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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - The First Female Pastor


 Our question this week comes from someone who may find herself in a position that many of us have been in - the first female pastor a particular congregation has ever known. How exciting - for them and for her! She wants to make sure, though, that she enters the position wisely. Here is what she writes:

I've been in the ministry for a while (about 8 years) in associate pastor's positions, music minister and solo pastor.  However, I've never been the very first female pastor a congregation has ever known.  This may change in July. I am in an episcopal polity denomination, and while both the church and I have a say, ultimately it is up to the Bishop.

While I am not anticipating any problems, what are the potholes I should be looking out for?  What are the red flags?  Any suggestions would be welcome.

First Female in Rural Parish

Jennifer writes:
I’ve been the first female in every setting in which I’ve served, except for one. As I see my 30th anniversary of ordination off in the distance, I’m thinking that issues surrounding women in ministry have less to do with whether one is the first clergywoman someone a parishioner has experienced than they do with the anxiety around a new spiritual leader. At the end of the day, the authenticity of the clergyperson makes the biggest difference. Your confidence in your call to ministry, your sincere desire to love the people and meet them where they are will count for a great deal. Listening for concerns about being “the first” will be important, just as listening for concerns about how your style is different from or similar to the previous pastor will be. Change is a challenge for many in congregations, and in your system, and assuming that your bishop is caring and sensitive, asking your bishop and others who know the congregation about its personality might help. And if anyone is resistant to you as a clergywoman, there will, hopefully, be opportunities to chat with her or him about what’s going on and what’s on their minds.

Mompriest offers:

I hope the possibility of a new call brings you and those you serve great joy!
Some things to consider: most Bishops will accept the candidate chosen by the parish, especially if the Bishop and the Canon to the Ordinary prescreened all the applicants before giving the applicant materials to the parish. Of course there are a few exceptions - I hope that is not the case here. 

In terms of your leadership in the parish: some of the points to be aware of will be determined by the size of the congregation and the type of leadership it is already used too. So, for example, are they used to a rector who makes all the decisions and is a strong leader? Or are the used to a rector who does a few things well and has left the rest of parish ministry up to members of the congregation? What is your natural leadership style? There are some really good books to help with this: "New Beginnings: A Pastorate Start-up Workbook" by Roy Oswald and "The Web of Women's Leadership: Recasting Congregational Ministry" by Susan Willhauck and Jacqulyn Thorpe. Understanding how you lead and what kind of leadership the congregation is comfortable with will help. And, another book that helps with this time of transition is, "Managing Transitions" by William Bridges.

To that end some churches have really strong matriarchs and patriarchs. These are often most powerful in small churches BUT some larger churches have grown at a rate where their leadership is still that of a small church AKA matriarchs and patriarchs. In "Discerning Your Congregation's Future" by Roy M. Oswald and Robert E. Friedrich, Jr. they describe congregational size, their leadership style, and what is expected of the Rector. While their description is good I have found, as I've said, that some churches can be bigger but still function smaller. To that end here is what they say about churches that have a strong matriarchal and patriarchal leadership dynamic: "What (these churches) want from their clergy is pastoral care, period. For clergy to assume that they are the chief executive officer and the resident religious authority is to make a serious blunder. The key role of the patriarch and matriarch is to see that the clergy do not take the congregation off on a new direction of ministry. Clergy are to be the chaplains of this family. When clergy don't understand this, they are likely to head into a direct confrontation with the parental figure. It is generally suicide for clergy to get caught in a showdown with the patriarchs and matriarchs within the first five years of their ministry in that place." (page 149). I don't say this to scare you but to help you understand the importance of understanding the expected leadership style of the congregation regardless of its size. These hold true regardless of gender but the dynamics become more complicated when a female rector is called.

Some of the reasons the dynamics might become more complicated have to do again with the age of the congregation and whether or not there is a strong matriarch and or a history of a strong matriarch/patriarch. So, what may arise is the matriarch, in particular, feeling displace by the new woman leader. Knowing who this person(s) is and cultivating a relationship with her will be critical. Knowing that you will not be able to do anything without her blessing will also be key. The same holds true for the patriarch(s) although the dynamic will be slightly different. 

Secondly in some systems the female rector is viewed as a "daughter." This may be more true when the congregation is older and the female rector younger, but could happen otherwise as well. In this case, because the rector is seen as a "daughter" she is therefore supposed to listen to her "elders" and be "obedient." This dynamic does not always appear in every church where the woman is a rector, nor in a church where one is the first woman rector, but it is a possible dynamic. Again, this dynamic will limit the rector's ability to do anything without the blessing of those who are really in charge of the parish. 

More than once I have been the first female rector in a parish. The issues I have spelled out above are things I have faced. But, I can also say that I have had some really wonderful experiences. I have been blessed with congregations with whom some fabulous ministry grew from our work together.  And lastly, you may want to set up for yourself a transition team at the parish who will help you learn about it. Have the search committee help you find folks, around 4-6 people - one who has been there a long time, one who is newer, one who was on the search committee, one from each service, and a former warden (no one who is currently on the vestry since they will have their own opportunity at leadership with you). This team will meet with you as often as needed - once a week to once a month - to guide you as you learn the parish and navigate into the future. 

I wish you well on this exciting new journey into ministry! And remember the RevGals will help you as go along too! 

And Ruth, who blogs at Sunday's Coming, adds:

This could sound really corny – but best advice I can give is to be yourself; be ready for the people who will NOT accept women’s ministry (it’s their loss – there is NOTHING I’m prepared to do about my gender); but also be ready for the people who will realise that God really DOES call women into ministry!

