The stained glass ceiling: Cincinnati clergywomen share insights about progress, challenges

CINCINNATI - Nestled across Clifton Avenue from Burnet Woods in Cincinnati, sits Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). The campus is quietly producing more women rabbis than ever: 55 percent of its student body is female, bringing larger numbers of women to the rabbinical profession.

Rabbi Karen Thomashow at Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati is a graduate.

“I fulfill a profession and a calling. I was inspired by Judaism and the rabbis (both men and women), who were my teachers at a very young age,” said Thomashow, associate rabbi. “I love to teach Torah and bring something serious and meaningful to other people’s lives that is both accessible and elevating. I attempt to be creative, traditional, innovative and authentic."

The United Methodist Church is also seeing growth in the number of women clergy. Today, about half of seminary students are women, according to Dr. Wendy J. Deichmann, president of United Theological Seminary in Dayton. In the United States, there are eleven female United Methodist bishops.

Episcopal seminaries are also producing more female ordinands. In the United States, there are 408,000 clergy, of which 20.5% are women, according to the 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

"At one church I served, Sunday school children made cards for me. One little girl said in her card she wanted to be a pastor like me when she grows up," said Linda B. Troy, pastor at Brecon United Methodist Church.

While more people across religions are getting used to seeing women as clergy, there may still be a stained glass ceiling.When it comes to salary, Thomashow cites a recent Central Conference of American Rabbis survey of more than 4,000 rabbis in North America. The results show that for the most part male rabbis earn more than their female counterparts.

This follows a similar pattern in the United Methodist system, as well as the Episcopal Church,
where recently ordained female clergy may be paid $1,000 to $7,000 less than a male ordinand, according to the Church Pension Group "State of the Clergy 2012: A Report to the Episcopal Church."

Traditional expectations

A greater obstacle women clergy may face is that worshippers still expect to see men in senior roles.Troy thinks congregations sometimes still prefer male pastors. She is the first female leader at Brecon and hopes others will follow in her footsteps.

The Rev. Canon Lynn Carter-Edmands of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio also sees obstacles in terms of congregational expectations.

Congregants are often inclined to have male clergy preside over funerals and other rites, according to Troy and Carter-Edmands. As lead pastor at Brecon, Troy oversees all key rituals in the church. In the Episcopal Church, Carter-Edmands says women who are in charge of a parish conduct most religious rites.

Women receive comments on their appearance more often than men, Troy said. Thomashow agreed, observing people are more likely to remark on a woman’s dress, both critically and positively, than a man’s. Carter-Edmunds always checks her hands and shoes before Sunday service.

“People take note if you’re dressed sloppily,” she said. While traditional roles may be hard for people to reimagine, spiritual counseling is an area where worshippers seem open to women clergy.

Troy and Carter-Edmands said women are often more comfortable talking to a woman about confidential matters. Thomashow suggested women clergy are often praised for their counseling skills and emotional sensitivity.

"Particularly meaningful to me has been counseling with women who are struggling with infertility," Troy said. "Since my husband and I also had experience with infertility for a time, I am able more fully to identify with their experience and talk about God in the midst of their pain."

Female firsts

In the Episcopal Church, The Right Rev. Barbara Harris was the first female bishop elected in 1989. Now serving as the first female presiding Episcopal bishop and primate is The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, elected in 2006.

The first woman to be elected bishop in the United Methodist Church was Marjorie Mathews, in 1980.

The first woman rabbi was Rabbi Sally Priesand, ordained by HUC-JIR in Cincinnati in 1972. Dr. Gary P. Zola, professor at HUC-JIR, said great strides have been made by all religions in regards to women as they enter leadership positions.

The impact of women as clergy is felt all over the world. Nonetheless, Zola said there is work left to be done.

"Over the past four decades, almost a thousand women have entered the rabbinate, and their contributions as leaders and scholars have questionably transformed the synagogue, the rabbinate and Jewish religious life," Zola said. "Yet these remarkable achievements must not obscure the inequities that continue to plague Jewish religious life in North America and around the world. Salary inequities and other professional prejudices continue to exist, and these must be addressed."

Future study, action needed

The subject of women in the clergy is pondered by scholars all over the country. Zola examined the issue in his 1996 book, Women Rabbis: Exploration and Celebration.

“Over the entire course of American history, Jewish women have fashioned distinctive places for themselves, as women, within their religious community," Zola said. "It is manifestly apparent that women have distinguished themselves as rabbis, and they will continue to do so in the years ahead."

The United Methodist Church has a Committee on the Status and Role of Women, which attempts to provide leadership around the area of clergy. Recently, the United Theological Seminary offered a seminar to address the needs of female United Methodist clergy, with a representative noting “clergy women are leaving the church after about eight years because of sexism and economic implications of it.”

“Recently, I was talking with a new female pastor 30 years my junior,” Troy said. “I was concerned to hear that she has faced many similar obstacles as a woman in ministry that I faced several years ago. Attending a seminar that embraces and affirms a woman's way of interpreting scripture, engaging in pastoral counseling, and leading the church strengthens us all and the church as a whole."

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