Presiding Bishop

The Parish to Presiding Bishop Pipeline: Sexism in the Church

screen_shot_2015-06-22_at_9.43.16_amBy Gail Goldsmith, staff writer

The current slate of nominees for the 27th presiding bishop offers up four men for the office. After nine years at the helm with Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman presiding bishop, it is striking to see no women among the nominees. All members of the House of Bishops are eligible for election as presiding bishop, though it has become common practice to nominate diocesan bishops with five years of episcopal experience, which further narrows eligibility within the small pool of women bishops.

Bishop Susan Goff, bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Virginia, says women were not overlooked in the nomination process, and some declined to take part “for reasons having to do with where they are in their lives.” Bishop Goff continued, “That there are no women among the nominees is not because women were overtly excluded, but it is the result of deeply ingrained structural and institutional sexism. There is still not a critical mass of women bishops that allows women to be represented in all levels of leadership.” There are 17 women in the House of Bishops. Three were active diocesan bishops at the time of the nominations. One had fewer than five years of experience, and one recently announced her retirement.

The Pipeline Problem

With so few women in the episcopate eligible for election, it might be a pipeline problem. Commonly used to describe hiring gaps in science and technology, the “pipeline problem” is a way to say there are not enough eligible or qualified women available to be hired for a position. To call the low number of women in the episcopate simply a pipeline problem, however, is to ignore the crucial fact that, from our discernment processes to our search processes, women in ministry face both personal and structural sexism. Someone built the pipeline and oversees the landscape around it.

Goff Jefferts Schori

Bishop Susan Goff and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori

There is a low burden of proof placed on the idea that, as a church, we are growing and changing on the role of women. We want to say we are; we want it to be true. Many of our community members, parishioners, lay leadership, seminarians and clergy can speak to the way women in ministry have encouraged them and helped them to grow in their understanding of God’s grace by their preaching, teaching and leadership. This is a blessing and a powerful recognition of the ministry of the women God called, but this is not always reflected in data—both anecdotal and in Church Pension Group’s reports.

Some women flourishing in some positions is not the end of structural sexism, though this flourishing testifies to their spiritual gifts, talents in their vocation and the support they have for their ministry. “Every once in a while I pick up people’s assumption that, because the Diocese of Virginia now has a woman bishop, we have ‘made it’ – we have overcome sexism. The reality is that we are far from finished with this work,” said Bishop Goff.

The personal sexism that supplements the structural shows in how the Church regards women in ministry. They are too often seen as the exception, as noteworthy by virtue of their gender rather than their ministry, or as objects of curiosity because of what they are wearing, what they do in their spare time and what their relationship status is. This strand of sexism shows up in expectations for women, and whether these expectations are met or not, those gendered expectations are still there.

It’s Not the House, It’s the Neighborhood

The question of why no women stood for nomination for the election of our next presiding bishop does not begin nor end with the House of Bishops. The question of whom to nominate for election depends on who is available, interested, and feels called to it.

The demographic makeup of who will be presiding bishop depends first on the demographic makeup of priests. Structural sexism is seen in the current data on ordinations, employment and gender in State of the Clergy 2012: A Report for the Episcopal Church, compiled by Church Pension Group.

“State of the Clergy” analyzes composition of the orders of ordained ministry by age, gender, and geography:

  • More men are ordained than women, but by a small margin. Of recent ordinands, 52% are male and 48% are female.
  • “With no exceptions, the average ages of newly ordained women are higher than those of newly ordained men in every province.”
  • The small gap in ordinations by gender grows larger when other factors are analyzed: “There is a 24 percent gap in the percentage of currently employed, recently ordained men and women.” This is consistent with the 32 percent (employment) gap between all active male clergy (66 percent) and all active female clergy (34 percent).”

What picture of pastoral authority are we working with? According to this data, at the time of ordination, the average age of women is higher than that of men. In the Diocese of Virginia, according to the diocesan office’s database, there are two women rectors under 42, one 33 years old and called at 29. The youngest male rector is 29, called at 28. There are 10 men under 42 at the helm of Diocese of Virginia parishes; four of those lead multi-priest parishes. Though it may be unintentional, this shows that the same kind of authority is accorded to men at a younger age than it is to women. God’s call is not based on gender, but the data show the modern Church is still beholden to perceptions that imbue gender with a higher weight in the considerations of ordination and calling to a parish or a position.

In the early days of the Church, the words, service and spiritual gifts of disciples and apostles were understood in a social and religious system that privileged the pastoral authority of men over that of women. Does our church really still have this kind of understanding?

The data in The Episcopal Church Office of Research’s 2014 breakdown of parish priest positions by gender for each domestic diocese take into account the changes in availability of parish positions by analyzing who is currently holding what kind of title—senior priest, solo priest or curate/associate. Here are some of its findings:

  • Women are more likely to be solo priests than senior priests.
  • In 14 dioceses, no women lead a staff of multiple clergy. In 24, only one does.
  • By percentage, women are more likely to be in curate/associate positions than men.

In bishop search processes, leadership experience counts. How are parishes constructing ideas of leadership, experience and prestige in the process of calling clergy? Do these give men a privilege over women? If they do, the hiring process is creating the pipeline problem that impacts the necessary experience of candidates for the episcopacy. Bishops Curry and Smith served as rectors of large, multi-staff parishes; Bishops Breidenthal and Douglas served in positions at prestigious seminaries. A diocese’s bishop search is a decision about who will be in the House of Bishops, and therefore a decision about who might be considered for nomination as presiding bishop.Jefferts Schori debate

If the precedents for male-biased employment and ordination hold true, presiding bishop elections in the future may face the same fate, proving Katharine Jefferts Schori to be an anomaly.

