Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

Ordained as public, authorized functionaries for their religious organizations, clergy have constituted the occupational class responsible for formulating, interpreting, and preserving tradition, scriptures, and doctrines, and presiding over the worship and pastoral concerns of their religious communities. For religious groups that ordain, clergy typically have held top leadership roles, often serving concurrently as religious visionary, authoritative spokesperson for their tradition, professional pastor, and organizational administrator overseeing the demographic growth and viability of the religious community. Occasionally, clergy leaders come into social tension with their congregation, their denomination, or the wider community, particularly where they hold prophetic commitments rather than a primary interest in tradition maintenance. U.S. clergy, working across denominational and racial boundaries, have been at the forefront of abolitionist, Social Gospel, and civil rights movements. Similarly, clergy have held prophetic roles in inspiring social change for justice and human rights in South Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere.

Social scientific approaches to studying clergy have focused on ministerial roles and role conflicts, changes in prestige and occupational self-understanding, politicization as a leadership force for social change in contrast to tradition maintenance, clericalist and anticlericalist movements, and demographic changes in clergy composition including occupational recruitment, shifts in clergy supply and demand, age, gender and racial effects, and related implications for their religious organizations.

While clergy traditionally have borne the primary roles of authoritative religious teacher, preacher, worship leader, or sacramentalist for their religious communities, the emphasis upon certain roles over others varies by religion. The teaching role of ordained religious leaders has been particularly important in rabbinical Judaism. In sacramental traditions, only the clergy may be allowed certain worship and ritual roles, such as the celebration of Christian holy communion. The preaching role gained ascendancy in post-Reformation Christianity, notably in emergent Protestant sects, and has remained central for Protestant clergy. It also has been the motivational force behind much Protestant evangelism and effort toward widespread social change.


Preaching and teaching roles for clergy in most religious traditions have been closely linked. Preaching, the major ritual activity in those Protestant denominations in which sacraments are not emphasized, historically has served as a means of religious commentary on social and political issues. Especially where clergy have been well educated in relation to the membership, preaching has served as a form of religiomoral education and inspiration, giving clergy opportunities to shape ethical values and discourse both within the religious community and to some extent within wider society.

Protestant puritan, evangelical, and black church traditions have had especially strong preaching legacies responsible for inspiring and mobilizing various socioreligious movements. The European American preaching tradition has been split between a pietistic perspective, tending to shun political engagement, and a social action outlook, which has called for direct transformative action to achieve social reform. Compared with puritan reflectivity and interpretation, the evangelical preaching style has tended more toward proclamation. In Pentecostal preaching, emphasis on the word has been less important than the reception of spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues (glossolalia) or faith healing. Both evangelical and Pentecostal preaching, emphasizing a personalized relationship with Jesus Christ through conversion or receipt of spiritual gifts, attributes social problems to the breakdown of personal morality.

Revival preaching, inspired by German pietism and using a spontaneous and emotional preaching style, undergirded the eighteenth-century Great Awakening and the westward European American expansion. Methodist circuit riders and other frontier evangelists conducted open air or tent revival meetings as well as camp meetings, and temporarily filled empty pulpits. The explicit use of psychological techniques for persuasion or audience manipulation was first popularized by nineteenth-century revivalist preacher Charles Grandison Finney. Other noted preachers in Finney's tradition include Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham.

In the twentieth century, Harry Emerson Fosdick was responsible for the advent of a preaching movement using psychological theory as a means of pastoral guidance around a basic human issue or concern. Fosdick also became the first well-known national radio preacher. Radio and television preaching, subsequently known as the "electronic church," reached its zenith in the televangelism movement during the 1980s, where enormous earnings resulted from large viewership audiences and successful marketing of religious products or prayer services prior to the moral and financial scandals that rocked televangelist empires during the latter years of the decade. The movement subsequently shifted from an emphasis on preaching to integrated discussion and prayer, the most well-known broadcast being Pat Robertson's 700 Club . Such a format also minimizes denominational differences in the use of scripture and worship style, thus appealing to a wider audience. Discussion forums, prayer chains, and written text appear on the World Wide Web, although the Web's potential for mass media preaching has not yet been technologically fully developed.

