by Melissa Bane Sevier

In Knoxville, Tennessee, several women meet in a restaurant and open gifts of candles in spring colors. They look like any other group of women friends having lunch together, but their day jobs separate them from the rest of the tables in that establishment. These are clergywomen, working in positions as church staff, chaplains, and university professors. The reason they gather for monthly lunches is to provide and receive support from each other in a profession that can sometimes be lonely and isolating, perhaps especially for women.

In Edward Lehman’s 2002 review of major studies on clergywomen for Pulpit & Pew he concludes that, while both female and male clergy struggle with issues surrounding call, loneliness in the pastorate, and the conflicting roles of personal and professional life, these issues seem to be exacerbated for clergywomen.1 Women tend to find the loneliness more painful and the roles more complicated or difficult to negotiate. Most clergy (at least those who are in congregations) know what it is like to have to choose between personal or family needs and the needs of the congregation. In one study, the majority of women said they encountered problems navigating the conflicting stresses that arose from their various roles.2 Single women without children found they had little time for any sort of social life because their congregations assumed that, since there was no family, the women would have no competing interests. Married women and women with children often worried about how to prioritize important claims on their time.3

A conversation with nearly any woman who is employed will reveal many of the same stresses mentioned above, but it may be that clergywomen are possessed by a unique stressor: both they and their congregations believe their work is a calling. Though it could easily be argued that all work is vocation, or calling, we live in a society that does not generally have that vision. Pastors are often expected to be on call 24/7, to cancel their vacations if something important arises in the parish, and to order their lives so that the calling of congregational life is always the supreme priority. These expectations, as often as not, come from the pastor as well as the parish.

A complicating factor is that in many denominations more clergywomen than men serve in small, rural settings, where isolation and loneliness can be an even greater problem than it is in cities. Colleagues in ministry may be few and far between, and one’s personal life is sometimes more public than desired.

Building Support Systems
How do women clergy cope with all the stressors that uniquely affect them? They cope in as many ways as there are situations. Some go out of their way to find other women like themselves, to discuss their common issues and joys. Others appreciate the perspectives they gain by connecting through mixed-gender clergy groups. Some find support and balance through friends who have no connection to the world of sermons, liturgies, and prayers. And a great many women have a supportive spouse who encourages them, or a family of origin who confirmed their gifts early and often.

In addition to all these important types of support, many women build their support systems by leaning on other clergywomen, either informally or in organized groups. Of the groups that are organized, some are arranged by national or regional structures. Others arise locally, and some are a combination, like the Tennessee group mentioned at the beginning of this article. Tammy Abee Blom is the associate coordinator for leadership development in the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). Part of Blom’s job description is encouraging women in ministry, and she has found that what works, at least for her group of CBF women in Knoxville, is simply lunch once a month. The women she talked to did not want another “meeting” to attend, especially one that involves work. They gave three criteria for the ideal group: it would be composed of professional women in ministry, would require no homework, and members would not be made to feel guilty if they did not attend. This concept has evolved into a collection of women that is not large (a membership of about a dozen, with six in average attendance), but is effective in meeting the individual members’ criteria and serving their needs, particularly their expressed need—to know each other.

For these women, as for many, the relationship aspect of any support group is key. They are not looking for another place to study together, but a place to be themselves, share experiences, and encourage each other in their daily work and living. This encouragement takes many forms, from celebrating life’s joys to sharing each other’s concerns. One of the women in the group recently told of her distress over a university student from Europe who was struggling with more than one job to pay tuition and did not have enough money left over for living expenses. Before lunch was over, the women around the table had collected sufficient funds for the woman to make ends meet. Their relationship brought them into solidarity with each other, even when the need was outside the group.

