Sunday, March 16, 2008

Biting the Bullet About Women in Church Leadership

I am working on a larger project to restore the Establishment in the Presbyterian Church. By Presbyterian Establishment I mean an informal but real group that can lead the church and heal its divisions with recognized authority. Some readers have worried that my comments about the role of women in such an Establishment might be contested to the point of closing some readers' minds to the rest of my argument. I want to try a draft of this section on you, my helpful readers, for your comments. This is just one snippet from a much larger document in which I lay out the rest of what I mean by a Presbyterian Establishment.

The case of women in the Presbyterian Establishment is both the easiest and the hardest to resolve. It is the easiest, because there are so many devoted women in the church, many of whom have significant leadership experience and potential. It is hardest because, at every higher level of power, there are fewer women who are willing to take the job than there are men.

As a sociologist who has taught and studied family life, sex, and gender, I have become convinced over the years that the differences between men and women in their approach to power is deep. To be sure, women have been excluded from the opportunity to achieve power and to be part of the establishment in the past. Changing sexist structures that excluded women is a great gain and something we should always be vigilant about. But I believe that assuring women equal opportunity to be part of the Presbyterian Establishment will not result in an equal outcome of women being half of that Establishment.

I have been convinced that women, as a group, are less likely than men to sacrifice their families for positions of power. Moreover, women tend to be less likely to want to rule over others than men are; likewise, women tend to be less likely to accept other women ruling over them than they are men. To be sure, there will always be some women who would make good leaders and who are willing to do the job, even at the cost of being separated from others. But I think it is simply a fact of our complementary sexes that women will never voluntarily take up a proportionate share of positions of power, in the church or any other organization.

So if your main goal is equal representation of men and women in all positions of power and authority in the church, then the Presbyterian Establishment project is probably not for you. The more effective the Establishment is, the less likely it is to simply reflect the raw demographic diversity of the church. I say, so be it. The church needs an Establishment that works with real effect and authority.

11 comments:

Edith OSB said...

I find your statement interesting, especially as it combined the impact of sexist structure with complementary sex roles.

I wonder if you really mean the language of "rule over" for governance.

I am also struck by the asymmetry of saying that women are less likely to accept women ruling over them than men ruling over them. It's true. It's much MORE true that men are do not accept etc. You may be subsuming that under the sexism statement ... but it's an integral part of the dynamic whereby women are less comfortable with the rule of other women.

(BTW, as a member of an all-female religious community, I can assure you that the differences in leadership style, from fully autocratic to fully collegial, exist within the female gender. And - we are not the least bit consistent in which we prefer when we elect our leadership.)

SPorcupine said...

I was hoping you would weigh in on this one, Sr. Edith. Yes, I used "rule over" advisedly, as a Ruling Elder of the Presbyterian Church.

I was working from Tannen's work on women bosses. While I certainly accept your account of seeing all styles of women leaders in an order of women religious, I think she is right that women view women bossing them as a violation of the equality of women -- something they don't expect from men.

The deeper issue here, though, is that women in Protestant ministry are less likely to take the longer hours away from family that come with the tops jobs in the hierarchy. This may be a significant difference between ministers and nuns.

Anonymous said...

How do you guys feel about womem's leadership in the family?

Gruntled said...

I take "two become one flesh" as a serious standard of marriage, so I think most families are led by the married couple. In the division of labor in the family, I keep hearing that the most common practice is that she makes the great bulk of the daily decisions, and he has a significant voice in the big ones. I think that is about as balanced as complementarity allows.

Gruntled said...

By the way, the SPorcupine above is really me. Sorry about that (especially to SPorcupine).

Jon said...

I'd use "rule over" as episcope, which is how it is used in the scriptures. Reformed Christians have adopted what is often called a "shared bishopric," and I think this is just fine.

I'm not necessarily sad about the loss of a Presbyterian Establishment. I do miss the loss of regional centers of power and commentary. We once had a huge number of journals, and there were fairly distinctive flavors of Presbyterianism (including, for instance, pacifistic strains, nationalist strains, etc.).

I also have not seen the gender dynamics you are talking about being so determinative in churches or presbyteries. Every presbytery I've heard of has at least a few matrons, often elders, who can and do run things. Most of our presybtery leadership councils are 50/50 and I'd guess the same about our advocacy groups. I am so grateful for young women clergy. What has been your experience in churches? What have been your models? What has been your experience operating on committees? My sense is that most of the leadership is often women. There's a famous quote one of my mission profs often used to cite: "Lord here I am; send my sister." It matches with my experience.

Gruntled said...

Committees are voluntary organizations where egalitarian decisionmaking is more necessary and appropriate. They are usually dependent on the staff to carry out their decisions. The staff, on the other hand, work in a necessarily hierarchical organization. Everyone may get heard, but ultimately, decisions need to get made and stuck to.

Anne Marie said...

Am I overlooking your consideration of Jesus' position on the matter of gender roles, or is the premise that the Church is a manmade construct?

Anne Marie said...

A discusion of "election" of leadership for example suggests a rejection of Jesus' call and election to service by God.

Gruntled said...

In my church (PCUSA)all roles are equally open to men and women. I think there is a deep mystery in how and why God elects specific people to specific vocations. We may hope that the there is a strong relationship between who God elects and how actually serves in church office, but we can't be sure one way or the other. In any case, I can see no Scriptural reason to believe that God elects men and women to all church office equally. Do you?

Anne Marie said...

Gruntled Said: "I can see no Scriptural reason to believe that God elects men and women to all church office equally. Do you?"

No, I do not believe Scripture supports God's election of men and women to all church office equally. That is why I'm struggling to understand why any church would.