Women Ministers Fight to Be Seen — and Respected

female church bishop among men bishops

Photo Credit: Matthew Cavanaugh/EPA/Shutterstock

Reverend Dr. Natasha Gadson, 45, isn’t a stereotypical minister. In her words, she’s “girly,” loves stilettos, and has a penchant for fashion — things she hasn’t seen in ministry before. 

But despite the fact that Gadson, executive minister at Turner Memorial AME Church in Baltimore, has strong female colleagues with leadership roles within the African Methodist Episcopal Church, she still finds herself fighting what she refers to as the church’s systemic sexism — an issue that is not unique to the AME Church, but pervasive among most other religious denominations, as well. 

According to a 2018 study from Reverend Dr. Eileen Campbell-Reed, visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary, clergywomen make up 32% of the total leadership in mainline Christian denominations. While this is a marked increase from 1994, when women made up just 15.5% of the total leadership, women are still very much in the minority in church leadership positions. And despite the growth, sexism persists, said Campbell-Reed, which means there is more work to be done across all denominations.

“Sexism is built into the system,” she said, “so sometimes it’s hard to even see.”

When Gadson came to Turner in 2016, she was faced with a challenge — how to maintain her unique feminine sense of self while still ensuring that her congregants give her the same respect they might give a male minister. 

“I was coming back to a family-sized church, which had always had male senior pastors,” recalled Gadson. “The challenge coming in was that the young women saw me as a girlfriend and older women saw me as a daughter, and I had to say, ‘Sorry, I’m neither.’”

Striking the balance between being relational and respected means Gadson has to set boundaries — insisting, for example, that congregants address her as Dr. Gadson, and not by her first name. 

The solution for women in leadership, she said, is mentoring younger women interested in ministry. “If you have any level of success in ministry, it’s your responsibility,” said Gadson. “I try to strategically advise them so they can maneuver these systems.” 

Having the Strength to Lead

Gretchen Sausville, the first installed female lead pastor at Arvada Presbyterian Church in Denver, said that one challenging part of serving a church as a female leader is debunking the notion that women are meek and lack the strength to lead. “I’ve found it interesting how to affirm being a woman in ministry with the idea that women are docile and have to be kind and look nice,” she said. 

When Sausville, 40, was named acting head of staff at a Connecticut Presbyterian church in 2011, her congregants were surprised that she was able to step up to the occasion. Many, she recalled, had assumed that she wouldn’t be strong enough to lead. “I know how to be calm and be a leader, so I found my own voice and my own work during this time.”

Like Gadson, Sausville thinks mentorship is key to helping younger women entering the field. “I’m thankful for the women who came alongside me in every stage of my ministry,” she said. “I see hope that these women feel empowered to speak their truth.”

There is still a kind of thick middle of churches who don't think they are ready for women’s leadership or they don't think women are adequately trained. My answer to that is yes, you are — it just takes some courage.

Cassie Hartnett, candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, currently serving at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Maryland, believes being queer and a woman will undoubtedly impact her career as a clergywoman. 

Although she hasn't yet experienced outward prejudice, she’s constantly concerned that people will not take her seriously as a leader. Hartnett feels she’s often treated like somebody’s granddaughter, and not a clergywoman.

“There is the struggle of, ‘Is my power respected?’ ” she said, “or worrying that people don't take me seriously because I'm a young woman.”

Although Hartnett thinks progress for female clergywomen is slow, she’s hopeful and thankful for the women who have paved the way for her. She’s particularly grateful for her two mentors, female pastors now in their late 60s, who, said Hartnett, both overcame sexism in their careers — people assuming they weren’t pastors because of their gender, or being passed over for assignments in favor of male counterparts, or congregants not respecting their authority in calling them by their first names. 

“It would be a dream to get to be even a sounding board for younger folks,” said Hartnett. “Being able to support and encourage them would be so delightful.”

Although Campbell-Reed’s research found that there has been steady growth in the number of female clergywomen in Christian denominations over the last two decades, many of these women, she noted, still end up in supporting roles.

“There is still a kind of thick middle of churches who don't think they are ready for women’s leadership or they don't think women are adequately trained,” said Campbell-Reed. “My answer to that is yes, you are — it just takes some courage.”


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