is one of a series on Conflict Resolution in the Faith Community published
by the Conflict Resolution Center International. For more information
about conflict resolution contact:
Resolution Center International
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Changing Role of Women
past three decades, church leadership roles for women have changed dramatically,
in many cases including positions once held only by men. Indeed, in
some denominations the number of seminary students and new ordinations
has reached parity50 percent male and female.
there are no hard and fast rules about leadership. While the Catholic
Church does not ordain women priests, for example, women do serve in
many high-ranking ecclesiastical and lay roles. Episcopal and Methodist
women can rise to the level of bishop. Eastern Orthodox churches encourage
women to play major roles in services and church governancejust
short of ordination. While Islamic and Orthodox Jewish women have no
role as clergy, they do serve as integral members in lay leadership
such involvement has hardly lessened gender conflicts in churches, ranging
from the highly personal to the overtly institutional. A few case histories:
When the new young pastor at one Southwest Interdenominational
Church denounced women in the clergy, including the pastoral work continued
by his female predecessor, some members revolted against him. As a counter,
his supporters rescinded the rebels' membershipsincluding that
of the former pastor herselfand posted a no-trespassing sign on
the church grounds.
Pastor Can't Do Anything Right!
to many congregants, the new woman pastor at one Midwestern Methodist
Church was all wrong. Her teaching, her preachingeven her eyeshadow
was cause for criticism and complaint.
Altar Rail Stops Here!
Given the exigencies of a poor New York City
parish, one nun performed the role of priest in all waysexcept
to celebrate the eucharist and grant absolution. The nun bitterly feels
her church errs by refusing her ordination.
UsOr Leave Us!
When one old-line Lutheran Church hired a new
woman pastor she was severely criticized for not moving close to the
congregationand that was only the beginning. Hoping to ameliorate
the conflicts, she found herself embroiled in a sea of controversyabout
Are Meant To Be Seen But Not Heard!
When one East Coast Presbyterian
Elder was appointed to a top judicial office, it was assumed she was
window dressing. So when she voiced her opinion, she was ignored. When
she protested, she was answered politelyand ignored again.
No Pastor Especially Not Here!
When one river city church hired
a female assistant pastor, her 60-ish male senior pastor welcomed her
with open arms and a knife in the back. Your gifts, he sniffed,
are not needed in my church, or any church.
While this article does not pretend to resolve such deeply felt doctrinal
disputes as what Paul really meant about women's silence in church,
or what the Talmud really says about women's obligations, or whether
traditional Islamic roles are really appropriate in contemporary times,
there are nevertheless ways to begin to resolve the sorts of inter-gender
conflicts outlined above.
The Southwest Church splitand the renegades met in the parking
lot. Despite the signs, the pro-women splinter group held tailgate services
in the church parking lotdoubling the number of inside attenders.
"This is a church for the whole community," one slogan said.
Lesson: Keep your headand reason together.
Even though tempers can flare, congregants generally do not want
to see their church become a public spectacle. And while reasonable
people canand will disagree, the first step, suggests Eastern
Orthodox priest Father Gregory Wingenbach, is for everyone to take a
step back and say, "Come, let us reason together."
Episcopal educator Lori Rizzo, "If you're not going to go into any argument
saying, 'I could be wrong,' then you're putting something in front of
young, single woman did not meet the church's pre-conception of what
makes a pastor. There were no two ways about it: the tradition-bound
Midwest church wanted what it grew up with, a male pastor with a wife
and kids. The new pastor was not, and when she tried to be both soft
woman and strong man, she failed. After two very long years, she resigned.
Lesson: Be sho you arebut consider how you work.
"Be secure," comments Methodist Pastor Beth Nelson. "Be who you
are, but if you are controversial think of other ways to get your message
across. When I state things with a lot of 'I' language, I come across
as an angry woman, which I'm not. So I've learned to soften my message,
to project it back on the group. I had to develop a way of doing things
that's more relational, more conversational. There's more ownership
and shared vision; at my church we develop new structures together.'"
the nun felt she was treated unfairly, she opted to stay within the
Church. The story is simple: she loves the church. She loves her ministry.
Lesson: Don't abandon your church because you feel it is wrong.
Father Robert Ahlin, a Catholic priest, puts it, "Women want women priests
and women masses, and have done so. These are not considered valid by
the Church and are in schism."
some woman have indeed left religions because they desire priestly activity,
others have stayed. Some feel their church is right, some wrong, but
they make the best of their opportunities. Comments Dr. Hassan Bakri,
an Islamic educator, "In Islam there are assigned roles for different
people. Everyone has a role; everyone is encouraged to seek knowledge
Mennonite writer Elaine Sommers Rich, "Women can be about the work of
the Kingdom, doing whatever the Lord calls them to do. If it means being
interim dean of a college, do it. It if means preaching, do it. If it
means supervising the church nursery, do it, always in a spirit of humility
conflicts added up, and the new pastor leftfor the good of the
church. As the combatants knew, the Lutheran Church had been ordaining
women for 30 years, and it really wasn't the woman pastor they were
fighting over. The conflict was over other issuesnotably the power
of the pastor versus the power of the congregation. It just so happened
a woman found herself at the heart of it.
Lesson: Understand what the conflict is. Are you sure you're fighting
"It's rarely a clean issue," comments Dr. Donald Green, assistant
to the Lutheran Bishop of Pittsburgh. "Often, intrachurch conflicts
have multiple issues. The key is to be direct and keep the focus on
defining what the issues are. More often than not, the issue is not
gender but something else."
She hung toughfor 17 years. As a Presbyterian Elder, and as a
participant in judicial proceedings, she learned parliamentary law,
learned that if she made motions, the men had to take her seriouslyat
least during formal debate.
Lesson: Work harder.
A sad fact of life is that equality does not yet exist everywhereand
that some women will have to work harder to succeed. "I handled it the
way many women do," one retired churchwoman recalls, "by working super
hard. People got better service than they would have from a man. I also
became more aggressive in putting my own opinion forward. I didn't mind
being thought of as tough."
male pastor had seniorityand the votes. He won; she left. Since
the River City male pastor controlled the parish committees, the new
woman pastor was helpless. Not wanting to sink to his level of infighting
and invective, she resigned 17 months into her ministry.
Lesson: Rising above the conflict may be the best way to resolve it.
"I took responsibility for my own future," she recalls. "If I couldn't
be an effective pastor there I needed to be moved somewhere where I
could be. Ultimately, I had to let the systemand Godhandle
things. My prayer for him," she adds, "is wholeness and healing; to
do any less would be to treat him the way he treated me."
conflict situations," adds Methodist Pastor Connie Hoeke, "the first
thing you lose is who you really are. So you must maintain your integrity,
a true sense of who you are. Never fight the way the other person wants
1999 Conflict Resolution Center International, Inc.