Skip Navigation
A new study from Duke University shows a

Photo by Steven Adair, United Methodist Communications

A new study from Duke University shows a "stained-glass ceiling" for women leaders in U.S. faith communities.

How thick is the stained-glass ceiling?

By Heather Hahn
Dec. 10, 2015 (UMNS)

A woman’s place can be behind the wheel of racecars, at the front of corporate boardrooms and along the U.S. presidential campaign trail. But for many U.S. congregations, a woman still has no place in the pulpit.

Even as U.S. congregations become more ethnically diverse, a new analysis of Duke University’s National Congregations Study shows that women hold only a small minority of those faith communities’ top leadership positions.

Women serve as senior or solo pastoral leaders of just 11 percent of U.S. congregations — indicating essentially no overall increase from when the study was first done in 1998. These women-led communities contain only about 6 percent of the people who attend the nation’s religious services.

“That’s one of the most surprising non-changes in our data,” said Mark Chaves, who directs the study. He is a professor of sociology, religious studies and divinity at United Methodist-related Duke University and Duke Divinity School.

“When I first saw this result, I thought it had to be wrong. But it’s accurate. The ‘stained-glass ceiling’ is real.”

His report, released Dec. 9, uses data from the 2012 National Congregations Study, a nationally representative survey of 3,815 congregations. The study included not just the Christian majority but also Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and other non-Christian faith communities. A National Congregations Study previously took place in 1998 and again in 2006-2007.

The study includes congregations from traditions, such as the Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention, which do not ordain women pastors.

However, Chaves said he was surprised that increases of women clergy in traditions that do ordain women was not enough to improve the trend lines.

How United Methodists fare

The Methodist movement, in particular, has a tradition of women lay preachers going back to John Wesley’s day. The year 1866 saw the Rev. Helenor Davisson ordained as a Methodist Protestant deacon, the earliest known woman’s ordination in the Methodist tradition.

The United Methodist Church, like other mainline Protestant denominations in recent decades, has seen its ranks of clergywomen grow.

According to the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, 27 percent of the denomination’s 54,262 active and retired clergy in 2014 were women. That’s more than double the 11 percent of women clergy the denomination had in 1992.

However, the number of United Methodist women clergy has stalled since 2009, said Dawn Wiggins Hare, the commission’s top executive.

“For us to move from this number, we need to make the full inclusion of women into all areas of leadership in the life of our church a systematic priority as a denomination,” she said.

Of The United Methodist Church’s 66 active bishops, 13 are women. Female senior pastors also remain rare. Of the 100 largest United Methodist congregations in the U.S., only one — Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco — is led by a woman.

“Isn’t that astounding?” said the Rev. Karen Oliveto, Glide’s senior pastor for nearly eight years. “In the larger church, for women, authority isn’t automatically earned by office. It has to be earned because there’s a scrutiny of women’s leadership.”

While bishops appoint clergy in The United Methodist Church, Oliveto noted that bigger churches tend to have more say in the clergy they receive. Many are reluctant to ask for a woman senior pastor, she said.

That tracks with what Chaves’ research found in religious communities nationwide. He said many women are assistant pastors or fill secondary leadership roles, especially in mainline Protestant and Catholic churches. He added that the proportion of female master of divinity students seems to have peaked in the early 2000s, and many of those graduates are less likely to seek to become pastors.

“The obvious strength is that our denomination affirms our place as spiritual leaders,” said the Rev. Carolyn Moore. “That also ends up being our challenge.”

Moore in 2004 planted Mosaic United Methodist Church just outside Augusta, Georgia. The church now has an average attendance of 225, and Moore is working on a doctoral project about the practices women church planters can use to overcome the hurdles they face.

“Because bishops and district superintendents as a whole have a high level of acceptance, there may not be a conscious acceptance of the challenges women still face,” she said. “To say, ‘We love you and you're doing a great job’ isn't always the most helpful thing. Women also need advocates who will acknowledge the barriers that still exist and help coach past them.”

Findings of Interest

Other findings from the 2012 study:

  • The United Methodist Church is the third largest religious group in the United States, behind the Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention.
  • The United Methodist Church has 9 percent of the United States’ congregations and 6 percent of religious-service attendees.
  • Overall, U.S. churches and churchgoers are aging. Mainline Protestants, which include United Methodists, lead the trend. Fifty-six percent of adults in a typical mainline congregation are over 60.
  • Most congregations, regardless of religious affiliation, are small. The average congregation has 70 participants, including adults and children.
  • Most people are in large congregations. The largest 7 percent of congregations contain about half of all U.S. churchgoers.

Cracks in the ceiling

The denomination is seeing some cracks in the stained-glass ceiling, with denominational leaders working to cultivate more women leaders.

The United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry launched the Lead Women Pastors Project in 2008 to provide networking and continuing education opportunities for women pastors of churches with 1,000 or more members. The project helped the pastors explore their leadership styles, exchange ideas and prepare to be coaches of other women leaders.

Since the project got under way, the number of women lead pastors of large churches has grown from 68 in 2009, to 116 in 2014, said the Rev. HiRho Park, who led the project for the agency. The denomination has about 1,070 such congregations in the United States. She also co-edited a book about the effort, “Breaking Through the Stained Glass Ceiling.”

Among the newest women pastors of a “tall-steeple” church is the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, who in 2014 became the first woman senior pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in the nation’s capital. The congregation, with about 1,200 members, celebrated its 200th anniversary this year.

“It’s been a wonderful reception,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “The leadership at Foundry were clear it was time they received a woman as their senior pastor. Work had been done prior my arrival.”

The congregation takes her seriously, she said, and treats her in a way she thinks would be no different than a man in the same position.

Foundry is unusual in that its two top clergy leaders are women. The Rev. Dawn M. Hand, the church’s executive pastor, said she and Gaines-Cirelli show that women in leadership can work well together. She said each of their appointments was a prophetic move.

“The only way that we’re going to lift up women as an equal part of this called ministry is to show that,” she said. “The only way to honor your commitment and your faith is to act on it.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.