The Liberal Protestant preaching tradition, characteristically attributing the source of social inequality and injustice to systemic problems that foster institutionalized racism, sexism, or classism, has emphasized a call to individual and collective action undergirded by scriptural and moral argument. Preaching consequently has resulted in both a public and a politically charged role for the clergy, inciting substantial conflict, particularly between European American clergy and laity within their respective denominations. Where laity disagree with activist preaching, pressure often has been applied to redirect clergy to the privatized realm of piety, spirituality, and pastoral care.

Preaching has been particularly central to the African American church tradition, serving as both a religious and a political nucleus for community cohesion. Where denominational schisms formed over slavery and segregation, particularly in Methodist-Episcopal and Baptist traditions, the new African American groups departed from European American styles of preaching, developing a passionate oratorical style, interactive responses between preacher and congregation, and an emphasis upon biblical narratives related to freedom, martyrdom, and resurrection. From slavery days, the "preacher" had been the only public role according African Americans any leadership opportunities or prestige, a position that also often served as intermediary with European Americans. African American preachers have continued to retain high prestige within their religious organizations and surrounding communities, with many seeking to maintain the legacy of working collaboratively for political and socioeconomic betterment, exemplified in the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s merger of preaching and social activism during the civil rights movement.

Clergy advocating social action and political involvement, doing so from conservative as well as liberal perspectives, have risked the erosion of lay participation and financial support, particularly in European American congregations. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, leader of the 1980s Moral Majority movement, and Pat Robertson, as head of the 1990s Christian Coalition movement, have developed comprehensive political action programs seeking to legislate perspectives on morality issues based on conservative Christian religious tradition. Falwell, facing an erosion of public and financial backing, stepped down from the Moral Majority leadership in 1987, and the Christian Coalition, faced with the financial investigation of its youthful strategist and previous leader, Ralph Reed, has declined in political clout since the early 1990s. Alternatively, clergy leaders in mainline denominations, working either internally or ecumenically, have taken social and public policy stances on racial, gender, and justice-related issues that have generated open conflict between conservative local congregations and their national religious organizations. Such dissension has resulted in reduced congregational giving for denominationwide operations and in renewed movements for decentralization. Jeffrey Hadden's foundational study The Gathering Storm in the Churches (Doubleday 1969) identified a growing rift between mainline Protestant clergy and laity stemming from clergy political involvement in the civil rights movement and other areas of liberal social action. Finding that clergy were leading their churches in directions not supported by the laity, Hadden contended that they would be increasingly likely to challenge clergy authority for denominational direction. By the 1990s, both laity and conservative clergy have challenged denominational leadership through increased financial and political pressure for congregational autonomy in protest over progressive social perspectives, particularly those related to gender and human sexuality.

Clericalism and Anticlericalism

Conversely, the conflict over clergy authority has fueled anticlericalist movements, which have emerged throughout Christian history. Typically these movements have surfaced in strife over the abuse of the church's political power, most often when it has been in alliance with the government or ruling elite. Successive anticlerical struggles in Europe between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries led to Protestant Reformation. At the heart of the anticlericalist movement during the European Enlightenment were the French principles of 1789—liberty, equality, and fraternity—and the replacement of religious belief by humanism and science as primary guiding social forces. Anticlericalism also represented widespread opposition to the Roman Catholic Church's dominance in Europe in the wake of the secularist notion of the separation of church and state over matters pertaining to politics and education. The movement sought to ensure freedom of conscience as part of the democratic movement undergirded by the rise of liberalism in government, economics, and public expression during that period, modeled by the newly emergent U.S. republic. Anticlericalism forms the core of Rousseauean and Marxian thought on religion, in which clergy were perceived to collude with the ruling class to create, according to Marx, an opiate of the masses , which effectively maintained social control to ensure little interference with their class interests. Contemporary manifestations of anticlericalism have occurred in liberation theology movements, where lay-led base communities have responded to authoritarian support within the Roman Catholic Church of various repressive political regimes. Black, feminist, and other liberation theology movements similarly have responded to the hegemonic dominance of European American male clergy in defining and interpreting what of Christian religious tradition should be considered normative or appropriate for all believers.

