In Which I Get a Little Testy over the Gender Gap

Context: There is a stained glass ceiling in ministry. Granted it has holes in it, but the number of women who serve as heads of staff of large congregations is…small.

Context, Part the Second: This is a rant. A vent. Treat it accordingly.

Yesterday morning I posted a note on FB about having to juggle work stuff and writing stuff with James in tow—his day care provider needed the day off. Within the hour I got three responses from other pastors who were having similar issues that very day: teacher inservice + working on the sermon, well baby visit + writing a presentation, etc.

These folks are all super talented, and I found myself asking “Wow, imagine how far we’d go if we weren’t all doing 2-3 jobs at once!”

Imagine, indeed.

I don’t have to tell you the gender of all four of these pastors, do I.


Honestly, I don’t know what I’m testy about. And it’s probably foolish to allow one’s anger to roam, free-range; it’s liable to wander into the wrong person’s yard and start pooping on stuff.

I should probably apologize right now and get it over with.

Because hey, it’s possible that there is some large cadre of clergymen out there wondering how to get the funeral meditation done in between carpool and the lacrosse practice.

But I doubt it.

It’s also possible that all of us minister-moms like our current career trajectory just fine. I certainly hope so. I like where I am, and I’m not just saying that to calm down any member of Tiny who might read this. Solo pastor ministry is fun. Varied. And yes, flexible: James and I had a great day together. I really do love being the default caregiver during the week. If life imitates the Simpsons, and we need to evacuate earth and my kids only get to choose one parent, well…sorry Robert.

But there’s no way that every woman who juggles kids and a call wants it that way. They are limited geographically. Or related, they’ve made a financial calculation that their spouse will be the primary breadwinner.

And that’s all fine. Except that in 2012 we have a gender gap in ministry at the highest levels. That’s a justice issue. An economic issue. A question of power. And our male colleagues may be sensitive new age guys, but they are only too happy to take the big positions and the big salaries while we juggle the pediatrician and PowerPoint.

Somebody talk me down here.


41 thoughts on “In Which I Get a Little Testy over the Gender Gap

  1. joann28 says:

    Well, my male, childless pastor goes home mid-afternoon to walk the dog, while his wife works a high-power job in D.C. I suppose he’d be the one to take the dog to the vet, too. Is that the same as child care? I didn’t think so.

  2. joann28 says:

    As for me, we have an empty nest. but in the 8 years since I was certified no church has called me. Ageism, maybe? Or a woman of a certain age who hasn’t had a profession while raising kids is too old to take a chance on when she has no “prior experience”?

  3. joann28 says:

    Don’t get me started . . ..

  4. candivernon says:

    I affirm everything you said in your post. But…the sad fact is that even if we didn’t have kids (or in my case parent) to take care of there would still be the gender gap. There is still the perception that men have more experience and knowledge and they just look more like and sound more ministers than we women do.

  5. MaryAnn says:

    OK, you guys aren’t doing a very good job of talking me down.

    • See, my take on “talking you down” isn’t to try to convince you that it doesn’t exist. For me, the question is: how much energy to you want to invest in being frustrated and/or angry about it, how much in trying to change it, and how much in accepting that this is the hand you’ve been dealt and it’s up to you how you choose to play the cards — ?

      • MaryAnn says:

        Yeah, that’ll work I guess…

        Edit: But we also make the world that we inhabit. I’m not willing to give up on changing the rules of the game. Which I know is part and parcel with playing the hand you’re dealt.

        I do think–and I know this gets people REALLY riled up–that Linda Hirshman had a point.

      • Linda Hirshman wrote “or else to engage in a reproductive strike, limiting the number of children to one” which in a marriage of one and one can be played by the male gender, with vasectomy as exclamation point. As H Richard Niebuhr would point out, “choice” often is more illusory than “real” in the sense that what we are able to choose is circumscribed by choices made by others before our time and, as well, the “choice” we make now also (as you all are pointing out) set the context for other choices our children, grandchildren and to the seventh (and subsequent) generations believe they, too, are making freely. As a privileged white male (WASP) – I do not dispute the point at all – and thus an outsider I empathize (perhaps the way one who has never directly experienced birthing “empathizes” with labor pain(s).

      • “But we also make the world that we inhabit. I’m not willing to give up on changing the rules of the game.”

        Then it sounds like you’re interested in investing your energy in #2 (changing the game) and #3 (playing your hand), which brings up another question: how much does frustration/anger with the current situation help fuel your desire to effect change, versus at what point does frustration/anger reduce your efficacy?

        If I were to choose such a scenario, I would strive for gracious, yet resolute determination.