And may you be surrounded with prayers & hope

And I want to add that you might want to ask the Bishop and/or congregants about the local community's experience with female ministers. In my first call, I was the first woman to serve my congregation and they were very excited about it. The members of that small community, however, felt differently. I was treated with a lot of suspicion by members of other churches and especially by the other ministers in town (all men). Our church was excluded from ecumenical events because of having a female minister. It was not pleasant, but serving my congregation was a joy. What helped me a lot was to remember that my calling was not to convince people that I was called to be a minister! My calling was to minister.

What about the rest of you? Share your experiences and advice in the comment section. And, as always, send your questions to the matriarchs at



  1. I am in my first placement, and am the first woman minister for this congregation. One couple left not long after I arrived, I found out later they didn’t like the idea of a women minister. If people leave, in the early stages, it probably isn't personal. I was lucky to have lay leaders to point that out to me.
    Everyone in the congregation isn’t the same. Some have taken longer to ‘warm’ to me than others, but I suspect that is mainly personality [ mine and theirs] more than gender. And some in my congregation have come from denominations that do not ordain women, some of them have found it a little harder, but not caused difficulty for me or the congregation. I have had surprised looks, and comments, when I lead funerals and weddings – not from the immediate family, but other people at those services. Positive comments, but reminds me that some churches do not accept women in leadership. And at times I have had to smile and not bite when someone asks me if I am the Minister – even when I have been introduced that way – it is so alien to some people’s experience they just don’t get it.
    Many in the congregation, especially older women, will enthusiastically introduce me to their friends when they see me shopping or at a social event. In a sense they are ‘proud’ of me, and of having a woman minister.
    As with earthchick, I have found ecumenical relationships the most problematic area. I am in a very conservative area theologically, except for the congregation I am in ministry with, and am tolerated [and I think that is all] by clergy from other churches. I think this is partly because of the denomination I am part of, and partly my gender. The problem seems more with clergy than the lay people I have met from other churches.
    Good luck with the transition,

  2. From a purely practical viewpoint...before the first Sunday morning, make sure that you can see over the pulpit and can be seen (especially if you are short, but many pulpits were made for tall men). And, a frequent complaint about women preachers is that they can't be heard. So check out the sound system and microphone and make adjustments if you think they are necessary.

    Other than that, I'll echo the "be yourself" advice.

    I was the first female minister for a small church in the city, and I'm proud to say they called another woman after me.

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  4. I was the first female pastor in my first call, though it was somewhat tempered by being an associate with a male senior pastor. One thing that surprised me was that some of the resistance to women clergy (and I didn't experience much of it, honestly) came from younger women; I had expected some angst from the older generation, but they were much more open than I'd thought. I also experience occasional problems with specific women who later admit (or realize) that they wanted to become pastors themselves, and either didn't or couldn't, so their frustration gets directed at me. Again, hasn't happened often, but good to know about.

    Also, I advise not letting too many of the weird comments ("you're too pretty to be a minister," "did you get your haircut?" "how come you aren't married yet?" etc.) get to you. Develop a good sense of humor. It's much easier on your soul.

  5. You should be prepared for parishioners to not understand the line between pastoral care and "mothering." Just this week I received a call from a member asking if I would mind bringing a casserole for the dinner after the funeral I was officiating. People don't know how to treat a minister's husband, but they expect a female minister to be both minister and wife rolled into one. However, my experience has been that calm explanations of my role generally resolve the issue.

    I think it also helps to have some "lines" prepared for times in those ecumenical settings when someone questions your ordination or your call. Make very clear that God has called you for this purpose. They may argue with you or your denomination, but most don't have the audacity to argue with God.

    On Memorial Day, at a cemetery service, I had a military chaplain tell me, "I won't pray with a woman." I had to bite my tongue to avoid replying, "Fine, don't, then!" Fortunately, I have a standard line I use in such situations, so I wasn't left sputtering. Also fortunately, my congregation — which had not been altogether sure about this "woman minister" thing — supported me by saying things that I could not have said.

  6. Suzy, I'd love to know what your standard line is.

  7. I'm not a pastor, but I've been with the same church through 7 pastors. The current one is a woman, the first woman pastor in this church and town. I agree with those who have said that how it goes will have more to do with how your strengths and areas of needing-help match the needs of the congregation. Our pastor thinks that one of the pastors in town has problems with a woman being a pastor, but it is our pastor who keeps the interdenominational pastor's group going as the men either aren't administratively gifted or they aren't committed to that group. Probably both. And such a group is really needed to be in place before bad things happen where they are needed.

  8. I am in my first rectorship and also the first woman priest in this parish. For me, being a woman is only ONE of many ways I am different from my predecessor who was here for 18+ years. One family did leave because they couldn't accept a female priest, but I've had a couple of people also tell me that after getting to know me they've decided that female clergy aren't so bad after all.

    My leadership style is more collegial and less hierarchical than my predecessor, and I think that throws some people off, but no major problems have arisen with regard to that. I do think that some parishioners question my authority on some issues more than they would if I were a man. Like PRL I've found that the more conservative clergy in other churches in the area don't quite know what to make of me since I am both female and considerably more liberal than my predecessor. They are polite but that's about it.

    Pragmatically speaking, as Esperanza mentioned, make sure things "fit". One thing that took me by surprise was that the holder for the altar book was so high I couldn't easily read the book. The altar guild kindly bought a shorter one. And the vestments were way too long.

  9. I continue to be helped by the wisdom among the RevGals. Thanks!!!


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