13 March 2010

An Open Letter to Trace Haythorn

Dear Trace,

I very much enjoyed your article and am so glad you're asking these questions. As one of those women who made up the 50% at her seminary, I ask them too. It is both alarming and startling that the number of women in senior ministry positions has stagnated. I want to give you a little bit of insight from a young female in ministry.

This is just me, but I haven't the slightest desire to be a senior pastor. I wonder if that isn't part of the situation women my age are facing. Are the numbers of women in associate positions growing? How do those women feel about their positions of leadership? Are they satisfied with their vocation, or do they aspire to the senior pastor's office? For me, my conviction about senior pastoring has to do with how I go about ministry, which I believe is directly related to my gender.

For me, ministry is intensely personal. Every meeting I lead, every lesson I prepare, every pastoral care visit I make is about connecting with the person/people in the room. It is about being Christ to them in that moment. From my perspective, this is simply impossible in the senior pastor's role. There are just too many things to juggle. How can I even possibly be intimately connected to the struggle of a parishoner in the hospital and 15 minutes later have myself completely immersed in the annual budget review, all while allowing next Sunday's worship to churn in the back of my mind? For me, I can't. And so I have chosen the Associate role.

As an associate pastor, I am freed from some of the responsibilities of the senior pastor. I am allowed to prepare to teach without having an inkling of concern about the budget, or the upcoming Elder board meeting, or having the parking lot repaved. I have the time to be completely present in each instance. That freedom is not one I take lightly, and it certainly is not that I shy away from long or challenging work. It is, rather, that I feel most like a minister when I can invest myself entirely in the moment.

You raise the question of mentors, and I respond with an emphatic YES! We need them -- desperately! If you can figure out how to help women who are currently in ministry connect with women preparing for ministry, I believe you will have done a great thing for the church as a whole. Again, women are intimate creatures, and we need one another. We need to know that we are not alone in "filling the cracks" in the stained glass ceiling. Please help us find one another. And help us find the time and the tools to connect.

You ask what you, the Fund for Theological Education, can do for women who find themselves banging their heads against another ceiling. I do believe that some congregations are still not ready for women in ministry. Even in denominations and churches that - theologically and constitutionally - support women in ministry, it is entirely different once that woman is in her role. Not all congregations understand that women are not men. I realize that sounds petty and trite, but what I mean is related directly to what I said earlier: I do ministry differently from my male counterparts. Many congregations expect ministry performed by a woman to be the same ministry performed by a man, and oftentimes it just is not. I suspect that this is part of the issue where women are found to be leaving the ministry.

Whatever it is that will solve the problem, I am so grateful that you are trying to find answers. And you have begun that by asking some excellent questions. Please continue to search for answers and then to formulate those answers into tools for women. The church needs women to serve as much as women need to serve.

Honored to serve,


Trace Haythorn said...


Thank you for the beautiful and thoughtful response to my post. I hope you'll contact FTE and join us in the conversation. Our work with vocation care and in helping young people discern their call to ministry sounds right up your alley. Know that we will hold you and your sisters in the Spirit in prayer.
Trace Haythorn, FTE

Kevin said...

Erin, I think there is an extent to which the model of "senior pastor" is flawed. Too often we expect this person to be able to do absolutely everything, and do absolutely everything well, when from a spiritual gifts perspective the people who are that gifted and have that wide range of gifts are very rare. Too often churches expect their pastors to be supermen/women, and too often senior pastors (and even pastors) think that they actually are superman/woman and that they can in fact do everything well.

I think another issue as well is that way too many pastors have power and control issues and won't cede power to lay people, other pastors, or other staff. Some senior pastors seem to have a need to be in control of everything and everyone.

The best senior pastors are those who know what they are good at and they stick to those things, passing off the things they aren't good at to others AND they serve churches that don't expect them to do everything. They are humble and able to acknowledge when someone else can do something better than they can in ministry.

I can remember several years back when I read about a senior pastor who was a great teacher but didn't have administrative gifts turning over the leadership of the church to someone who did so that he could focus on being the best preacher he could be. I read of another church where a senior pastor recognized that one of the other pastors on his staff was a better preacher/teacher than he was, so he turned over the primary responsibility for those duties to his subordinate, and threw himself into leading and administrating.

I think the reason there is this struggle stems from the fact that so many churches only have one pastor - who is taught in seminary how he/she must do everything, and too many churches perpetuate that lie because it's easier to hire a pastor to do things than for them to do things themselves.

As for why more women aren't senior pastors, some of it I'm sure is prejudice on the part of congregations, but I wonder if part of it is the fact that so often males struggle with issues of ego, power, and authority, and pursue it more than women.

Hope you are well,


Erin said...


You are exactly right about senior ministers being expected to be all things to all people. I find the expectation to be true from both the parishoners AND the minister. As I described it yesterday, when you work for 200 people, you're always going to have someone unhappy. A senior pastor has to be able to let that roll of "his/her" back. That is harder for me to do than some of my male counterparts I know. I'm not sure it's a gender issue so much as it is a personality issue, though. It's just how I'm wired.

Churches across the country expect their pastors to do it all, and I think women are typically better at balancing their lives. They know their own bodies, their families, and their other commitments are just as important as their ministry. This probably keeps women from "climbing the ladder" as quickly as men because it is often seen as lacking "leadership" or "drive."

I think too, you might be right about the pride/ego issue. I have a good bit of pride I have to deal with, but it isn't typically wrapped up in my career. The need for promotions and advancements and the like doesn't motivate me nearly as much as some other things.

Loving this conversation!

Erin McPhee said...

Intriguing conversation. The reality is that even if you only work for 32 people, you'll still have someone who is unhappy! As the sole pastor of a small church, I am working in a bit of a different role than the stereotypical "senior pastor" of First Church AnyTown.

In my context, I don't find being the sole pastor limiting in any way in my style of leadership, which is very much one of working together and empowering laity, rather than being the "super-woman." I wonder if this would be the case in larger churches, or if the issue is simply the model of leadership that has been in place, as Kevin discussed to some length.

I hate to get into gender assumptions, but I do think that women tend to have less of a "climb the ladder" agenda and more of a relationship agenda. Additionally, the third wave of feminism has focused on not just doing what men do (in addition to what women do), but doing what I, who happen to be a woman, feel called and gifted to do. Young women, like myself, are much less likely to try to be super-mom and super-CEO at the same time, and more likely to try to find balance in our lives, which my present itself as choosing positions that might not be senior pastor at a multi-staff church.

Also, in my situation in Southern California, the ideal of multi-pastor churches seems to be going by the wayside ... much of this conversation assumes a senior pastor with multiple "ministry area" pastors. This scenario is becoming less and less common. I wonder how the numbers might change based on this shift?

As a sidenote, I am also intrigued by the low numbers of young clergy in general, at least in the UMC. Many of us are also having a hard time moving through the ordination process. Could the lower numbers of young female clergy also be indicate of a larger challenge facing young clergy in general?