Why We Need to Stop Requiring Churches to Interview a Woman

Really? I have to choose?

Really fun, interesting, passionate discussion going on, despite my not-very-thought-out post. You rise to the occasion, Blue Room readers.

So how do we solve the gender gap in ministry? With women outnumbering men in seminaries today, how we do break that stained glass ceiling?

Our current approach in the Presbyterian Church is to require churches, when looking for a pastor, to interview at least one female candidate. The thinking is, of the final three or four candidates, there would be a woman in the mix, and perhaps even churches with an unspoken default of pastor=male might be sufficiently moved to think outside the box. Not that every church will follow that up with a call to that woman, of course. This is mysterious Holy Spirit stuff, not to mention that there are women pastors who aren’t all that. But churches should at least look.

Do you think this helps? Have you seen this approach be helpful?

[Insert standard disclaimer about how people are complicated and are more than their gender.]

I was talking to some friends last week who were questioning this approach. And here’s the piece I found interesting. People have done studies about how we make decisions, and we do a much better job evaluating when we can compare two relatively similar things to one another. My friend told me about a study (I think I’ve got this right) in which they showed three pictures. Two pictures were of handsome/beautiful celebrities and the third was an image of one of those celebrities, but with the face badly distorted.

So for example, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and George Clooney with big jowls and an enlarged forehead.

Subjects were asked to choose the most handsome/beautiful face. The study showed that people overwhelmingly chose the face that had its own distorted image to compare it to. These images were so much better looking than their distorted image that they ended up coming out on top most of the time. So in the example, George Clooney over Brad Pitt.

OK that might be a bad example. The Clooney always beats Brad.


If this study is accurate, a lone woman among a final four of candidates will not get a fair look-see because there is no basis for good comparison. She becomes a non-sequitur.

So maybe we shouldn’t require churches to interview a woman candidate. Maybe we should require them to interview more than one!

What do you think?

14 thoughts on “Why We Need to Stop Requiring Churches to Interview a Woman

  1. I find myself with very little spiritual energy for this topic, having been That Woman more times than I have fingers. Let’s just say that it leaves me feeling like crap (to put an inelegant spin on it). And I have a feeling it makes the baby Jesus weep.

    Here’s hoping your more articulate commenters have some wisdom on the subject. I’m all ears. 😉

    • MaryAnn says:

      I’m glad you said that—I didn’t talk about that point, but not because it’s not important. Yeah, being perfunctory feels crummy.

      The fact is, there are relatively few places any more in which a clergywoman is some elusive exotic creature. With the proliferation of media, as well as more than a 50 year history of women in ordained positions, a case could be made that we’ve “peopled” this issue as much as we possibly can.

      If churches aren’t inclined to call a woman after seeing female GA moderators and other key leaders on the public stage, having a woman all up in the PNC’s grill isn’t going to do it either.

    • MaryAnn says:

      And on reflection, your comment and my post become two sides of the same coin. As more and more women graduate from seminary, female candidates (even for ‘top’ positions) will become more and more plentiful. So there could very well be two women (or more) in final four.

      And in when this happens, these women become serious candidates, not just tokens.

      My question, and the justice question, is what can we do to reduce the wait for that day to come.

      • Honestly? Barring a miracle (which I almost never do, BTW) I think the pool of “available” male candidates needs to shrink for what you describe to happen.

        And what made it feel crappy for me was having my time wasted, while knowing full well that the people who wasted my time were *required* to do so. It’s a sick system.

      • Stephanie says:

        So, part of the response (maybe more to the first question than this one) that just isn’t quite complete in my head is my desire to do a poll about how many women are looking for some of these big church positions. I know there are some. I’m sure of it. But I also know that it’s not me at least right now and I’m OK with that. I like the size of my church. I like its culture, my role in its culture. I like the size of our staff and how easy it is to coordinate with each other even if someone has a new idea at the relatively last minute. I like the flexibility of being the 60 or 65 in a 60/40 or 65/35 parenting split when it comes to doctors and classroom volunteer stuff. (My husband would never ask the right questions at the doctor anyway. He hasn’t taken himself to the doctor in years.) I like that sometimes it all feels like too much, I’m too busy, and too overwhelmed and the people I serve tell me to go home and chill out and take care of myself. When I worked in a bigger church as an associate we weren’t treated that way at all. Maybe all big places aren’t like that, but my experience with it turned me off of that bigger church culture at least for a while.

        Incomplete thought #2 that probably fits best on the other post:
        While I know there are women out there who want positions that women aren’t currently holding, one of the questions I ask out of curiosity not challenge is how far from the goal are we? How many women are seeking these positions, but not getting them?

        In complete thought #3:
        Even if I don’t want those positions, and frankly don’t feel called to them, I sure do want women somewhere to have some of them. If it turned out there were a whole lot of women like me who were fine not serving in contexts like that, but we still believe that it is not just important, but crucial that there be women in those positions, are some of us going to have take one for the team and do it to help change the future? (Assuming the Spirit could get churches to participate.) And if there are a lot of us who don’t want them – – why is that? Have we been socialized to think we won’t do well in them? Are those church cultures not offering the kind of intangible benefits some of us are looking for? Are we avoiding the gender battle we don’t have energy to wage? All sorts of questions to ask in this part.

        So, no complete thoughts. No sure answer from me. I have a hard time looking at this whole topic systemically because I have a hard time getting past where I am in it personally.

      • MaryAnn says:

        This is an excellent comment that pretty much sums it up for me too…

        Oh, and sadly I do know people who can’t break through a barrier that male colleagues with the same or less experience have. Very real.