Anticlericalism has become manifest in movements for greater congregational control, which have effectively eroded financial support for denominational programs and commitments, particularly those tied to ecumenism, racial, gender, and sexual orientation issues. This trend instead has pressed for congregationalist decentralization where local laity, with or without support of their clergy, maintain control of financial support for programs and outreach ministries. In this respect, Berger (1981) intimated that clergy-laity class conflict may be a political struggle between two elite groups: the business elite and a new elite , highly educated clergy, intellectuals, and other professionals who oversee ideas. Antiecumenism is also essentially an anticlericalist trend, reacting in part to clergy across religious traditions developing professional networks and building alliances on controversial political issues, especially given that ecumenical perspectives have tended to be more liberal than parochial outlooks.

Demographic Changes

In addition to resurgent anticlericalist movements affecting the financial stability of large mainline denominations, the changing demographic picture of the clergy since 1970 suggests that major occupational as well as organizational shifts are likely to ensue during the opening decades of the twenty-first century. Dislocations of clergy supply and demand have sharply affected both Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations, although in different ways. The number of Roman Catholic priests in the United States has been moderately estimated to decline about 40% between 1966 and 2005 (Schoenherr and Young 1993). Concerns over supply have been related to mandatory celibacy and the Roman Catholic Church's position against ordaining women. Clergy shortages were projected for Protestant churches in the late 1980s, based upon high rates of the retiring clergy ordained after World War II, although they have not materialized for reasons such as the proliferation of women seeking ordination since the late 1970s, the increased frequency of men being ordained as a second or third career, the licensing or ordination of laity for a specific congregation or geographic locale, and the deployment of retired clergy for part-time and interim work. Some denominations have experienced sizable clergy oversupply, for instance, the Episcopal Church, with more than a 60% increase in clergy ordained between 1960 and 1990 while confirmed communicants decreased by 20% during that period.

In the late 1960s, substantial attention became focused on Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy leaving the occupation. Resignation of Roman Catholic priests peaked between 1968 and 1973, a period that Schoenherr and Young (1993) call the "mass exodus" years for primarily young priests who, based upon NORC and other research data, typically were concerned over loneliness, celibacy, or conservatism in church doctrine and values. Studies of Protestant clergy during that period were more inconclusive in identifying common reasons for occupational exodus, although more recent research has suggested role ambiguity as a primary basis for departure (e.g., Hoge et al. 1981). Since the mid-1980s, some concern has been raised over the increased attrition of women clergy.

The most consistent demographic decline across Roman Catholic, most Protestant, and Jewish religious traditions during the 1980s and 1990s has been in the ratio of young, first-career men seeking ordination. Concurrently, the rising age of both female and male seminarians during this period has been well documented (e.g., Larsen 1995), resulting in a sharp influx of second-career clergy, which, combined with retiring clergy continuing to work on an interim or part-time basis, has created an overall graying of the occupation. While male clergy ordained as young adults tend to retain an edge in attaining leadership positions, studies have shown that ordination at an older age does not present a significant barrier to opportunities for ministry (e.g., Zikmund et al. 1997, Nesbitt 1997), although denominational size and structure as well as supply relative to demand can affect age-related prospects.

Women Clergy

The most dramatic trend affecting nearly all mainline religious organizations has been the ordination and proliferation of women clergy. Although there is some evidence that women may have served as clergy in very early Christian communities, the practice died out with Christianity's consolidation and development as a church during its early centuries. Following the Protestant Reformation, women developed a lay preaching presence in Europe, England, and subsequently in North America. In the United States, women were represented among nineteenth-century Quaker, Universalist, and revivalist preachers, but ordination as clergy, with opportunities for the same tasks, responsibilities, and positions as men, began only during the mid-nineteenth century.

