The Stained Glass Ceiling

By Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell

In the almost ten years it has been since I was ordained, I am currently serving my third congregation (I also served as a chaplain for 2.5 years) and have participated in a number of search committee interviews.  I blogged about this earlier over the summer in Dating Churches.  However, as I have had further time to reflect, to confer with my husband who also was in the search-and-call process with the Disciples, and have had time to share with other clergywomen, there are parts of the process that have nagged at me all along.

In almost every interview there were questions about how I would balance my time with my family. I know some of this comes up because in my profile I share that I have a son with autism and caring for a special needs child is something that many people aren’t familiar with. However, my husband has also shared about our son with search committees and he was never asked about balancing time for family.

I was also asked if I would be on my husband’s health insurance.  My husband was never asked about being on mine. There was an automatic assumption that my husband was “head of household” and would need to carry health insurance for the family; there was an automatic assumption that there might be “savings” for the church should I not need health insurance.  Also, most churches did not ask about maternity leave (the last church, the church I am called to now, did, and there was no issue about writing a maternity leave policy into my contract that was satisfying to both me and the congregation).

But what really struck me were the number of churches that turned me down because I was a woman and they didn’t feel their congregation was ready for a woman. In an age of declining mainline churches, it still surprises me (it probably shouldn’t, but it does) that congregations would opt for a near-retirement clergyman over a clergywoman.  Most of the time the response to me was “we decided to go a different direction,” but I learned from friends involved in the region that was code for “we liked you but our church isn’t ready for a woman yet.”

With over 70% of seminary graduates in mainline traditions being women, and with many of our congregations declining, this is one more sign that our churches still are not ready to accept change, the necessary life-giving change that is needed. And in the free-church tradition where we don’t have appointments made but the congregations are free to call whom they choose, there needs to be more guidance and training of search committees as well as regional staff ready to equip them. Lastly, there needs to be clear communication in the form of personal visits and interactions from regional staff with congregations themselves on the necessity of calling capable women into ministry. Yes, there are good, capable clergymen. But statistics are showing that there is a greater number of women out there, so therefore there is a greater number of competent clergywomen to lead.

Let’s face it: until congregations begin calling more women, the pool of capable clergymen is going to dwindle and churches will be stuck with the same names in the same search pools over and over and over again; meanwhile, many women called by God are still unemployed and without a congregation to serve.  It’s time to break through.