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Women, men and styles of clergy leadership

by Barbara Brown Zikmund, Adair T. Lummis and Patricia M. Y. Chang

Copyright 1998 Christian Century Foundation. Reprinted by
permission from Vol. 115, No. 14 (May 6, 1998) of the Christian Century.

As more and more women become pastors, the questions arises as to whether male and female clergy differ in approaches to leadership. Are female pastors leading their congregations differently? If so, how?

To examine this issue, we selected a random sample of 250 pastors of both genders from 15 denominations and called them on the telephone. We asked, "From your experience, do you feel women clergy approach or do ministry differently on the average than clergymen?"

The answers we collected are fascinating. Both women and men think that significant differences exist between male and female clergy in this area. Many clergy believe that women clergy are more caring than men about the individual lives of members of the congregation, more pastorally sensitive, more nurturing and more likely to draw on personal experiences in preaching, teaching and counseling.

Everyone also agrees that clergywomen are less interested than clergymen in congregational politics, power over others and job prestige. The women we talked with were considerably more likely than their male counterparts to volunteer their perception that clergywomen's leadership style is different from that typically used by clergymen. Furthermore, all of our denominational clusters show fairly high agreement about the nature of this difference in leadership style:

Although everyone approaches ministry differently, clergywomen are more relational than clergymen, making decisions more cooperatively instead of using a hierarchical or authoritarian approach.up

(Wesleyan clergywoman)

My clergywomen colleagues approach ministry in a less hierarchical, more cooperative manner, and they see themselves more as empowerers of laity than as leaders of laity.

(Unitarian-Universalist clergywoman)

Clergywomen tend to be more collegial in my experience. They tend to use more of a partnership-based than hierarchical leadership-style.

(United Church of Christ clergywoman)

Clergywomen have a different focus and style. Women clergy are more interested in sharing power; they work with laity.

(United Methodist clergywoman)

Do clergywomen leaders share power more than clergymen in leadership positions? A three-fifths majority of women clergy think women clergy do--which is an opinion not shared by most clergymen, only one-fifth of whom agree. Ordained men may have some justification in rejecting the notion that clergymen are less willing to share power than are clergywomen. A three-fifths majority of both clergywomen and clergymen see themselves as more democratic than directive in leadership style. Clergywomen, however, are slightly more likely than clergymen to assess clergywomen's leadership style as very democratic. These findings hold whether the clergy are in parish ministry or in some other kind of work.

It may be that whatever discrepancy exists between ordained women's and men's perceptions of whether clergywomen are more willing than clergymen to share power is present because neither clergywomen nor clergymen are basing their opinions on current observations and interactions with clergy of the opposite gender now active in ministry. More than likely, clergywomen are remembering the actions of a male senior pastor when they themselves were associates some years ago or are resenting laymen in their congregations who are giving them grief. Clergymen may also be thinking about how open and enabling they themselves are, especially when they compare themselves to some of the autocratic women in their local congregations. Opinions vary.

Clergymen tend to work for a hierarchical system from the top down. Clergywomen try to work from concentric circles. We try to bring laypeople also into equality in decision-making.

(Episcopal clergywoman)

Clergywomen have a vision for more inclusiveness . . . and use a participatory leadership style. Clergymen that I have known for the most part are not drawn to that kind of leadership.up

(Southern Baptist clergywoman)

Clergywomen are more apt to work circularly, not hierarchically. They are more apt to work toward a team effort.

(American Baptist clergywoman)

From my experience . . . clergywomen are far more likely to empower people and work with people. But when it comes right down to taking authority, it is harder for them. Whereas clergymen tend to overseize authority sometimes and act more powerful than they really are.

(American Baptist clergyman)

These attitudes are not new. Clergy leadership style preferences in the 1990s have remained virtually unchanged from those expressed in the 1980-81 research results published in Women of the Cloth, by Jackson W. Carroll et al. Furthermore, these preferences are consistent with additional studies of clergy done by Edward Lehman and others. Lehman found that although clergywomen were slightly more likely than clergymen to value empowering laity, clergywomen did not differ from clergymen in their use of formal authority within the church (Gender and Work, 1993).

Another study, by Mary Clair Klein, which looked at United Church of Christ clergy leadership styles as self-reported, also found that while "there are differences in leadership style among pastors, gender is not the determining factor." Our results concur with Lehman and Klein and are supported by Ruth Wallace's study of women pastors in priestless Roman Catholic parishes. All pastoral leaders in the 1990s tend to have more of an inclusive, democratic leadership style than a directive, autocratic style. These three studies use somewhat different indicators to measure clergy perceptions of how they lead, but all three arrive at similar findings.