Forging Relationships
It is impossible to say how many support groups of two or more clergywomen exist. Nor do we have any data to indicate their effectiveness. But, if you know a clergywoman, the chances are good that she has at least one collegial friend, nearby or far away, with whom she connects around common issues. Sometimes these connections are denomination-oriented. Sometimes they are ecumenical or interfaith. But wherever clergywomen gather they seem to draw support from each other. Their conversation drifts from fundraising to raising children, from cooking to preaching, from what to wear for the church picnic to what to wear in the pulpit.

One person who has had a wide view of clergywomen’s groups this past year is Susan Andrews, the moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Andrews is the first clergy woman serving as a pastor to be elected to the office. In her travels around the country during her one-year term she has visited with more than 10 groups of clergywomen in various regions. A few of the groups gathered for the first time to meet with Andrews, but several had a long history of coming together for nurture and support. Andrews often opened the discussion with, “Tell me your stories,” and heard wonderful tales of joy and also the struggles of being a pastor. There was lots of laughter, much good food, and at least one tea party. Sometimes women who had not gathered before found they had more in common than they had previously thought.

Andrews has good personal reasons for supporting clergywomen’s groups. In her nearly 30 years of ordained ministry she has been involved in clergy support groups in every place she has lived and worked. Some of the groups have been designed for study, some for support, and one for spiritual direction. Not all the groups were for women only but, in her view, even in the mixed-gender groups it was the women who tended to want to develop deeper relationships. Women are, she believes, more interested in the whole person—body, mind, and spirit—and are more open to the help of the group. “Building relationships is what we’re about,” she says. “A support system is essential. Otherwise we start ‘living in the role’ and lose touch with ourselves.”

Andrews’ view is a common one. Women all over the country are building support systems for themselves and each other because they sense a need to build relationships and because they need the “reality check” offered by others in similar circumstances. Sometimes it takes real effort.
Joanne Sizoo, a Presbyterian minister, remembers being a pastor in Oklahoma when she was one of only two clergywomen in the region. They lived four hours apart, but still made an effort to see each other on a regular basis because they found support in that contact. Sizoo has now lived in several states—not an uncommon reality for pastors—and, like Andrews, she has been in support groups in each location. She recently moved to North Carolina and finds that she still stays in touch with several women from those support systems by e-mail. Internet connections allow many women to give and receive support across the miles through lowcost, almost immediate contact.

Getting a Head Start
Even when a denomination or other national or regional structure coordinates ways for clergywomen to connect, it is those individual connections that women seem to find most helpful. Sometimes those connections begin as women are in training for their vocation.

At Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati, Ohio, women rabbinical students gather once a month to celebrate what is traditionally a women’s holiday, Rosh Hodesh, or the celebration of the new moon. Usually a half dozen or so women meet in members’ homes. Nearly always they share food (Rosh Hodesh features foods that are round, symbolic of the moon). Sometimes they invite speakers, but more commonly they share in rituals for the holiday, including prayers. On one occasion they made and painted ceramic dishes that they subsequently have used for their gatherings. Even though the same women do not always attend, Debra Dressler, a fourth-year student at the school, says the women have found a place where they can find companionship, share what is going on in their personal lives, and talk about their work. Though the rabbinate is not an overt focus of the group, conversation naturally drifts to their work as student rabbis or teachers in religious schools. They offer each other suggestions for their varied settings, run through thoughts about an upcoming funeral, and learn to be companions in the parts of life they share as students.

Rabbi Ruth Alpers, the Stein director of human relations at HUC, says that in addition to groups like the Rosh Hodesh gathering, support for both female and male rabbinical students occurs through a formal mentoring process at the school. Each fourth-year student is assigned a mentor through the fifth (final) year of school and the first two years of the rabbinate. Once a month for three years, the student and mentor talk by phone about issues that arise in the rabbinate. The program is only three years old, but the hope is that the difficulties of those early years may be eased by regular contact with a seasoned rabbi.

