I was paging through my Christian Century magazine last month, and there among the news items was a simple bar graph titled “Clergy Women in American Denominations.” The more I looked at it, the more so many things in my life made sense! The graph, downloadable at www.stateofclergywomen.org, has three bars: one for 1977, one for 1994 and one for 2017. It shows the percentage of women in the clergy in a dozen different mainline Christian denominations.
Those years span my undergraduate years when I was deciding to go to seminary all the way through 30 plus years of ordained ministry. I grew up in the United Church of Christ and was active in a church in Reading, Pennsylvania. When I was a junior in high school, that church, Calvary Reformed UCC, did something that had a big impact on my life. We called and ordained Evelyn Aurand as our Associate Pastor. I had never heard of Antoinette Brown. I had never known a woman in ministry. So, Evelyn was a revelation! I check the bar graph. Three years later, in 1977, only eight percent of UCC clergy were women. That’s not broken down by geography or by Evangelical and Reformed versus Congregational Christian background. I suspect that southeastern Pennsylvania had fewer women than the national average.
I entered the College of William and Mary in the fall of 1976 hoping to attend seminary after getting a bachelor’s degree. There was no UCC church in Williamsburg, Virginia. That spring, after a good deal of floundering around I found a home in the Episcopal students’ group. I grew to love worshipping in that liturgical tradition so much that I seriously considered pursuing ministry there. As of 1976 women could be ordained as priests, but it was up to the local bishop. The bishop in southern Virginia was not open to ordaining women. A quick look at the bar graph shows .01% of the priests in the Episcopal church in 1977 were female.
I entered Duke Divinity School in the fall of 1980 as a UCC student in a United Methodist school. I remember being puzzled when I toured the school that it was so hard to find a women’s restroom. The bar graph is once again enlightening. Just three years before in 1977, 1.5% of United Methodist clergy were female. Since about a third of my M.Div. classmates were female, they soon had to so something about the facilities! Still, only 29% of United Methodist clergy are women in 2017.
As a student in care, I found nothing but support from the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference. But I’d married right after college and my husband was just breaking into the field of computer programming. Leaving the Research Triangle didn’t seem like such a good idea. Finding a call in the South was not easy. I put it off, spending a summer doing CPE, and a couple of years as the director of a small social agency where I’d previously done field education. We started a family. But, in 1986, with a new baby, I accepted a half time job as an Associate for Youth and Children’s Ministries. It was in a small college town. They were willing to ordain me, not pay me much of anything, but ordain me. I was proud to join the ranks of UCC clergywomen in the South. We could easily meet in someone’s living room and sometimes we did.
By 1994 I’d served that church for 6 years as their Associate, another year as their Interim and then finished up a Th.M. Our younger child was entering kindergarten. It was time to search for a church. And it was easier. The bar graph shows UCC clergywomen at 25% of the total that year. Some North Carolina search committees were still refusing to look at women’s profiles, but churches in southeastern Pennsylvania were willing to consider me. I found a small mission-minded little congregation that called me as their first female pastor since their founding.
Six years later, I moved on to my current church just outside Philadelphia. They are great folks and I’ve loved serving with them for the past 18 years. Yes, I was also the first woman called as their pastor, but they never made me feel that my gender was a big issue. I check the bar graph. In 2017 fully 50% of all clergy in the UCC are women. True, the percentage of women who are pastors of local churches is lower, around 38%. Yet, I hardly feel unusual. Maybe when I visit in the local hospital wearing a collar in our very Catholic community. Then people smile at me and say, “Hello, sister!” Somehow, it’s too much effort to explain.
Rev. Beth Lyon is Pastor of Glenside United Church of Christ in Glenside, Pennsylvania. She has been an Ordained Minister since 1986, serving congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.