I n considering the question of gendered leadership styles within professions, it is good to keep in mind that different kinds of occupations attract different personalities, and that gatekeepers for occupations tend to select persons with particular styles and values. Personality tests and inventories given to seminary students consistently show that men and women preparing for ordained ministry or already serving as clergy differ from men and women in the general population. Usually, men entering the ordained ministry exhibit more "feminine" personality characteristics than do men in the population at large.

Furthermore, a study of Anglican clergy in Great Britain found that not only were the personality profiles of men and women entering the ordained ministry different from those for the general populace, but "implicitly or explicitly the selection procedures seem to value feminine personality characteristics in male clergy and to value masculine personality characteristics in female clergy." Some of the perceived differences in leadership styles reported by male and female clergy are no doubt being sustained by the conscious and unconscious screening of candidates for ordination by seminaries, judicatories and denominations.

The differences between clergywomen and clergymen in the leadership style they say they most often use are minimal. Some differences do appear, however, among clergywomen and clergymen when denomination and age are taken into consideration.

For example, clergywomen in the Spirit-centered denominations (linked to the holiness and Pentecostal movements) are less likely than the majority of clergywomen in other denominations to believe that women share power more than men do. Furthermore, they are also less inclined than the majority of other clergywomen to view their own leadership style as "democratic." In fact, neither female nor male clergy in Spirit-centered denominations view their leadership style as democratic. It is evident that the ideal of "power with" leadership has less impact on how clergywomen in the Spirit-centered denominations view their own leadership style than it does on clergywomen in other denominations.


In contrast, Unitarian-Universalist clergywomen could be expected to have the least reason for believing that women have a more democratic leadership style than men, because, of all clergymen in our study, Unitarian-Universalist clergymen think that they are the most democratic. In fact, all Unitarian-Universalist clergy have a strong bias for using a "power with" leadership style.

No such unified view of the ideal leadership style is evident among Southern Baptist ordained men and women. Not only do considerably more Southern Baptist clergywomen than clergymen believe that women share power more than men, but Southern Baptist clergywomen are 20 percent more likely than clergymen in their denomination to see themselves as very democratic in leadership style.

This substantial difference between the self-defined leadership style in Southern Baptist ordained women and ordained men reflects a similar gap in their understandings of ministry. These clergywomen are also far more likely than Southern Baptist clergymen to endorse the position that laywomen and clergywomen should share equally with men in local and national church leadership, and that worship services should sometimes use female images of God. Since these more feminist positions are generally linked by clergy in this study with greater value and the use of a power with leadership style, this suggests that clergywomen have a more inclusive, less hierarchical concept of ministerial leadership than Southern Baptist clergymen.

We looked to see if other characteristics of clergy, in addition to denominational identity, combine with gender to influence preferred styles of ministerial leadership. We wondered if age would make a difference. We also asked if the decade in which an ordained person attended seminary might shape lifetime attitudes about leadership.

In the 20th century leadership expectations have shifted from a power over, or asymmetrical, clergy-laity authority pattern to a power with, or symmetrical, authority model reflecting more egalitarian societal norms. According to Carroll, as society has come to prefer egalitarian patterns of authority, clergy of both genders have become more democratic in their leadership style. Furthermore, younger clergy and clergy who have recently graduated from seminary are more inclined to adopt democratic leadership styles than are older clergy who went to seminary long ago (As One with Authority, 1991).

Unfortunately, when we compare the leadership preferences of younger clergywomen and clergymen, the picture is not so simple. Edward Lehman's study of clergywomen who graduated from seminary prior to 1971--before the women's movement and feminist ideals swept colleges, graduate schools and seminaries--shows that pioneer clergywomen used a directive leadership style. At that time, they were similar to men in their values about ministry and in their leadership style. Younger women, however, are different. Among more recent seminary graduates, Lehman reports a distinct gender difference. Whereas recently seminary-educated clergywomen are apt to use an inclusive leadership style, recently seminary-educated clergymen tend to go the opposite way and become more directive.

Lehman attributes this difference to the fact that female and male seminarians had different experiences in seminary in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Women students were involved in a lively feminist subculture and, concomitantly, were more inclined to use a democratic leadership style, whereas men during the same period either were avoiding the feminist subculture or, perhaps in retaliation, were becoming more interested in exerting their authority as clergy.

Our sample is primarily of clergywomen who attended seminary in the 1980s, where they were invariably exposed to a feminist subculture. Consistent with Lehman's findings, the clergywomen in our sample--those who graduated after 1981--prefer a very democratic leadership style. This is true only of the women, however. Consistent with Lehman's findings, recently graduated clergymen in our sample are somewhat less likely than the women to adopt a very democratic leadership style.