  6. Sharon says:

    What exactly would “talking you down” look like?! 🙂

    • MaryAnn says:

      Good point… 🙂

      I do hope that the spouses of those glorious gals who posted to my FB status know just how awesome their partners are. And tell them so. Frequently.

      • Sharon says:

        As Robert tells you. Frequently. I know.

      • Alex says:

        My spouse *is* amazing. And often does the pediatrician visit, the parent/teacher conference, etc. But only because he also has a pretty flexible job situation. Oh – and I got NOTHING done on the sermon yesterday.

      • MaryAnn says:


        The shared responsibilities in our household look very peculiar. Yes, there is an evening a week on average in which Robert is the juggler while I go to night meetings. And the occasional Saturday gig. But the main time he becomes the primary caregiver is when I travel to a conference, writing thing, workshop or what have you. Which I do at least six times a year. So I am more of the ordinary time gal, and he does the intense bursts, which are harder in some ways because there’s no backup.

        I guess I bring that up because I share your gratitude.

        And I don’t want this to be about money. It’s not just about money. But money is a symbol of what we (collectively) value. So… eh, I don’t know what my point is.

  7. Laura J. says:

    Sorry about the cross-post. But the timing was funny. Still, yes we have no choice but to accept the hand we’re dealt, but that doesn’t mean we don’t rage against the machine. (Given the lowest-setting article, that seems an appropriate metaphor.) It is possible to imagine a game with different default settings, no?

  8. Lee says:

    I hear you… but also… I spent part of my morning on a walk with my baby, then attending an event at my daughter’s preschool class. I’m working several nights this week, and Saturday morning, so my husband will do his share of the juggling. I am grateful all the time that I’ve been called into a vocation that has this flexibility. I was raised by a male pastor who stayed home when we were sick and went on our school field trips as much, if not more, than my mom did.

    I guess what I’m saying is that maybe the “big positions and the big salaries” aren’t something we ought to be aspiring to. Who says that’s the end goal?

    This is a pretty good life, I think (which I know you know, MA), and maybe what we ought to be doing is helping other people (men and women) find ways to have more balance in their lives. (I hate the word balance in this context, but I can’t come up with another one.)

    • MaryAnn says:

      I hear you too.

      And the big position is absolutely an end goal in the sense that more women in these positions means that the video game changes.

  9. Martha says:

    As you know my kids are older, and two are out of the nest, but I am still playing the game in the same character class, as the mom who picks up from school, goes to the doctor, splits my day into sometimes fractured pieces…and *I’m doing it for a 16-year-old girl who is sometimes brutal in the way only 16-year-old girls can be to their mothers.* (Yes, this has been a bad afternoon, why do you ask?)
    This was all set up ten years ago when I took the call that was friendlier to a family schedule. It’s almost over. I don’t know what it will mean for me next year when I’m 52, if I’m looking for other work and have to show that I haven’t served a church bigger than 150 members as anything other than an Interim Associate.
    I would add that I’ve done this in full-time calls and Interim ministry positions, starting with all three kids at home, with a mostly non-supportive former spouse as the other parent. As John Scalzi points out, there are no extra points for that. You just play the best you can with what you’ve got. I didn’t really have a choice. Did I want it this way? I don’t know. I felt called to be a pastor, and I was the only parent who was going to be available to my children. I hope someday they appreciate it. (Their dad, too.) And I hope when that 16-year-old gets out into the world, if she has a family, that heteronormative gender assumptions won’t limit her.

  10. marciglass says:

    I have a number of male seminary classmates who post pictures on facebook of taking their children to the office because childcare flaked out or whatever. So I think it is a generational thing that might look different in a few years? Hopefully?

    And while I know it is out there, I didn’t talk to any churches for whom my gender was a limiting factor. If I were another flavor of Christian, I’m sure I’d see it differently, but there seems to be room for female HoS in the PCUSA. Maybe we just don’t want those jobs.

    Truth be told, while I love being the head of staff at slightly-bigger-than-Tiny, I don’t think you could pay me enough to work more, at a bigger church, with more prestige, whatever. I like being able to be home after school with the boys and go to track meets, and whatever. It works for me. I don’t feel I shattered any stained glass ceilings, but maybe I just found an open window?

    • MaryAnn says:

      I think it’s both. Yes, there are those of us who don’t want “those jobs.” And/but, there are still places that won’t take a female candidate seriously. Sad but true.

  11. Andrew Kukla says:

    Okay, I shouldn’t say anything – but then I’ve never been good at keeping my mouth shut even when I know I should.