        But everyth ing you say is right on.

  2. anne says:

    i’m going to answer a different question: what configuration of male/female pastors has worked best in your church experience?
    i’ve been a member of a variety of churches as an adult
    —sole senior pastor (male) followed by male senior pastor with female associate pastor (at the same church).
    —male senior pastor with 1 or 2 male associates and 1 female associate.
    —female senior pastor with female associate pastor (with a male pastor who was very part time as well, can’t recall his title).
    —male senior pastor with male associate pastor.

    what i’ve learned from all of this is that it is VERY helpful for me to have both male and female pastors on staff in my church. i’m very sad that my current church has only one female in program leadership and her role is as the youth group director. even the dce is male.

    last month in our sunday school class we had a discussion about male/female senior pastors and i was shocked to hear several people say they didn’t think our church was ready for a female senior pastor. (before i came they did have a female associate until she left to take a new position before i joined the church.) the discussion was prompted by our book study: leaving church by barbara brown taylor

  3. Jeremy says:

    I have a very different perspective on this (as you well know). My only experience with this rule revolved forcing ourselves to find a male candidate to include in the final mix because the rules said we had to. Of the other churches I’ve been involved with in my adult life: two are ARP and don’t allow women ministers. The other is a tall steeple in SC that called a woman as head pastor after the 30+ year head pastor retired.

    It seems like there are a lot of factors.

    This discussion runs parallel to one in the NFL the last several years though about the so-called “Rooney Rule” that requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for any head coaching vacancy. This has started to have some effect as owners have been forced to at least peripherally consider minorities as candidates.

  4. I kinda like the “interview at least 2” idea. After all, women do make up 50% of the population, don’t they?

  5. pastorsledge says:

    I like the interview 2 idea as well, though I know that wouldn’t matter in some congregations. On the plus side, 2 of the larger congregations in my previous presbytery (Scioto Valley) had female heads of staff.

  6. Stephanie says:

    Every time I think I’m ready to write an answer or two or maybe one combined to both of these posts, I think my thought is not yet complete. So now I’m going to just start answering with incomplete thoughts. Dangerous.

    One of your early questions was how is the requirement working for churches and/or women. Now in my second call, I have interviewed with a number of churches to different degrees. One of them, when I arrived for our face-to-face interview and neutral pulpit, had the honesty to admit that based on their own feelings and the expressed opinion of their congregation, they were only interviewing women because they had to. Even the young woman on the PNC, a peer of mine in age, education, and family status, said she could have never imagined a woman pastor. However, when I got there I was one of three (all three female) final candidates. They admitted that through the requirement of interviewing they had been changed.

    So while I doubt it’s common, and I don’t think it probably has the desired effect of working REAL change in the church, at least in this one little case it worked. Even just the requirement to look at ONE worked.

    (The end of the story – – They extended the call to me, but my response, if I could have said it with any integrity, would have been “HELL TO THE NO!” Instead I went with a nice polite, “I feel like God is calling me to another ministry at this time.”)

  7. Alex says:

    The church where I am currently serving was burned by their previous (female) pastor. The PNC told me that they were concerned about “hiring another woman after what happened last time”. I laughingly asked them, “Would you be saying this if your previous pastor had been male? Would you be doubting all male candidates “after what happened last time”?” Needless to say, they did listen to reason and I’ve been there almost a year with no more comments about my gender. But the initial lack of logic was astounding.

  8. marciglass says:

    I am not convinced that a “token” interview is a completely bad idea. Yes, it is a waste of time for the token woman. But I do think there is basis for comparison between one woman candidate and how ever many male candidates they have.
    The reality is, even today, there are people who have never heard a woman preach in worship. I had seminary classmates (and I graduated in 2008) who had never seen a woman preach until they went to seminary. So, we have to trust that even if change is glacial, it is happening. And one of the ways it happens is by introducing people who are narrow minded to women ministers.

    In the congregation I serve, we have to make a concerted effort to make sure that men are serving as elders, deacons, liturgists, preachers, etc.

    I don’t mean to be dismissive of women who have been overlooked, because I know that happens. But I do think there is value in the interview requirements because change happens when you know people. Once you’ve seen a woman preach, it becomes possible to imagine a woman preaching. Does that make sense?

  9. No name this time says:

    My thoughts on this are chaotic, except to say that it’s different in the really rural West, where that rule doesn’t exist because small churches must, and will, take anyone they can get and sometimes learn in that way that God does know what God is doing.

    Like Alex, I followed a woman whose entire ministry was a disservice to her church and her gender. (For that reason, I’m going to be anonymous for this post.) She was called because she “seemed nice” and was willing to work for very little because she thought that church and location would be a good segue into retirement. After that experience, our community church really thought they wanted a man. At first I was secretly irritated by those attitudes, until I came to understand that she’d just worn them out with her neediness.

    That was really how they felt, so I spent months as an interim saying, “If you feel so strongly, you need to interview men! This is not the time to be PC; it’s the time to listen to the Spirit.” After about four candidates whose only match to the church’s requirements seemed to be their Y chromosomes, the PNC understood that they didn’t need a man; they just needed someone who was going to be a mentally healthy adult and the only one of those in sight was a woman. Somebody — I — had to prove such a woman existed, and then they were past it.

    So, I guess being the token is a ministry that won’t disappear until churches everywhere have learned that lesson, which can only be taught by women who are willing to go where they aren’t very likely to be called. I have to say we’re almost there in my presbytery, except for the most conservative, ECO-leaning churches.

    Sometimes, in my more whimsical moments, I think of us as sperm: Thousands upon thousands have to cozy up to the egg before one gets in.

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