When we look at the chronological age, rather than the era of seminary attendance, of all clergy in our sample--men and women--it turns out that age gives the most reliable prediction regarding the kind of leadership style preferred by clergy. The younger a person is in ordained ministry, the less likely that person is to believe that he or she has a very democratic leadership style. This is especially true for clergymen. Whether this is due to inexperience and a lack of self-confidence or whether it speaks to a rising desire for more directive leadership in the contemporary church and society is not clear. Younger men now entering ordained ministry may be drawn to this career because they believe that clergy have, or should have, authority. Or it may be that only after years of work in the church do clergy, especially clergymen, see the benefits of a more democratic leadership style for effective ministry.

Consistently, as we have already noted, the clergywomen in the Spirit-centered denominations tend to be less democratic in leadership style. As a group they are older, but how old they are has no linear relationship to their leadership style. Among clergywomen in the congregation-centered denominations (such as the UCC, the American Baptists and the Disciples), the situation is reversed. Clergywomen in this denominational cluster tend to have a democratic leadership style, regardless of their age. With the institution-centered denominations (Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and United Methodist), the picture is more complicated. Among these denominations, the younger the clergywoman, the less likely she is to use a very democratic leadership style. This pattern is similar to that of the younger clergymen, mentioned above.

What does this mean? Are younger clergywomen in the institution-centered denominations feeling particularly pressured to act more like the younger men to get ahead? If so, it is hard to tell if using a more directive leadership style will actually help these younger women (and men) in their church careers. If it is true that contemporary society is becoming increasingly appreciative of egalitarian leadership, choosing a directive leadership style could backfire--further marginalizing the church and clergy leaders.

Part of the answer to whether adopting a directive or a democratic leadership style is a good strategy for career success depends on ministerial position. A clergywoman or clergyman may be an assistant or associate pastor, a sole pastor or the senior minister in a multistaffed congregation. Senior ministers, who supervise other clergy and professional staff, have the freedom to use a different leadership style from that of clergy who have no one to delegate work to or who must respond to the desires and leadership style of a senior minister colleague. In our sample, although slightly less than half of the clergywomen and clergymen in parish work serve congregations as sole pastors, relatively few clergywomen are senior pastors and relatively few clergymen are assistant or associate pastors.

Lehman suggests that position directly affects leadership style; however, he found that female senior ministers dealt with leadership quite differently from male senior ministers. Whereas women in senior pastor positions appear more interested in empowering the congregation than do women in lesser pastoral positions, the reverse is true for men. According to Lehman, male senior pastors are less likely to care about trying to empower the congregation and more interested in directing it than are males in either co-pastorates or sole pastoral positions.

In our study, we do not find that the pastoral position held by clergy of either gender has any consistent effect on the leadership styles clergy employ. Some of this lack of difference is no doubt due to the power of denominational expectations--which consistently have more influence than pastoral position or clergy gender. Theologically and socially liberal Unitarian-Universalist clergy adopt a very democratic leadership style, regardless of gender or position on a church staff. Female clergy in the other congregation-centered denominations are more likely than male clergy to adopt a democratic leadership style. We have already noted that the theologically and socially more conservative Spirit-centered clergy use a somewhat directive leadership style, regardless of gender or position.

However, we do find interesting differences in leadership styles between women and men in various pastoral positions within the institution-centered denominational cluster, although because there are few women senior pastors in this cluster (both in our sample and in reality), findings must be interpreted with caution. Presbyterian and United Methodist women who achieve the level of senior pastor use a more democratic leadership style than do other ordained women in these denominations. By contrast, the level of parish position does not appear to distinguish the leadership style of clergymen in these denominations. The difference that status makes for women senior pastors may be, as Lehman postulates, that these women are no longer fettered by the need to achieve status through following male leadership models; they are finally able to delegate much of the pastoral drudge work, and they are freer to follow their inclination to use a more democratic leadership style than they were as sole or assistant pastors.


Yet for women in the more hierarchical Episcopal and Lutheran denominations, the relationship between position and leadership style is reversed. In these denominations, the level of pastoral position does not affect the leadership styles of clergymen. Women senior pastors in these two denominations, however, are 19 percent less likely to use a very democratic leadership style than are women in sole or assistant pastoral positions. In fact, Episcopal and Lutheran women who are senior pastors are less likely to use a very democratic leadership style than are clergywomen or clergymen in any position in all of the other denominations, even in the Spirit-centered cluster. The fact that these two institution-centered denominations were the last to ordain women and did so only in the 1970s suggests that women clergy in these denominations, particularly the female senior pastors, are serving under pressures that other women do not face. Women senior pastors in Episcopal and Lutheran churches may feel so scrutinized and circumscribed as to want to lead in ways historically appropriate for senior pastors in their denominations. As a consequence, they seem to be adapting their own style to fit how they believe male senior pastors act.

