordained women as fully commissioned officers and assigned them as senior pastors since its inception. Women in 19th century England were instrumental in starting the Salvation Army.
Major Sue Dorman has been the ranking officer and senior pastor of the Tupelo Salvation Army for three years. In addition to her administrative duties, each week Dorman preaches and ministers to a congregation of around 80, as well as countless transients. The Salvation Army mostly utilizes husband and wife teams, but Dorman is the only single female serving as a senior pastor in the region that includes Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.
“There’s such a great need in the world today, both in terms of social justice work and in terms of preaching and spreading the gospel,” said Dorman. “We have to use every resource, every person we have, in order to succeed.”
Dorman believes women in ministry tend not to get hung up on issues of gender. As long as a person is able to do the job effectively, it doesn’t matter whether they’re male or female.
Although female pastors have achieved unprecedented success, the Barna study showed they still haven’t taken the pulpits in the country’s largest churches. For example, Sisson’s two congregations, in Okolona and Aberdeen, are of small and moderate size.
Across denominations, churches led by male pastors average 103 adults at Sunday worship, compared to 81 for female pastors.
The United Methodist Church recently celebrated 50 years of ordaining female ministers, yet today only about one tenth of women shepherd the denomination’s largest churches.
Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, who became the first female bishop for the Mississippi Conference in 2004, said getting women into the senior clergy positions of the largest churches is the new frontier in building the kind of diverse church Methodists want.
The UMC recently launched the Lead Women Pastor Project which combines researching leadership styles and building mentoring relationships to try to figure out how to get women ministers into bigger churches.
Ward said the project makes sense given that over 50 percent of those enrolled in master of divinity programs at Methodist seminaries are women. That confirms findings from the Barna study which show that females in ministry are better educated than their male counterparts. Seventy-seven percent of female ministers earn a seminary degree, as opposed to 63 percent of men.
Although being relegated to smaller churches presents a glass ceiling for female senior pastors, Ward said that as young women see more females leading congregations it will create momentum and inspiration.
“I find that a church’s openness to accepting any minister is in direct proportion to the minister’s experience,” said Ward. “If there’s a minority or a female minister that people can see, it opens people’s eyes. We have so many people out there doing good work – so many women – and, as a result, I think resistance to accepting female ministers is decreasing.”
Black women are also taking the pulpits in greater numbers. Twenty-three percent of the congregations in Mississippi are historically black churches. That’s the highest percentage in the country. Female ministers in the black church are a fairly new phenomenon but their ascendancy represents an affirmation of the strong matriarchal currents that have always been present in the church.
Denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church have led the way in ordaining women as presiding elders and today almost 30 percent of AME ministers are women. In 2000 the AME Church elected its first female bishop, Vashti Murphy McKenzie.
The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church started ordaining women in 1976. Today, about 5 percent of senior ministers in the CME are women.
Penson and her husband at Lane Chapel shepherd the largest CME church in the area. She’s pleased with the progress her denomination is making, but she’d like to see her sisters elected to the highest positions in the church.
“We’re gaining new responsibilities all the time,” said Penson. “Right now we have to be faithful servants and stewards with the opportunities we have.”
Even women who stand outside the pale of possible ordination are finding inspiration in what they see as the long-overdue historical progress of female senior pastors.
In her office at St. Christopher Catholic Church in Pontotoc, Sr. Soledad Mendoza sat counseling a young Hispanic man who often comes to her for advice.
Fr. Tim Murphy didn’t hesitate to say that, in a very real sense, Mendoza is the shepherd of the sizable Hispanic community at St. Christopher. The Catholic Church doesn’t ordain women, and with so few priests in the area Murphy is hard pressed to keep up with everyone who needs his attention. As a result, Mendoza and women like her often perform many of the pastoral duties in taking care of a congregation. They’re providing a critical pastoral presence, particularly at smaller, Catholic mission churches that don’t have full-time priests. Some say they’re keeping rural communities alive.
Mendoza isn’t angry that she can’t be ordained, instead she takes heart that women are increasingly being seen as equals in ministry, and, like her, they’re taking the lead.
She walked out of the counseling room, whispering in Spanish, telling the young man that she’d be right back.
“This is a matter of justice – yes, I think it is,” said Mendoza. “This work is not easy, but women have gifts, as do men.” She smiled, and leaned forward. “Perhaps one day I would like to be a priest, too.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal