Research shows clergywomen find their work meaningful, powerful and distinctly vulnerable

Elizabeth Johnson and Amy Zimbelman. — Mennonite Church USA

More than 100 people jammed into room 2211 at the Kansas City Convention Center on July 5, 2023, to hear the preliminary results of a denomination-wide research study about the experiences of women in ministry in MC USA.

Amy Zimbelman, conference minister for Mountain States Mennonite Conference, and Elizabeth Johnson, PhD candidate at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, presented the results of the study during a seminar titled “Gathering Stories, Envisioning Equity: Toward a Church in Which Women in Ministry Thrive” at Mennonite Church USA’s MennoCon23 convention.

“I’ve taken the role of asking hard questions within a church that I love very deeply, in hopes that we can do life together with even more kindness and justice,” said Zimbelman in her introduction.

The study includes qualitative information gleaned from in-depth interviews with 28 current and former pastors and quantitative data from a nationally representative web survey that is still in progress.

Zimbelman explained a few foundations of their research, including the “understanding that women can and should be pastors, because the founder of our faith, Jesus, called women to preach, respected women as equals, supported women, was financially supported by women, etc.” This was punctuated by spontaneous applause from the audience. “This research focuses on a marginalized group: women in ministry,” she said, noting that the study intentionally overrepresents lesbian, bisexual and BIPOC women compared to the denomination as a whole, because “having multiple marginalized identities compounds mistreatment.”

Johnson explained that MC USA remains a male-dominated workplace, in which women in ministry represent a little under 35% of total active licensed clergy. “Women are underrepresented in roles like lead pastor and overrepresented in the roles that often come with less power and prestige, like associate pastor,” she added.

Despite this, clergywomen report that they find their work powerful and meaningful. In fact, 95.4% of women who have responded to the survey said that they are moderately or very satisfied in their jobs.

Yet, clergywomen’s ministry is also vulnerable, as one interview participant explained:

“As pastors, we have power, and as women, we are vulnerable.”

Another participant said, “[I] thought that being pastoral meant I just had to listen while we were bullied and harassed.”

Zimbelman pointed out that there are very few built-in boundaries to protect pastors.

“A pastor is often expected to invite congregants to their house unlike other helping professions, like doctors, teachers and therapists. This builds trust quickly, so pastors can do their jobs – but it makes a pastor distinctly open to the possibility of harm,” she said, especially if they are part of a historically marginalized group, such as being female.

Results showed that around 30% of women in congregational ministry in MC USA – almost one in three – have either been sexually harassed or had a “gray area” experience that might constitute harassment.

A list of harms faced by pastors included put downs, coercion, sabotage, threats, physical attacks, and sexual assault. Certain harms were more prevalent for clergywomen than men in MC USA ministry, such as being mistaken for the pastor’s spouse.

Zimbelman challenged the audience with the question, “What is the single biggest predictor of sexual harassment in the workplace?” Guesses included the ratio of men to women, religion, power dynamics and hierarchy.

“The single biggest predictor of sexual harassment on the job,” she said, “is how permissive an organization is of this conduct.1

The study revealed that one of the most vulnerable times for a clergywoman is when she is licensed and seeking ordination, which may be because so many leaders have power over her during that season of ministry. The study also emphasized that formal support systems are lacking for many clergy. Although having a formal support system such as a Pastor-Congregation Relations Team is correlated with clergywomen reporting fewer harms in the past year, almost 40% of clergywomen do not have those formal supports.

“The research findings are consistent with my experience when I was as a conference minister,” said MC USA Associate Executive Director Michael Danner, in an interview after the presentation. “Some of the reasons why [congregations] would try to block ordination weren’t related to the person’s calling or ministry performance. Often, it was about appearance, dress, hair color … Women in associate roles that are less than fulltime often had a more difficult time being treated fairly. I found that I had to advocate in those situations more so than in others.”

“Conference ministers have a huge role to play in how things turn out for clergywomen,” said Johnson. “Our survey results suggest that conference ministers may play an even more influential role for women than for men. This represents an important opportunity for conference ministers to intervene and improve gender equity by forming positive, trustworthy, supportive, reliable relationships with the pastors in their conference,” she said.

“It’s easy for a conference leader to say, ‘That’s not our decision,’ or ‘We don’t have any authority over that,’” said Danner, “But, actually, you do. If there’s abuse happening, and you’re made aware of it, you have to use the power you have responsibly to advocate.”

Zimbelman said, “The good news is that change is afoot in our denomination structurally, and I want to affirm that.” She cited the ongoing work on the Prevention and Accountability Project and the creation of a new MC USA staff position for denominational minister of Church Safety.  

The research, while sobering, did not seem to surprise many.

“I don’t think any of this is surprising, especially to women in ministry,” said Michelle Burkholder, associate pastor, Hyattsville (Maryland) Mennonite Church, “What’s encouraging is that the research is happening. I hope that it leads to further evaluation, assessment and action on the part of the denomination to … create support structures … and space for health and wellness for all pastors, and especially women.”

“There were no surprises really in it for me,” said Dawn Ranck-Hower, pastor of New Holland (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Church and chair of the Ministerial Leadership Committee for Atlantic Coast Conference. “[I feel] hopeful … In for my own situation, even when bad things have happened, the good has so outweighed it for me … I have to keep that in balance with the really good, positive pastoring experiences I’ve had.”

“I feel like it validates the stories that I hold, whether it’s my own or other people’s,” said Paula Stoltzfus, care and formation pastor, Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia. “I’m super encouraged by the fact that this is going on. It’s being heard, being named, being received … I would like for ministry to be an option for my daughters or nieces or other people in my congregation in the future. I am hopeful that this can make a difference in the culture of MC USA.”

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