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Women bring new dimension to several aspects of ministry.

NEW YORK -- After Susan Knightly delivered a stillborn baby just before Thanksgiving 1992, she needed some spiritual guidance.

Her rabbi, a man, was out of town and had left no forwarding number, though he had been aware of her tragedy before leaving for the holiday weekend.

On Thanksgiving Day, a friend put her in touch with another rabbi, a woman who had herself been through several miscarriages before giving birth to a healthy baby earlier in the year.

With a house full of relatives waiting for their turkey and her gurgling baby on her lap, Rabbi Debra Cantor spent a long time on the phone with Knightly, consoling the grief-stricken woman and suggesting Jewish mourning rituals.

Knightly said that Rabbi Cantor's "empathy sliced through the sense of alienation I felt. Women connect on a level that men never get to. She knew just how to address me emotionally. Rather than give me credos, she went right to the heart of the pain."

Knightly's experience was one reflection of the many ways in which ordained women leading churches and synagogues are affecting fundamental aspects of what it means to be a minister, priest or rabbi.

They are changing the very nature of what it means to minister, altering forever many of the expectations that congregants have of the person in the pulpit.

In dozens of interviews, ministers, rabbis and priests working in denominational organizations and working in the pulpit, along with their parishioners, made it clear that women in that pulpit are, in many respects, doing the job differently from their male predecessors.

The differences reach across denominational and religious lines.

One of the most significant differences between many clergywomen and clergymen is that women in the pulpit often relate and communicate differently. As a result, relationships with congregants are being redefined.

A distance that has historically stood between pastor and congregant, a distinct sense of "otherness," between minister and ministered, is being breached.

"Women are less in love with their own power," said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches. "It has brought pastors closer to congregations. If someone is too enamored of power, then there's distance between them and other people."

Campbell is the first clergywoman to head the umbrella group of 32 Protestant and Orthodox denominations that represents an estimated 45 million Christians.

According to the Rev. Elizabeth Hoblin Endicott, a United Church of Christ minister at Cotuit Federated Church, a picturesque New England clapboard house of worship on Cape Cod, clergywomen "break barriers that in the past have been hard to get through."

Women in ministry tend to focus on relating closely to their congregants rather than instructing or directing them, as their male counterparts often do, said congregants in churches and synagogues.

Across all denominations and religions, despite vast differences in age, gender and attitudes toward women in ministry, congregants volunteered that female ministers' and rabbis' relationships with congregants were warmer, more direct and more emotionally connected than they were with the male ministers.

It is a change that has been welcomed by congregants, even those who at first opposed the idea of having a woman as their pastor.

Congregants at Lake Washington United Methodist Church, an established suburban congregation situated just outside Seattle, were apprehensive about receiving the Rev. Kathlyn James.

Ministers are appointed to United Methodist churches by the area bishop, rather than being selected directly by the congregation as in most other Protestant denominations.

Lake Washington's members were not at all sure they were ready for the change. Their previous pastor, a man, had been beloved by nearly everyone. He had turned a shrinking church into a burgeoning one and had raised enough money to build a contemporary new sanctuary to replace their too-small hall.

In addition, James had been working at a downtown Seattle congregation largely composed of gays and lesbians and had gained a reputation within the conference for being an activist and advocate on behalf of people with AIDS.

The suburbanites of Lake Washington were wary; a few left. But most of the congregants who opposed the idea of a woman minister have changed their minds in the year James has pastored there.

Maxine Montgomery, a longtime congregant, is one. When James was hired, Montgomery's husband was dying at home.

Upon hearing of James' work with gays and lesbians, both Montgomerys had reservations, and Maxine's husband insisted that they changed churches. But after seeing James interact with her husband, Montgomery changed her mind.

"My husband was very reserved. But while he was dying, she came over and crawled up on the bed with him and prayed," recalled Montgomery. "And it meant so much to him."

She is "reverent but down to earth," said Montgomery. "She doesn't make it seem pious or fakey. She is totally genuine."

The firmest resistance to their presence, say women in ministry, comes not from where it might be expected -- from the oldest congregants or from men. Instead it comes from women in two distinct groups.

In the experience of Hoblin Endicott, middle-aged women have been most resistant to her presence.

"I am not perceived as a threat" by most people at the Cotuit, Mass., community, which is largely composed of retirees, said the lithe, red-haired Hoblin Endicott, who is in her mid-30s.

"I have been perceived as most threatening by women in their late 50s and early 60s, who have not had the same professional opportunities as women my age," she said.

Those who left Lake Washington when James arrived were all single mothers, said current congregants. They left because they wanted a minister who would be a male role model for their children, as James' predecessor had been.

Few dominants have attempted to quantify the resistance to women in the pulpit.

But the Episcopal Church, in a 1987 study, found increasing resistance to women in leadership positions the farther up the ecclesiastical hierarchy the position ranked.

While 87 percent of Episcopal churchgoers polled in diocese surveys said they would be willing to have a woman as a senior warden in their own parish, 44 percent said they would be willing to have a woman bishop.

Ninety percent of female respondents felt the same way about a woman as senior warden, and 46 percent said they would be willing to have a female bishop.

Three of the more than 200 bishops in the Episcopal Church in the United States are female. And, because each bishop has the autonomy to decide whether women may or may not be ordained in his or her diocese, five of the 98 Episcopal dioceses in the United States do not ordain women.

The study on women in leadership within the Episcopal Church also found that 30 percent of male respondents in small churches in towns and rural areas accepted the idea of a female minister, more than twice the 14 percent of male respondents in a very large church in a city or suburb.

Attitudes preferring male leadership were found to be deeply entrenched -- 14 percent of female respondents and 20 percent of male respondents said most leadership positions should be filled by men.

In the eight years since the survey, attitudes have changed little, said Ann Smith, director of the Episcopal Church's mission and ministry division.

Resistance may no longer be quite as strong among mainstream churchgoers, she said, though it is "felt at all levels."

And the voices on the fringe are getting louder and angrier.

"We're seeing a backlash to women breaking through the stained-glass ceiling," Smith said, "but the women aren't going to go away. We know we have to experience tremendous resistance and the backlash, but there's no going backward."

The National Council of Churches' Campbell said, "We've broken the ordination barriers, but resistance to a woman as pastor, as one who speaks the word of God, is still there. The culture hasn't changed. There is still a lot of work to be done."
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Author:Cohen, Debra Nussbaum
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 11, 1994
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