A Call to Go Beyond the Status Quo

Since the available data sorts by gender and age, these reports do not break out other groups whose pastoral authority might face external challenges of bias to their spiritual gifts and leadership. Sexism interlocks with other social factors. If our statistics on sexism, a long-acknowledged problem, are so marked, what is our record on cissexism, the presumption that gender is essential and binary, and heterosexism, the affirmation of only opposite-sex relationships? Classism exerts a strong hold on access to theological education. Sexism and racism doubly bind women of color. To recognize and address sexism constructively requires knowledge and action on these issues as well. The Episcopal Church has a higher calling than to reflect and sustain cultural ills in how its leaders are called, formed and supported in their ministry.

If Bishop Michael Curry is elected presiding bishop, his leadership would offer the Episcopal Church many gifts, but a sudden exorcism of racism would not be one of them. As we saw in Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s term, sexism was not solved by the elevation of a member of the clergy to higher visibility. However, that visibility has led to recognition, conversation and healing in institutional imagination and practice.

What we desperately need is a Church that looks beyond superficial characteristics like sex and places the most qualified candidates in leadership, whatever their demographics. But to become the most qualified candidate, one must first be given opportunities to find and develop her gifts – from youth group, to campus ministry, to seminary, to the parish, to the office of the presiding bishop. We as a Church must find and siphon off sexism and our other toxins at every stretch of the pipeline, or we stand in the way of allowing God’s own to respond to God’s call.


Correction: There are two women rectors under 42 in the Diocese of Virginia, the article originally posted that there is only one. Center Aisle* regrets the error. *Center Aisle provided Gail Goldsmith with this information.   

Categories: Presiding Bishop

8 replies »

    • Thank you, Gail, for this thoughtful and thought-provoking article. As a female priest, I long for the best leaders to be lifted up for every position, whatever their gender, race, class, age, ethnicity, or sexual preferences may be. An equally great concern for me is that we may not be identifying the true work God is calling us to do. As the people of God focus more and more on the needs of those beyond the walls of the institutional church, our requirements for leadership, lay and ordained, need to change. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. In addition, I believe we need to explore the differences in salary individuals receive and have received in their ministry. Our Pension Fund might begin to increase the funds needed by those retirees at the lower end of the economic spectrum.

  1. From what I have been told, and I am not an Episcopalian, the CEO otherwise known as “presiding bishop” Schori was elected by only one vote and for only one reason and that was to make “the brand” appear to be more inclusive and contemporary by having a woman any woman qualified or not, theologically challenged or not as the chief executive of the Episcopal Church. One bishop who voted for her is reported to have said that he voted for her because he knew she would be a disaster and finally cause Episcopalians to have make a choice on where they stood and for whom they stood. She certainly did that and more. Less than a year into her primacy she already called herself “the new sheriff in town” and denied the Incarnation. Her greatest achievement has been spending more than 44 MILLION DOLLARS to retain properties and monies that do not belong to the national church and the persistent attempts to bankrupt and punish those who have dared to disagree with her and her partisans. We can only hope that rather than having overpriced consultants trying to formulate how to “re brand” the image of the Episcopal Church we can see at least an attempt made to be faithful to the witness of the Person of Jesus Christ rather than to some metaphysical modern cult guru that Ms Schori represents. Gender is no determiner of correctness or wisdom or calling.

    • wow. From a guy in the pews, I’ve been extremely pleased with Presiding Bishop Katherine’s primacy. I’m sure others can mount a more pointed defense of her term, but I don’t think any “defense” is needed. She’s done a fine job and we can hope, with faith, that her successor will follow in her footsteps while bringing his own spirit and spice to the job!

  2. Jefferts Schori, not Schori or Ms. Schori, and you know better. You mean it as an insult. While you’re not an Episcopalian, you show your hand by repeating the litany of lies and half truths – as well as the intentionally calling her by the wrong name – we can read at places like Stand Firm, Anglican Mainstream, Anglican Ink and Virtue Online if we care to. Happy trolling.

  3. The evidence suggests that enough parishes resist calling a woman as rector that is making a difference in the outcome from the pipeline. And that’s ironic when you consider that women are a majority of the adult membership. I suppose it could be the case that men predominate the lay leadership roles in the church. But what I really think is that enough women are as biased as some men that the pipeline is not producing female clergy who have held senior positions.

    I’m torn by the language Bishop Goff used: “for reasons having to do with where they are in their lives.” Do male bishops decline nomination for PB because of where they are in their lives? Are as many male bishops as in balance that they think in as healthy a way, or do they decline because of things they want to achieve in their present diocese? On the other hand, saying “where they are in their lives” suggests family commitments, and plays into job market stereotypes about women.

    I’d be interested in the thoughts of others.

  4. I assumed that Bishop Goff was referring to the bishop who declined to be nominated because her husband passed away. How many others did they ask? And if others decided to stay where they are, couldn’t that also be God’s will?

    I know in TEC as a whole, priests move around a lot, switching every 3-5 years is, I believe, the average, but in this diocese rectors and other leaders have to “earn their stripes” by remaining in positions for a certain number of years–and the female priests just don’t usually last long enough. Perhaps this is because a large part of the diocese is small parishes or even groups of parishes which struggle to pay priests much, so they move along. And let’s face it, trying to juggle 3-5(at one time up to 7) small parishes/missions would be exhausting for many, not just women.