Women as clergy: The stained-glass ceiling and one-sided journalism

Women as clergy: The stained-glass ceiling and one-sided journalism

For the Chicago Sun-Times, the question of whether to ordain women as preachers has only one right answer.

In a story headlined "Female ministers find obstacles on path to pulpit," the Sun-Times makes it clear which direction it leans:

Carol Jamieson Brown was in her early 20s when she told her pastor she had answered a call from God to pursue ministry and enrolled in seminary.
But he put the brakes on her plans — he didn’t acknowledge women ministers.
“He had been my pastor since I was 5 years old,” Brown said. “So it was like your father telling you that God didn’t call you. He had to be right, and I had to be wrong. There was no room for him to be wrong in my life.”
Many years later, she found room. Today she is pastor of First Baptist Church of Park Forest and among those who’ve made cracks in a stained-glass ceiling that continues to block women clergy and is nowhere close to being shattered.

In this story, "progress" is defined in terms of whether churches allow women in the pulpit or not:

Only 11 percent of American congregations were led by women in 2012, said Duke University Sociology Professor Mark Chaves, who shared data from a National Congregations Study survey that will be fully released in September.
“It was about 11 percent in 1998,” he said. “Nationally, it doesn’t look like it’s going up.”
The survey was conducted by Chaves in collaboration with the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
Progress is greater in more liberal Protestant denominations that have more women ministers. Across such faiths, it was about 20 percent in 1998, and it’s just roughly 22 percent today, Chaves said. “It is creeping up there, but slowly.”

Chaves is an excellent source for a story such as this. I interviewed him myself 13 years ago when I served as religion editor for The Oklahoman and wrote a trend piece headlined "Role of women: Empty pulpits help intensify gender debate."

But here's what the Sun-Times report lacks, in terms of basic journalism: any theological source, historical background or other information to explain why the nation's largest Christian groups — think Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists — do not allow women as preachers. 

I'm curious, too, about the back story of the Baptist church where Brown serves. Does it have any past ties to Baptist groups that oppose female pastors? In my time with The Oklahoman, I wrote about the First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City ending an 87-year affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention, in part because of disagreement over women's roles.

The closest this story gets to presenting the "other side" is quoting Brown — the pastor featured in the lede — on what her critics say. This closing crescendo sings the praises of females in pulpit ministry:

Over the years, Brown said she has had a mixed reception to her female pastor role from male clergy. Some “have received me as a colleague and there have been no problems,” she said. Others “not only have not received me as a colleague, they have not allowed me to make remarks at funeral services [when a] family has invited me to come for a father’s funeral, a mother’s funeral.
“Their understanding of Scripture is that God does not call women,” she said, adding that she responds to those viewpoints at times with Scripture.
When women have questioned her role, she has asked them, “Why is this such a problem for you? Women have led the Sunday school, they’ve led the choir, the nurse’s board. They’re the ushers. Why is this such a problem that God could use us to do more?”

But the Sun-Times never gives anyone who differs with Brown an opportunity to discuss their beliefs. 

As a result, this report ends up reading much more like an editorial than a news story. 

Woman praying image via Shutterstock

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