Leading Women


Leading Women

The Church of England began ordaining women as priests in 1994 and as bishops in 2015. Already, ten women have been appointed bishops in the Church of England.

By contrast, The Episcopal Church began ordaining women as priests in 1977. Barbara Harris was consecrated as bishop in 1989. But only twenty or so women have been elected and ordained as bishop since 1989.

Appointed is the key word. Leadership positions in the Church of England are by appointment. In The Episcopal Church, we elect bishops and call priests and cathedral deans. Women make up about 1/3 of priests, but only 20% of senior clergy are women, while over half of associates are women. Throughout their ministries, women clergy are paid less than men, usually less than the men who preceded us. (See a summary of 2014 data here .

This is more than a justice issue. It is a concern for the mission of the church. We need the gifts of everyone to do the work God calls us to do.

A group within The Episcopal Church is seeking to address the gap in the leadership of women. They organized a conference – Leading Women –  modeled on a similar process in the Church of England. Fifty-eight women representing over forty dioceses participated. Representatives from the Church of New Zealand were also present because they are interested in starting a similar process there.

With the permission of the group, I am sharing some notes from the conference as well as questions I’m continuing to consider.

We began with Bible study, looking at Miriam’s gifts as a leader, noting that she worked within the world as it was to make space for what needed to be.  When you pay attention to scripture, the creative, determined, life-giving leadership of women is everywhere.  Think of Rahab, Huldah, Deborah, and the woman at the well!

How do I work within the church as it is to bring it closer to where God calls us to be, and who are my biblical models?

Mary Gray-Reeves, Bishop of El Camino Real, spoke about the importance of getting in touch with our values and looking for a match in values in ministry. Often when she encounters a conflict between a priest and a congregation, the issue is around values. This values question came up again and again in conversation.

What are my core values, and how are these expressed in action?

Former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori gave the keynote address and stayed for the entire conference. She spoke about the state of the church. We are more urban, growing more diverse, and led by more bi-vocational and part-time clergy. According to the National Congregations Study, which looked at mainline denominations from 1998 to 2012, there has been no increase in woman serving as senior leaders of congregations – a steady 20%, with only 4% women of color.

She spoke about the work of leadership as oversight. This is the primary ministry assigned to bishops, but she said it is really the work of all the baptized. Parents, teachers, neighbors and politicians also have the work of oversight. Oversight is about promoting the ministry of all God’s people. It is about creating environments of safety and abundance where all gifts can flourish. It comes from the will and the heart, centered and grounded in God.  Spiritual disciplines of prayer, self-awareness, and stability support the ministry of oversight.

In my oversight of my congregation, how do I create safety and abundance so all God’s people can flourish?

The Very Rev. Dr. Jane Shaw, Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco from 2010 to 2014 and now Dean for Religious Life at Stanford, offered what she called “A Theology of Leadership in 9 points.” They were all good, but here are my favorites.

  • Being as well as doing. Output and measurable goals are not bad. But our most important task is to be praying communities who make God real to others.
  • Theology of making decisions and effecting change. It is important to think theologically about how we work in a system. As an example, when she was Dean of Grace Cathedral, people kept asking for a strategic plan. The theology she embraced for this was the story of Bartimaeus in Mark. Jesus asked Bartimaeus what he wanted Jesus to do for him. Even Jesus did not presume to know what Bartimaeus needed or wanted. The heart of a strategic plan is asking the community what it wants. Keep a theological model in mind when we lead.
  • Diversity is essential. Not just for the sake of justice but also because diversity makes leadership and institutions better.
  • Delegate – because Jesus did! Think of the loaves and fishes. Jesus always gave work to other people. Give people responsibility with authority.
  • Ambition v. vocation. Sometimes we muddle power, status, and leadership. Our starting place is in learning to abide in God. Ambition must be for God’s kingdom to be realized and to lead others through that transformation.

What are the theological foundations of my ministry?

The Rev. Meghan F. Froehlich is the missioner for Transition Ministries. She runs the process that matches ministries and clergy in The Episcopal Church. She led a conversation about developing an OTM portfolio. Her advice – use lots of verbs! Get other people to read your work and make suggestions. Make your portfolio, resume, and cover letter easy to read. Be sure all three are consistent.  Write deductively. Preachers love to tell a story, but in these materials we need to connect the dots.

Do my materials make sense? Have I offered to help others by reviewing theirs?

The afternoon was devoted to conversations titled “What do you really do?” Bishops, cathedral deans, diocesan canons, and rectors of large parishes all spoke about their work.  Each group gave a 10 minute overview to the plenary. We then divided into small groups to listen to people talk about the positions in more depth.

The work of bishops – Bishops Gray -Reeves and Jefferts-Schori both said the office of bishop is being re-imagined. It is becoming more collaborative, and local canons spell out how to work together. Much of the work is in the vows in the ordinal – discernment, ordaining others, guarding the faith, unity, and discipline of the church. They said one of the greatest joys is seeing a fabulous fit between a priest and a congregation. The work of discipline is painful. You have to hold the pain of a congregation as it is breaking apart. The average tenure of bishops is 10-12 years. Partner support is often unseen but essential. The presenters said it is hard for men or women to do this work with young children at home unless the geography of the diocese is small.

The work of cathedral deans – Dean Shaw said the primary work is building a community that reaches out constantly into the city. The cathedral should care for a community in times of tragedy, celebrate the gifts of the larger community, and help the city address injustice. The job includes managing staff and lots of fund raising, but you also oversee multiple ministries and have to be comfortable allowing others to lead.

The work of a Canon to the Ordinary – The Rev. Canon Neysa Ellgren spoke. These folks are the chief executive, sounding board, and partner to the bishop. Job descriptions vary according to the resources of the diocese and the gifts of the bishop. Some lead transition ministry. Most meet with congregations and support their leadership.  In all cases, these folks support the vision of the bishop, so they need to lead with that end in mind. Helpful skills include skill in human relations and management, understanding of legal issues, some business background, comfort with conflict.

Cardinal or large church rector – The Rev. Helen Svoboda-Barber, rector of St. Luke’s in Durham, NC, spoke here.  These jobs require delegating. It is important to get the right staff together and invest time in guiding them.  Most of your time is spent with administration and planning, addressing conflict, fund raising, developing leaders, and communication.

Who do I know who needs to be encouraged to discern a calling to some of these positions?

A final question. Why does this matter?

Linda Woodhall, a sociologist from England, also spoke at the conference. She studied the decline of the Church of England for a forthcoming book That was the Church that was. One of her conclusions is that lack of equality for women in the Church of England for so many years seriously damaged the church’s witness. In our case, limiting opportunities for women in The Episcopal Church is poor stewardship of the gifts God has given us.

We need everyone – women, men, clergy, laity, younger, older, all over the church, from all backgrounds and cultures. These are exciting days for The Episcopal Church as we claim the gifts of more of God’s people. Thanks to all who organized this conference and to Trinity Wall Street, the Diocese of El Camino Real, The Very Rev. Gail Greenwell, The Very Rev. Jane Shaw, who funded the conference (along with others I may have missed). My hope is that this work will continue.

Photo of most of the participants on the final day of the conference.