Antoinette Brown was the first woman ordained in a U.S. denomination, as a Congregational minister in 1853 following graduation from Oberlin seminary three years earlier and a protracted struggle over the legitimacy of ordaining a woman. The first woman ordained with denominationwide recognition was Olympia Brown, in 1863, as a Universalist minister. By the end of the nineteenth century, more than 1,000 women had been ordained, representing at least a dozen denominations. Many of the earliest women clergy had been active in social reform, particularly abolition and women's rights, and as clergy they continued to work for political and social change. Other women perceived their clergy status as offering more pragmatic advantages, such as in assisting domestic or foreign missionary work, in copastoring with their ordained husbands, or in securing clergy discounts when traveling with their husbands. Resistance to women clergy increased, toward the end of the nineteenth century, and women experienced both greater difficulty in finding placements and decreased support by denominational leaders.

During the opening decades of the twentieth century, the number of women clergy began to grow, primarily because of the receptivity they found in pentecostalism. Through the depression years, mainline and evangelical denominations remained overtly resistant to women, either to the female clergy in their midst or to the prospect of opening their ordination processes to women. Following World War II and facing an expanding need for clergy during the 1950s, several religious organizations opened full ordination to women, primarily in American Methodist, Presbyterian, and European Lutheran traditions, to the extent that by 1958, 48 denominational members of the World Council of Churches ordained women on the same basis as men. Another wave of religious organizations granting women full ordination began in 1970, primarily within American Lutheran, Mennonite, British Methodist, Anglican (Episcopal), and Jewish traditions. By 1995, women represented about 11% of all ordained U.S. clergy. The presence of women clergy has increased in Asia and Africa over the last two decades, as more denominations locally opened ordination to them. At least three women were secretly ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood in Czechoslovakia during the communist regime, although the Vatican has refused to recognize them.

Occupationally, studies consistently have shown that women clergy have not had opportunities equivalent to those of men. Traditionally, opportunities for women clergy have been primarily in small, poorer congregations that have been unsuccessful in attracting men, often in rural locations. In response, women clergy have developed a legacy for building up congregational membership and financial resources—the two criteria traditionally considered by male clergy as measures of occupational "success"—but often have found themselves replaced by men, either by congregations newly able to afford a man or through denominational reappointment. Women clergy in more hierarchically stratified denominations have disproportionately remained in staff positions, as assistants or associates, while their male counterparts move into higher level placements.

The most widely known multidenominational study on women clergy, by Jackson Carroll, Barbara Hargrove, and Adair Lummis, Women of the Cloth (Harper 1983), found that female and male clergy held similar entry-level placements, but that sharp gender differences appeared when they moved to midlevel positions, with men tending to move upward while women moved laterally. They attributed the differences to a variety of influences from passive socialization to tendencies by congregational search committees not to generalize positive experience with women clergy into receptivity toward subsequent female candidates. A comparative update of this research by Zikmund et al. (1997), as well as other recent studies, shows that these earlier trends have remained consistent across denominations, resulting in a "glass ceiling" effect for women clergy interested in the senior leadership of a large congregation or denominational leadership. Women's ongoing difficulties with male clergy colleagues, their frustration with limitations placed upon their opportunities, and a concurrent desire for occupational growth have been evident in other multidenominational studies (e.g., Clark and Anderson 1990). Although these have been predominantly European American denominations, similar trends have been identified for women rabbis. Women clergy in African American denominations have reported comparable difficulties in finding opportunities to pastor congregations and in terms of resistance to their efforts by laity and male clergy (Lincoln and Mamiya 1990). Similar patterns have been found in studies on women clergy in Canada, England, Sweden, Australia, and elsewhere.

Women's ordination to the episcopate, as denominational leaders with authority over male as well as female clergy, has been an even more difficult struggle. The first female bishop, Marjorie Matthews, was consecrated by the United Methodist Church in 1980, a denomination that subsequently has consecrated seven more female bishops. The first woman consecrated in a denomination claiming apostolic succession (an unbroken chain of the laying on of hands since apostolic times) was Barbara Harris in the U.S. Episcopal Church (1989). Anglican and Lutheran female bishops have since been consecrated in New Zealand, Germany, Norway, the United States, and Canada.

