Growing number of women taking roles as church leaders

When others asked Kara Wischmeyer what she did for a living she told them she was a beautician. It was true. Sort of.

“I beautify God’s world,” she would elaborate.

Wischmeyer gave that answer to avoid the surprised faces she so often saw when she named her actual profession.

For years, Wischmeyer served as a priest. Now, she’s leaving her role to become a full-time mom, a title she considers her most important call from God.

But she said she heard another calling when she was 9 years old: to become a church leader.

Wischmeyer is one of a growing number of women who have taken roles as church leaders. Once, that was all but impossible. Now more and more women are becoming ministers, priests, pastors and rabbis.

According to a recent study by the Barna Group, a religious research company, the number of women senior pastors increased from 5 percent in 1999 to 10 percent in 2009.

Despite the increases, local female church leaders say they’ve faced their fair share of challenges to get where they are. But whether these women have paved the way so that more young women can serve as religious leaders remains unclear.

As with most career paths, women have been rising in religious ranks as leaders, and while many agree conditions are improving, a glass ceiling still exists.

Often women are placed in small or poor churches and as a result receive lower salaries. The Barna Group found that the average male senior pastor’s salary is $48,600, in contrast to the average female senior pastor who brings in $45,300 annually.

Many women say they also have to deal with a stigma that men don’t.

Rabbi Vicki Hollander now serves as the leader of Lubbock’s Congregation Shaareth Israel, but in 1979 she was one of nine women ordained as rabbis at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Today, those classes are now easily 60 percent female.

“In 31 years, there’s just been tremendous growing,” she said.

As one of the first female rabbis, Hollander faced many challenges.

“When I entered seminary the prayer books were all masculine,” she said. Nothing had been changed to represent the new women leaders.

When she came to a new synagogue, the community was often surprised to see a woman at the altar. They expected to see a man and to hear a deep voice, she said.

Judy Shema, pastor at Agape Methodist Church, found herself in similar situations at the various churches she served. Once a man entered the office and asked if she was the secretary. She smiled and informed him she was the pastor.

Shema’s key to overcoming stereotypes is through never letting her gender become an issue. There may have been some disapproving eyes on her when she started at a new parish, but within a week she said she had proven herself.

Before she moved to Lubbock, a man at another congregation she served approached her and said, “Pastor, I have a confession. I opposed you because you’re a woman. But I want you to know that I love you very much.”

Now a new — and larger — group of women prepares to follow in her footsteps, training and studying to become religious leaders.

But Shema said she sees a difference in these women from those of her own generation.

“They seem so courageous and bold,” she said. “I’m more cautious than maybe what they have to be.”

She believes that the obstacles she and others like her overcame paved a way for the new generation, bringing on their brave attitude.

But despite the advances, Hollander said she’s not sure it will result in a further increase of the number of women church leaders. Today’s young women considering ministry as a career have a deeper understanding of what life as a church leader means, the pros and cons, whereas as pioneers Hollander’s and her female classmates had no idea what life held in store for them.

“It was so new 30 years ago, we didn’t even know the questions to ask,” she said. “This generation is asking more questions.”

But these are the same questions men are asking too, Hollander added. It’s a more even playing field now.

Despite the hostility the women say they’ve faced, Wischmeyer, Shema and Hollander agree that throughout their career path they have met many supportive men and women.

“I think people in the parishes are so hungry for real, authentic and spiritual,” Wischmeyer said. “They want someone who walks close to God and will help them walk close to God.”

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