    Two years ago I would have gotten upset reading this blog — now I know better. Two years ago I was living under the assumption that times had changed and Dad’s were equal parents… wow was I deceiving myself.

    I take exception to the idea that they are not equal, because I feel like a fully equal partner in parenting with my own spouse (Caroline). My son is reading his homework to me at this very moment in my office no matter how many times I remind him that I am trying to work. I leave work three of the five days to go through the car pool line to pick him up and take him to his extended day program. I drop off three kids at three different schools every morning on my way to work, and I’m the parent that drives the mini-van. More often than not I’m the parent whose upper body is soaked getting the kids cleaned in the bathtub, and I tell the older two a bed time story (I make it up about Peter the mouse who is an imaginary mouse that lives in our house) while my wife is putting the younger one to bed (and all that will change come November when #4 is born). I do 90% of the doctor visits – well or otherwise – and since we have no family close by when a kid is sick they spend about half that time with me, maybe a little bit more because – let’s face it – my job is more flexible than my wife’s job. (Yes congregation members who continually ask, my wife has to work full time though she gladly would give that up if she could!)

    Now don’t get me wrong, my wife makes all the lunches, does the laundry, and has to deal with all the kids the three nights a week I don’t get home until after 9 pm, and she is responsible for getting them all dressed up and to church on Sundays. So I don’t do more than my fair share – I just carry part of OUR load… and I thought most Dad’s did. Until about 2 years ago when I read a Parents magazine (PARENTS MAGAZINE.. not a dad’s magazine) in which a major article was a dad explaining that it was okay that he just watched Sports Center every night while his wife did the whole evening routine by herself because… wait for this… she was just better at it than him. SERIOUSLY???? They printed that garbage? How is getting wet all over as you try to shampoo a two year old’s moving head in a bathtub a skill one is good – or conversely, bad – at? (Oops… just ended a sentence with a preposition on a writer’s blog – ah well… you’ll just have to cringe and bear it the way my mom does, sorry MaryAnn.)

    So yes – men are still men, and still abusing the broken understanding our white supremacist patriarchal capitalistic culture has ascribed to it. I’ve tried to live otherwise, and I try – between carting kids around and working a job (and trying to find another one in which no-one seems to think I have any worthwhile experience… well $*% how bad am I that I can’t even “succeed” on the Easy level) and schooling – to advocate and raise awareness of all the ceilings (stain glass or otherwise) that exist… which is to say that I have too many excuses about staying silent too often and still benefit more than I should from a system I despise. So I don’t want to talk you down – your blog post was a great example of the righteous anger that won’t be patient in the face of injustice and longing for the kingdom that you talked about here (you called it patient impatience – I’m wordy and I know it):

    What I do wish to do – while saying, “Preach it sister!” is say that I do believe a small but growing number of “wimpy white males” (that’s what the neonatal people among us would call us… white males being the weakest of newborns) who try to actually live life on a harder (more just) setting so that our beloved sisters and brothers can come a notch down off the Impossibly Hard setting life has dealt them. Sorry that was a lot about me… you just caught me on one of my soap box issues. I just want to look at men my age and say, ENOUGH ALREADY, go get your kid and its really okay if your fancy suit has rice cereal on the shoulder and there are 4 am wake up call bags under your eyes – its called working parent and the world needs to learn to understand!

    • MaryAnn says:

      WOO ANDREW!!

      You’re one of the good ones, my friend…

      • Andrew Kukla says:

        Side note: that picture is wonderful. Where is that ceiling? If all ceilings were like that I might tolerate injustice better! 🙂 (yes yes yes… we DO participate in our own broken realities… Come on Moses take us back to Egypt, they always fed us there!)

    • Melody says:

      I have a husband like you so I just wanted to say you and he are amazing. Having said that why is it so “amazing” that men do their fair share? I dunno, a crappy sexist world view in America.

  12. Erica says:

    I’m not going to rant about the state of things in the mommy-pastor world around here. Let’s just say it’s complicated and exhausting. And that I spent 20 minutes talking to the DCE today while Abram transferred smears of granola bar by way of his tongue onto my face. There’s nothing dignified about that, even when you’re sitting in a fancy wood-panelled pastor’s study. Sometimes, when I feel like you feel about the stained glass ceiling thing, I go back to this article about how Dutch women just sort of choose not to work as much. And they seem happier.

    Maybe I’d rather have this as a life goal. The guys are welcomed to all that high-powered nonsense.

    (And then I start to daydream about trying to regain Dutch citizenship somehow…but I think I’m too far removed from the generation that immigrated.)

  13. MaryAnn says:

    Let the record reflect that Robert did all the evening dishes (normally “my job”) as I finish copy edits of the book. Joy!