Occupational Feminization

Across denominations, the ratio of women to men ordained annually had remained at token levels until the late 1970s. The first denomination to have more women than men ordained annually was the Unitarian Universalist Association—a gender shift that occurred in 1978. The annual ratios of women being ordained have increased more slowly in other denominations. Throughout the 1990s, the gender ratio of Association of Theological Schools (A.T.S.) institutions has averaged 30% female, although more liberal seminaries have averaged two-thirds female or higher.

One consequence of the proliferation of women clergy has been a rise in the number of clergy couples and in ensuing complications for dual-clergy careers. In addition to "fishbowl" pressures of clergy life within the congregation, Rallings and Pratto's (1984) multidenominational study on clergy couples found that wives tend to hold positions subordinate to husbands and, where husbands and wives share a single position and salary, wives typically encounter subordinate role expectations from the congregation. Other, more recent studies have affirmed that these patterns persist.

A second consequence of the increase in women clergy has been denominational concern over the likelihood that the clergy as an occupation will become primarily female. Such concerns have risen from comparative trends in secular occupations, in which prestige and compensation decline as the ratio of women increases, fewer young men are attracted to the occupation, and women become disproportionately gender segregated into lower level jobs as the rate of feminization increases. Some concerns have been distinctive to religious organizations, in that the majority of lay participants in congregations are female and in that, if clergy become primarily female, women will effectively "take over the church" and men will retreat from participation. The increasing presence of women clergy has been associated, however, not only with occupational trends that disproportionately advantage men but with a resurgent resistance to deploying women in advantageous placements. Conservative Protestant denominations have eroded opportunities for women clergy through lack of support or, in some cases, reversal of policies toward women's ordination. Consequently, the prospect that women clergy will dominate organized religion seems unlikely.

Despite changing age and gender demographic factors, the opportunities for clergy to offer visible leadership toward liberal or conservative social change, and the denominational conflicts likely to ensue, clergy will remain viable so long as religion continues to provide foundational meaning to support or challenge trends and practices in the wider society.

See also Feminization Thesis, Charles Grandison Finney, Ministry, Ordination, Televangelism

Paula D. Nesbitt


C. H. Barfoot and G. T. Sheppard, "Prophetic vs. Priestly Religion," Review of Religious Research 22(1980): 2-17

P. L. Berger, "The Class Struggle in American Religion," Christian Century 86(1981):194-199

J. N. Clark and G. Anderson, "A Study of Women in Ministry," in Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches , ed. C. H. Jacquet, Jr. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990): 271-278

D. Hoge et al., "Organizational and Situational Influences on Vocational Commitment of Protestant Ministers," Review of Religious Research 23 (1981): 133-149

D. T. Holland, The Preaching Tradition (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980)

T. G. Jelen, The Political World of the Clergy (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993)

E. L. Larsen, "A Profile of Contemporary Seminarians Revisited," Theological Education 31(Suppl., 1995):1-118

E. L. Larsen and J. M. Shopshire, "A Profile of Contemporary Seminarians," Theological Education 24(1988):10-136

E. C. Lehman, Jr., Women Clergy in England (Lewiston, NY.: Mellen, 1987)

E. C. Lehman, Jr., Gender and Work (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993)

E. C. Lehman, Jr., Women in Ministry (Melbourne: Joint Board of Christian Education, 1994)

C. E. Lincoln and L. H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990)

P. D. Nesbitt, Feminization of the Clergy in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997): 152-171

E. M. Rallings and D. J. Pratto, Two-Clergy Marriages (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1984)

S. Ranson et al., Clergy, Ministers and Priests (London: Routledge, 1977)

J. Sanchez, Anticlericalism (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1972)

F. W. Schmidt, A Still Small Voice (Syracuse, NY.: Syracuse University Press, 1996)

R. A. Schoenherr and L. A. Young, Full Pews and Empty Altars (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993)

R. Simon et al., "Rabbis and Ministers," in Gender and Religion , ed. W. H. Swatos, Jr. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1993): 45-54

B. Stendahl, The Force of Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985)

B. B. Zikmund, "Winning Ordination for Women in Mainstream Protestant Churches," in Women and Religion in America , ed. R. R. Ruether and R. S. Keller (San Francisco: Harper, 1986): 339-383

B. B. zikmund et al., An Uphill Calling (Louisville: Westminster, 1997).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500