What laity think of clergy is extremely important to clergy job satisfaction and career. Clergy are called, trained and ordained to serve the church. Their work is all-consuming in their lives. How well they are judged by denominational leaders and by local laity, who control clergy job opportunities, is extremely important.

Fortunately for women clergy, overall opinions about the effectiveness of ordained women are generally positive. This is true even with denominational and lay leaders who are initially wary about how well clergywomen will be able to minister to theologically or socially conservative laity. Lehman's extensive studies of women clergy in the United States, England and Australia document the ways in which most church members eventually come to accept the ministry of women pastors, even when the laity are apprehensive to begin with. Unfortunately, resistance to clergywomen increases with "higher," more prestigious church positions and salaries.

When we compare the knowledge and attitudes of the lay leaders from seven mainline denominations who were interviewed in the 1980-81 Women of the Cloth study with those of lay leaders in the same denominations in our 1993-94 research, it is clear that many more women are in pastoral ministry in the 1990s than were in the 1980s, and these women are held in high regard. Laity in the 1990s are about 25 percent more likely than laity in the 1980s to be in communities where other churches are served by ordained women. Laity, especially laymen, have dramatically increased their knowledge about women clergy and are more likely to believe that women, both lay and clergy, do hold positions or have influence comparable to laymen and clergymen of their denomination in their area.

Now that laity see that women do enjoy more equality in the church than was true in the early 1980s, many lay leaders are not as eager as they were at that time to want their own congregation to appoint an equal number of laywomen and laymen to their parish governing board or even to ordain more women to full ministerial status in their denominations. However, lay leaders in the 1990s feel that more women should be regional and national church executives--recognizing that most of these top positions are still male-dominated.


Both surveys indicate that the interest of laity in inclusive language referring to humans has changed little since the early 1980s, with less than half of lay leaders agreeing that such language should be used in church services. Although today lay leaders do not believe that the ordained ministry is given the stature and prestige it had in the early 1980s, high proportions of female and male lay leaders in both the 1980s and the 1990s have indicated they would be happy if they had a daughter who was ordained. Finally, less than one-third of the lay leaders in these mainline denominations agree that if a ministerial vacancy occurs in their local church, the search committee should "actively seek a woman candidate." Clergywomen are more prevalent, more visible and doubtless more acceptable to a majority of laity in the 1990s, but this very visibility has led lay leaders in some of the churches to feel that it is no longer necessary to work to get more women into lay and pastoral leadership positions.

In congregation-centered denominations, having direct experience with a woman pastor leads to positive views about having another woman pastor, about using inclusive language in church services, and about increasing the number of women clergy in those denominations (where it is already quite high). Lay leaders in institution-centered denominations who currently have a woman pastor are more inclined than those lay leaders who belong to congregations without a woman pastor to look favorably on women in leadership within their denominations and on using inclusive language in church services--although the differences are less pronounced.

By contrast, lay leaders in Spirit-centered denominations who have a woman as pastor, if they are influenced by this at all, appear to be less favorable than those without a woman pastor toward more women serving in executive staff positions in their denominations. They are particularly negative about the use of inclusive language in church services.

It is ironic, from the standpoint of history, that significantly more lay leaders in the Spirit-centered denominations than in the other two denominational clusters are ambivalent about or opposed to ordaining more women in their denominations. These laity actively resist seeking a woman pastor to fill a vacancy, using inclusive language, and appointing equal numbers of laywomen and laymen on their church governing boards. Interestingly, having a woman pastor as an assistant or part-time pastor (which is often the case in these Spirit-centered denominations) does little or nothing to lessen the lay resistance to women clergy. In most of the other denominational clusters, exposure to a woman pastor has been a positive experience and has predisposed laity to receive women pastors more easily.

Over the decades from the 1970s through the 1990s, the number of women pastors has grown exponentially. An even larger increase is apparent in the number of church members who have seen and heard a woman pastor--if not in their congregation or in a congregation they visited, then in some other public setting. All evidence points to the fact that increased exposure to the presence of clergywomen has accelerated their acceptance as effective leaders of congregations.

Barbara Brown Zikmund is the former president of Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut. Adair T. Lummis is a researcher at Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary. Patricia Mei Yin Chang is a researcher at the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. This article is excerpted from Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling, published this month by Westminster John Knox. Research for the book was funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc.





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