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The Changing Role of Women
by Abby Mendelson

This article 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:

Conflict Resolution Center International
204 37th Street
Pittsburgh PA 15206-1859
Tel: 412-687-6210 • Fax:412 687-6232
E-mail: [email protected]

The Changing Role of Women

Over 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 parity—50 percent male and female.

Still, 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 governance—just short of ordination. While Islamic and Orthodox Jewish women have no role as clergy, they do serve as integral members in lay leadership and education.

Yet such involvement has hardly lessened gender conflicts in churches, ranging from the highly personal to the overtly institutional. A few case histories:

No Trespassing!
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 As a counter, his supporters rescinded the rebels' memberships—including that of the former pastor herself—and posted a no-trespassing sign on the church grounds.

The Pastor Can't Do Anything Right!
According to many congregants, the new woman pastor at one Midwestern Methodist Church was all wrong. Her teaching, her preaching—even her eyeshadow was cause for criticism and complaint.

The Altar Rail Stops Here!
Given the exigencies of a poor New York City parish, one nun performed the role of priest in all ways—except to celebrate the eucharist and grant absolution. The nun bitterly feels her church errs by refusing her ordination.

Love Us—Or Leave Us!
When one old-line Lutheran Church hired a new woman pastor she was severely criticized for not moving close to the congregation—and that was only the beginning. Hoping to ameliorate the conflicts, she found herself embroiled in a sea of controversy—about herself.

Women 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 politely—and ignored again.

You're 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.

What To Do?
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.

What happened?
The Southwest Church split—and the renegades met in the parking lot. Despite the signs, the pro-women splinter group held tailgate services in the church parking lot—doubling the number of inside attenders. "This is a church for the whole community," one slogan said.

The Lesson: Keep your head—and reason together.
Even though tempers can flare, congregants generally do not want to see their church become a public spectacle. And while reasonable people can—and 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."

Adds 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 the Cross."

What happened?
The 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.

The Lesson: Be sho you are—but 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.'"

What happened?
While 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. She stayed.

The Lesson: Don't abandon your church because you feel it is wrong.
As 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."

While 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 and leadership."

Adds 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 and love."

What happened?
The conflicts added up, and the new pastor left—for 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 issues—notably the power of the pastor versus the power of the congregation. It just so happened a woman found herself at the heart of it.

The Lesson: Understand what the conflict is. Are you sure you're fighting over gender?
"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."

What happened?
She hung tough—for 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 seriously—at least during formal debate.

The Lesson: Work harder.
A sad fact of life is that equality does not yet exist everywhere—and 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."

What happened?
The male pastor had seniority—and 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.

The 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 system—and God—handle 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."

"In 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 you to."

Copyright 1999 Conflict Resolution Center International, Inc.