For women who aspire to leadership positions in church organizations, the career path can be a lonely one, with few role models and mentors.

Overall, women lead about 8 percent of congregations, and only about 5 percent of American churchgoers attend a congregation led by a woman, according to the National Congregations Study.  The study also found that women who work as pastors are less likely to report satisfaction with their jobs than their male colleagues.

Although the official barriers to leadership have fallen in many church organizations, women clergy still face challenges, including how to thrive personally and how to build networks and friendships that can sustain them, said Barbara Brown Zikmund, who is ordained in the United Church of Christ and is a former president of Hartford Seminary. She is co-author of “Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling.”

“The challenge is how to do the job in new ways,” she said.

Women have responded to this need in different ways, including conferences, formal church programs and online chat rooms and blogs. In these formal and informal spaces, women clergy are coming together to connect with and support one another.

Here are four examples of women clergy networking with each other:

The Young Clergy Women Project

An associate pastor writes about knitting as an act of faith. An associate rector confesses that she feels slighted and ignored at a retreat and questions whether her church really wants her. A clergy woman describes her struggles with depression.

These stories come from Fidelia’s Sisters, an online publication of The Young Clergy Women Project, where ordained women younger than 40 can share thoughts and ideas with their peers. The project, now a network of nearly 430 women, hosts conferences and in-person meetups, runs password-protected online communities and produces Fidelia’s Sisters.

The Rev. Susan Olson of Yale Divinity School came up with the idea of The Young Clergy Women and its website as a way to get women talking online. Olson, who is the school’s director of divinity career services and acting director of supervised ministries, wrote a grant proposal that the Louisville Institute funded in 2007. The grant funded a preaching conference, the website and a board meeting.

The goal is to give the youngest women clergy a place to connect with others. The group is structured “so you don’t feel isolated in your ministry,” said the Rev. Ann Bonner-Stewart, co-chair of the board of The Young Clergy Women Project.

“If young women aren’t feeling supported, they could very well leave [ministry],” said Bonner-Stewart, who is the chaplain and director of community service at Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh, N.C.

While some networking groups pair mentors with protégés, the leaders of this group were looking to foster more equal relationships. This can be easier to do by matching people roughly the same age, Bonner-Stewart said. The group also prides itself on showing publicly diversity of young clergy women through Fidelia’s Sisters.

Writers address topics ranging from mother’s guilt to how best to counsel people who have lost their jobs. And they don’t shy away from weighty topics.

In a February 2009 post, a single clergy woman wrote anonymously about her pregnancy scare in a letter she addressed to “Mary, Mother of our Lord.” In it, she wondered if the parishioners in her church could hear her heart pounding in her chest.

“Could they see the panic on my face? No, they had no idea. It’s only you, Mary. Only you can possibly imagine my fear. Forgive me. I never understood. I was so intoxicated by the angel and lost in the mystery. It never occurred to me just how scared you might have been,” the woman wrote.

The women write about their work as pastors and their lives as mothers and wives. In an article from May last year, the Rev. Julia Seymour of the Lutheran Church of Hope in Anchorage, Alaska, wrote about the sadness she felt as she said goodbye to her husband, who was deploying to Iraq for nine months and would miss the birth of their first child.

“This morning, he pats my rounded belly and says, ‘I look forward to meeting him. Gestate well, my son.’ We do not look at each other to avoid seeing the tears in each other’s eyes,” Seymour wrote.

Bonner-Stewart said the group hoped that through Fidelia’s Sisters, clergy women would share both the wonderful and challenging events in their lives.

“The clergy person’s job is to speak the truth as we see it, knowing all the while that our own perspective is necessarily limited. Sometimes the truth stinks,” Bonner-Stewart said. “The thought is to help young clergy women know they're not alone.”

The Lead Women Pastors Project

The Rev. Karen Oliveto has served in urban and rural settings, as a campus and United Methodist parish minister, in New York and now, in San Francisco as co-pastor of Glide Memorial Church’s 11,000-member congregation.

Through it all, she has leaned on others for insight, inspiration and encouragement. But she has found that it has become harder to find mentors the longer she has been in ministry.

Through the United Methodist Church’s Lead Women Pastors Project,  Oliveto will help fill that mentoring void for other women. The project pairs 25 women such as Oliveto who serve at churches with 1,000 or more members with 25 women who have the potential, as determined by United Methodist bishops, to one day lead a church of that size.

The coaches will connect with their partners at least once a month for two years. The project started in April. The coaches have participated in both group and individual training sessions and will work to help the promising pastor determine if her gifts are suitable for leading a large church.

“What I hope to offer is to help another clergy woman come into a fuller sense of her own power and authority,” Oliveto said in a recent interview.