Finding Mentors and Friends
Many clergywomen talk of the value of mentors. There are not many formal mentoring programs like the one still in its infancy at HUC, but women in ministry often seek out those who have served ably (both men and women) to gather advice and learning beyond their own experience. Sometimes good mentoring relationships arise at theological institutions or among staff members in the same congregation, or they may grow out of other contacts. In any case, they can be valuable assets to successful ministry situations. Mentoring occurs informally when experienced pastors and newly ordained women listen to each other talk about their lives.

Susan Andrews’ mentor was a male chaplain at the women’s college she attended. In a day when there were few women ministers, this Lutheran pastor mentored at least eight young women who, in Andrews’ opinion, would not have become ministers without his influence and encouragement. She also credits lay women in congregations she served who were “mother figures” for her. They emotionally nurtured her, and were strong examples of people she could lean on.

Though some women are reluctant to admit it, many, if not most, clergywomen do find support from lay women in their congregations. Perhaps the reluctance stems from an appropriate concern over “boundaries” in religious life. But, as Joanne Sizoo suggests, clergywomen with healthy boundaries can benefit greatly (and offer great benefit in return) by having caring relationships with women in the congregation.

Sizoo’s recent personal experiences bear witness to the importance of all types of support systems for clergywomen. As sometimes happens with pastors who are accustomed to being in the position of offering care, she now finds herself on the side of needing care. Soon after moving to North Carolina she was busy settling her family in their new home and working in a church staff position when she was diagnosed with a serious form of breast cancer. A strong, selfreliant person, Sizoo underwent surgery and chemotherapy, which left her tired and sick. E-mails poured in from friends around the country; clergywomen and men from former places of ministry kept in touch with cards; her family rallied to help. Though some long-distance friends visited for short periods, she had not had time to make new friendships outside the large church she served. As Sizoo’s condition and needs became known in the congregation, she was flooded with cards and other expressions of support. Twice a week her family received meals from anonymous church members. When Sizoo’s hair fell out, she decided wigs were too uncomfortable and chose to wear hats instead. The first Sunday she wore a hat with her robe to lead worship, she was a bit nervous about possible responses to a big “church lady” hat on one of the ministers. The following Sunday she entered the chancel and looked out to see hundreds of women in hats! Unbeknownst to her, an email had circulated among members to wear hats in support of Joanne. Worshipers who weren’t wearing hats had been given pink ribbons to wear. As she stood in the pulpit to offer the prayers of the people, she said, “You have taken a situation that could have been met with criticism and isolation and instead met me with solidarity. I am very grateful.”

Support and solidarity. If clergywomen are to be successful in overcoming the things that hinder their best living and working, they do best to seek the support and solidarity that will make them healthy and that will encourage healthy congregations around them.

Five Tips For Starting A Clergy Group

1. There are at least two ways to begin a clergy group:

  • Decide what type of group you want to form (support,recreational,study,or a combination) and then invite people to join; or
  • Think of people you would like to have in a group, then gather together and discuss what type the group should be.

2. To get names of local clergywomen,check with the offices of your denomination’s judicatory or those of other denominations.They also may know of groups already meeting that have an opening.

3. If you are starting a new group,spend the first few meetings simply getting to know each other. Members may want to take turns leading worship or discussion as you explore various styles of leadership and group activity.

4. Plan to share meals regularly as another way of being together.

5. After several meetings,decide what the future of the group will be.Will you set norms for attendance,beginning and ending times,and/or confidentiality rules? Will you allow sufficient time for each member to share? Will there be work or prayer between meetings? What form will leadership of the group take? Some groups will bring in an outside facilitator to lead the group or for other purposes. Each group is different and should strive to design itself in whatever way best serves its members’expressed desires and needs.

1. Edward C. Lehman, “Women’s Path Into Ministry: Six Major Studies,” Pulpit & Pew Research on Pastoral Leadership (Durham, N.C.: Duke University, 2002), 22.
2. Idem.
3. Ibid., 23.

Congregations, 2004-07-01
Summer 2004, Number 3

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