Rising Above The Stained-Glass Ceiling

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JOHN CHIASSON FOR TIME

VASHTI McKENZIE: Bishop, African Methodist Episcopal Church

Joanna Adams almost pulled it off. In 2001, John Buchanan, the pastor of Chicago's Fourth Presbyterian Church, announced that the congregation had chosen the Rev. Adams as co-pastor, with the understanding that she would eventually succeed him. The news raised hopes, and eyebrows. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), like most of the old mainline Protestant communions, has ordained women for decades. But none had yet achieved any of the denomination's flagship pulpits, the senior pastorships in what are sometimes called "tall-steeple churches." Fourth Presbyterian, with its hefty 5,300-member-and-still-growing congregation, certainly fit that bill, and Adams appeared poised to ascend. At the same time, observers were bemused by what seemed her unusual acclimation period. "Fourth Presbee is one of the great beauty-pageant churches of American Christianity," noted the Rev. Eileen Lindner, deputy secretary of the National Council of Churches, last fall. "But prospective pastors at tall-steeple churches don't usually get training wheels."

And then last December, the wheels fell off, with a vengeance. Adams suddenly left the job and moved back home to Atlanta. "Co-leadership is difficult," Adams, 59, told TIME. "There are genuine issues of power and authority." And whereas the congregation regarded Buchanan as a great man, "a Moses," she says, she "had no credibility or right to respect of the sort I had earned in Atlanta ... Men newly introduced are given that respect. But it's harder for women."


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Adams' high-profile disappointment mirrors a larger-scale feminist frustration. The percentage of female seminary students has exploded in the past 35 years, from 4.7% in 1972 to 31% (or roughly 10,470 women) in 2003, and it continues to accelerate 1 to 2 percentage points a year. Yet women make up only about 11% of the nation's clergy. This is not totally unexpected, since more conservative denominations do not ordain women and are exempt on First Amendment grounds from equal-opportunity laws. More startling, however, was a set of data on 15 Protestant denominations in a 1998 study called Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling. It showed that even in more liberal fellowships, female clergy tended to be relegated to specialized ministries like music, youth or Bible studies. Those who did achieve pastorhood found it difficult to rise above associate positions, and the lucky few who achieved their own churches frequently had to make do with smaller or financially iffy congregations. Regardless of title, women clergy earned on average 9% less than identically trained men in the same positions.

Adair T. Lummis of the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, one of Clergy Women's co-authors, says recent, less comprehensive studies suggest that there has been "very little" change since '98, and perhaps even regress, because of what some of her colleagues describe as male backlash. Moreover, female pastors continue to face the same family-juggling issues as their ambitious sisters in other fields, the barbs of conservatives who feel that the Bible abhors their preaching, and the misgivings of a different set of critics who fear that the clergy's feminization will lead to men's evaporation from the pews. The stained-glass ceiling, as it is known, still looms above most of them. Even so, some women in the mainline, and even a few in the evangelical world, have managed to break through to bluer pastoral skies. Here is how four of them did it:

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