Number of female lead pastors still small, but rising

Steven Spearie

The Rev. Jennifer Seder remembers getting a sage piece of advice early on in her ministry career: as a female preacher, she would have to work twice as hard as a male preacher to get the respect she deserved.

“Over the years, I’ve found that comment to be true,” she says. “It means I have to put more time and energy into this. More is expected of you (from the church.)

“The fact that women have to work harder shows I’m committed to what I’m doing,” says Seder, one of a small but growing number of women who are the lead pastors at U.S. churches.

Seder, appointed last year to lead Fountain of Life United Methodist Church (UMC) in Buffalo, is one of a handful of pastors in the UMC’s Great Rivers Conference in central Illinois.

On the national picture, one in 10 churches employs a female as its lead or primary pastor, double the percentage from a decade ago, according to a recent survey by the Barna Group, which researches issues related to faith and culture.

There are two ways of looking at those numbers, says George Barna of the California-based Barna Group.

The jump might be viewed as significant, but the reality is that rise is slow, Barna says.

“The proportion is so small to begin with, you have to put it context,” Barna says.

According to the survey, 58 percent of those female pastors who are the lead or primary pastor in their churches work in mainline denominations such as the UMC, Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ (Congregationalists) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Among those denominations that deny female clergy are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran (Missouri Synod).

Male pastors also staff larger congregations, according to the survey, leading to larger compensation packages, though female pastors earn 30 percent more than they did a decade ago, the same survey indicated.

‘Make the best fit possible’

Locally, those numbers have been borne out.

The Rev. Julia Melgreen, pastor of Douglas Avenue UMC, says women haven’t been placed in charge of large churches locally, though they have been more represented in church hierarchy, including the recently retired Great Rivers Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher and several district superintendents.

Melgreen and other female pastors say they have encountered some resistance along the way, including families who have left the church over the gender issue, though that’s the exception.

“It doesn’t take long for people to get past the discontent,” Melgreen says.

In the case of the Rev. Marilyn Rauch, pastor of United in Faith in Pana — a federated church that serves Presbyterian Church USA and UCC congregations — she identified with her parishioners.

“I grew up in a town in northeastern Oklahoma, like Pana, so I was used to the mores,” Rauch says. “I took care of a lot of individuals in times of crisis: sitting with them in hospitals, sitting with them after deaths of loved ones.

“And they’ve been good to me. There have been days, though.”

Still, as a female pastor in Pana, Rauch admits she’s been a bit of a curiosity.

“The ones who didn’t approve probably kept quiet,” says Rauch, who came to Pana in 2000 to serve at First United Presbyterian Church. “The town has been nice to me, like the congregation.”

At every stop in her career, Seder says she’s heard talk of congregations having reservations about a female pastor. And at every stop, Seder has succeeded a male pastor.

“Part of it is the tradition of the church, that women can teach Sunday School but not be in key leadership,” says Seder, whose current job at Fountain of Life is at a church where worshipers use a relaxed, almost conversational worship style, eschew suits for Wranglers and listen to a praise band. “For my part, all the churches I’ve been part of have received me graciously. Maybe one or two people have questioned it because they’ve not seen it before.”

Seder and Melgreen agree that the appointment system, made in conjunction with the bishop, the cabinet and the district superintendent, has been more advantageous for women. Melgreen believes there’s been an intentional effort to move women into higher church positions, such as pastor, and higher places of authority, such as bishop and district superintendent.

Why females haven’t been appointed to some of Springfield’s larger UMC parishes, Melgreen says, is multi-pronged. Issues include the longevity of current pastor tenures, the clout of the churches and the talent pool available.

“I think they seriously look at the gifts a pastor has to offer and make the best fit possible,” Seder says.

Once a congregation has experienced a female pastor, the more likely it is that it will get another female leader, hypothesizes Melgreen, who followed the Rev. Jean Hembrough at Douglas Avenue UMC, which has about 300 members.

“I don’t know how consciously the choice is made,” says Melgreen, 50. “I was the first female pastor in Neoga, and the two subsequent pastors were women.”

‘God called me to this’

Rauch, 61, was part of another male-dominated workplace — she practiced as an attorney, mostly in legal services, for 17 years — before pursuing her second career. As a student at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, Rauch and her classmates talked a lot about women’s roles in ministry.

“We knew people who didn’t agree about the whole thing. We heard stores from women who had gone out before us, that churches didn’t want women (in ministry.)”

Adds Melgreen: “Honestly, I’m of the generation that women ahead of me blazed that trail. Women had to fight for appointments. I’m indebted to those people who went a little before me.”

With growing seminary numbers and the growing acceptance of women in a variety of roles in the church, Seder is hopeful of the future.

“In the future, (female pastors) will become more commonplace,” she assures. “The numbers are going to continue to rise.”

The daughter of a Disciples of Christ minister, Seder started attending United Methodist churches in her early 20s and a decade or so later heard a ministerial calling.

“I didn’t sit there and think gender was an issue in this,” says Seder, now 56. “I never thought about (women getting left out.)

“I just believe God called me to this.”

Steven Spearie can be reached or at (217) 622-1788.