  14. Growling slightly. For various reasons…

  15. Language betrays – a man pastor may be able to say “my wife” – in the case with which I am most familiar, the senior pastor (27 years) would have been happy to be able to say “my wife” without making it facetious. Second, to praise for what has to (must) be done seems mostly a one-way deal, perhaps due to predominance of certain (Myers-Briggs) personality type(s) – temperament (particularly NF) as well as gender roles and expectations. When I wash dishes, I do not expect praise but am likely to receive “love and attention” – and I am unlikely to reciprocate (more out of awkwardness rather than meanness) – just as I would not expect praise for mowing, to give a crude example. Life is complicated in part through necessity of breeding piled on top of “not fair.” I care a lot and the opportunity and “success” of every “woman of God” is very important to me. You all make much better pastors than I would have had I followed through on my seminary education in a different way (ordination and on). Many women (not just religious) would like very much to have a wife, I believe.In East Africa all would probably be able to afford one (or more).

  16. I doubt I can talk you down but, thankfully, women in ministry are becoming the powerful force they ought to be — and have always been. Yes, yes, I know it’s not happening fast enough. Still, when you’re feeling hot under the collar, please read my blog piece, Women in Ministry ( I couldn’t have made it back to church after 40 years without the voices of women. Keep speaking up and out!

  17. Anna Pinckney Straight says:

    Excellent post/rant. The “power of anger in the work of love….” , and as you know, I have lots of data to back up what you are saying, and I HOPE that folks going to GA this year have read this so they can support the study that will be looking into these disparities….

    I think that these are two issues that co-mingle.

    1) The default Mom as primary parent. Even in our modern world (and I have a husband who works part-time in order to do the pick-up, piano, cooking, etc.) it’s moms who, for the most part, coordinate the lives of their children. I still schedule the Drs appointments, figure out the summer camp schedule, make sure the right forms are with the epi-pen, etc. And we ALL know that I have one of the best husbands God ever created.

    2) The stained-glass ceiling. The perceived notion is that women will be less-than at their churches because they will need/want to focus on family, spouse, home,…. The ceiling exists whether or not there are children in the picture. Whether or not there is a supportive spouse. Whether or not there is a spouse at all. I suspect it is, in part, because of those default tapes in people’s minds (preacher=male), and for many it is deep within their subconscious and not intentional.

    One place where we are falling short is in the search process and the ways in which COMs partner with churches seeking. Presbyteries are stretched so very thin…. they are putting out fires, talking to churches contemplating leaving, and they have fewer and fewer resources to devote to individuals who walk with PNCs and can develop the relationships in which some of these underground, unrealized biases can be uncovered and explored.

    Instead (at least in my experience), many of these Presbytery/PNC relationships are obligatory and minimal, which cheats everyone.

    So, one of the things I’ve been trying to work on is strengthening that relationship. Which reminds me. I need to follow up with our EP.

    I am so thankful for the many women who have come before. Who heard and answered their call to ministry without having role models, where the supporters were few instead of plenty. What I want now is for the supporters to be not only cheerleaders but to be willing to do some of the hard work necessary to lessen the gap.

    (other issues that also co-mingle: racism, retirement or lack-thereof, the move away from paying pastors enough to support a one-wage-earner household and moving toward needing the spouse to work to make ends meet which means that they need to live in a place where the spouse can work…)

    But now I need to go work on the three funerals and Sunday worship that will fill the next fourteen days.

  18. Thank you. A few months ago I was chatting with someone after worship. They asked me how things are going. Never being one to keep my mouth shut, I voiced that things were really busy…especially because our new staff person (designated to work with me) was out on maternity leave. (We did not hire someone to fully do her job while she was away…another issue, in retrospect!) He said this (paraphrasing), “That sucks. I have sisters. I know that women get sick a lot more than men. That’s why it’s hard to hire them…because they’re always out.” It was one of those moments where I chose graciousness, but I wish I hadn’t.

    • candivernon says:

      And this attitude is part of the reason that women hit that stained glass ceiling. Members left this congregation when I was called. They left before they even met me. That was in 2008 in the PC(USA). Some of the men who were supportive when I arrived changed their mind when they found that I wasn’t going to consult them about how the church needs to be run (they were not currently on Session.) They have not liked many of the decisions that our newly-empowered-to-lead Session of both men and women have made. It’s about power.

    • MaryAnn says:

      Jaw. Floor.

      I’m not surprised that such views exist, but I am still amazed when people say them out loud.

  19. pregnancy is different from sickness and is distinct, I’m sure you all know

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