The coaching program is the second phase of the Lead Women Pastors Project. The church first surveyed both female and male senior pastors at large United Methodist congregations on a variety of issues in 2008, focusing heavily on leadership styles. The results showed that women who lead large churches still are pioneers: Nine out of 10 were the first women to lead their churches. Further, the study showed that 77 percent of lead women pastors developed their leadership style by having role models, which the coaching project is designed to foster.

Of the roughly 1,200 United Methodist churches in the United States with 1,000 or more members, 94 had women as lead pastors, according to October 2008 data. Twenty-seven percent of all clergy in the church are women, even though the UMC’s membership is nearly 60 percent female, said HiRho Y. Park, director of continuing formation for ministry at the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

“It is only logical to me that leaders should represent the constituency that they are serving,” Park said. “If the church is there to disturb the marginality of God’s people, it will be a justice consciousness that will spring up through the cracks. To me, the Lead Women Pastors Project represents the core mission of the church.”

Completing the coaching program is one indication that the woman being coached may be ready to serve as a lead pastor in a large church, Park said. Bishops and district superintendents will be informed when the clergy woman completes the program. Park says she is hopeful that they will consider those clergy women to be appointed as lead women pastors, Park said. One goal is to increase the number of lead women pastors at large churches by 10 percent to 15 percent by 2012. Park also hopes the program will promote and facilitate a focused discussion on clergy women’s roles and leadership styles with the bishops and the cabinet and that it will help strengthen a support network for lead women pastors.

Oliveto says she is happy to be part of the project because she is committed to growing new church leadership and she hopes to build relationships with other women clergy participating in the program.

“I just think the church needs the skills, the creativity, the enthusiasm and passion for ministry that women bring, and I love helping cultivate that,” Oliveto said.

Coming together

Gatherings for clergy women also help boost leadership potential and help sometimes-isolated women connect with their peers.

About three years ago, a group of ordained Episcopal women met in Hendersonville, N.C., to talk about their work and the work they’d like to do someday.

With a woman as head of the denomination, Episcopal women clergy do have a strong role model. But there’s still a need to encourage women to seek leadership roles, said the Rev. Margaret Rose, who served as the director of the Office of Women’s Ministries at the time of the gathering.

The ordained women came together for the Imagine Conference,  the first church-wide gathering of Episcopal clergy women in the three decades since women had been ordained as priests. The women gathered there were urged to “dream the big dream” by speakers including then-Presiding Bishop-elect Katharine Jefferts Schori.

“The real purpose of the conference was to empower women to put their names on the list of Episcopal elections or tall-steeple churches or for whatever jobs they wanted to do and strategize very concretely for getting those jobs,” said Rose, who now is the co-director of mission in the Episcopal Church.

Organizers expected 50 people would register, but the five-day conference proved so popular they had to cap registration after 180 women signed up. During the conference, the women spoke about the history of women’s leadership and how to claim it. They also focused on coaching for women’s leadership and spent time imagining a church where women’s leadership is sought and valued, Rose said. There are 2,484 active women clergy, out of about 7,148 total clergy, in the Episcopal Church today.

“That conference was one of those turning point moments in our understanding of what women were really hungry to both talk about and act on,” Rose said.

At least four women who spoke to Rose later said they pursued -- and got -- positions they never would have pursued had they not been at the conference. Moreover, those who attended the conference actively recruited other women for positions, particularly for Episcopal elections, Rose said.

The conference served as a model for regional gatherings for clergy women and three years later, bishops, priests and deacons from several western states, plus Hawaii, met again in Burlingame, Calif. They focused on understanding their history and preparing themselves for the future through networking and communication tools and through ministry-specific conversations, said the Rev. Julie Wakelee-Lynch, a co-coordinator of the event.

“We just wanted to get as many clergy women in the [area] together so we could see each other and hear each other’s stories,” said Wakelee-Lynch, who also is the rector at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Albany, Calif.

Female Presbyterian clergy also have had the opportunity to meet and share their stories in recent years.

The National Association of Presbyterian Clergywomen organizes a conference that meets every three years, said the Rev. Rebecca Tollefson, the co-moderator of the group.

The members meet for workshops and to talk about topics of concern in the church, such as pay equity and how women can use their skills in the best way, which may be to become the head of staff of a large congregation. Last summer, the group partnered with the Presbyterian Women to participate in its Churchwide Gathering of Presbyterian Women, which drew more than 2,500 women.

There are more than 4,200 active women ministers in the church out of 13,462 total ministers, according to data from Dec. 31, 2008. NAPC, which held its first national conference in 1986, has about 200 members. The group offers support and networking for women and publishes a quarterly newsletter, said Tollefson, who is the executive director of the Ohio Council of Churches.

“It’s important for us to connect, network and mentor and it’s important to get together to share what are some of our struggles, what are (our) joys,” Tollefson said.

Questions to consider

  • What mindset is your institution developing about your constituents and staff?