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Closing the Gap

Despite progress, the gender gap among Baptist pastors remains persistent.

In recent weeks two prominent progressive Baptist churches moved to call well-known Baptist pastors. Notably in both calls the pastors are women. Riverside Church in New York City is set to call Amy Butler, and Watts Street Baptist, Durham, N.C., called Dorisanne Cooper.

Calling women to larger, more prominent congregations signals another shift in the 50-year history of women’s growth in pastoral leadership in the United States. Baptists have lagged behind the trend, yet Baptists are also slowly closing the gender gap.

Dorisanne Cooper - Alliance Convocation 2013
Rev. Dorisanne Cooper preaches at the Alliance of Baptists Convocation (2013)

Among the most significant changes to religion in America in the past 50 years is growing leadership of women as pastors, priests, rabbis, CEOs of religious nonprofits, theological educators and denominational heads. Fifty years ago virtually no women were pastors of congregations in America.

In 1964, Addie Davis became the first Southern Baptist woman to be ordained to ministry. Her ordination came from Watts Street church, where Cooper is set to begin as pastor this summer. Davis served most of her career among American Baptists, who ordained women earlier, but did not begin calling women as pastors in any substantial numbers until the 1960s. That trend is similar across other mainline churches. Today the number of female pastors in mainline denominations stands between 20 percent and 30 percent.

The impact of women’s religious leadership in America has not yet been sufficiently analyzed. Several studies are currently underway, including an ecumenical and longitudinal study of ministry that is tracking 25 women (and 25 men) from seminary through first-call and beyond. To understand the impact of women’s leadership in American churches, however, a good first step is to understand more about the gender gaps and why they are so persistent.

Gender gap

A survey of women’s leadership, pay and advancement in business and the professions today reveals an ongoing “gender gap.” The gap remains significantly larger in religious leadership than other professions. Reasons for the gap are numerous and interlinked with other subtle and overt forms of discrimination based on race, class and sexuality. Digging into two persistent factors will help illuminate why closing the gap is so challenging.


The gender gap is fueled by what Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg calls the “ambition gap” and results in lower pay and slower (or no) advancement for women. This ambition gap is not merely the lack of desire by women to accomplish, succeed or lead, however. The gap is also connected to the often-studied (and contested) social difference in likeability between successful men and successful women.

Several studies find that the more powerful and successful men are, the more they are liked. Conversely, the more powerful and successful women are, the more they are disliked. Successful women work against this bias in a variety of ways, building likability by building trust and showing genuine concern. Successful women also navigate the inevitable resistance to their leadership. Men face similar challenges, yet they are penalized less for their success. Often the likeability gap leads to fewer promotions or career advancements for women. In churches, this means moving to a second church assignment or moving from associate to senior pastor are steeper challenges for women than men.

Promise vs. accomplishment

Women are hired and promoted based on their accomplishments. Men are hired and promoted more often based on their promise or potential for accomplishment. An often-heard argument in pastor search processes: women are not “ready” (experienced enough) to be hired by big churches. Yet those same churches will hire a man in his early 30s with less experience because he shows promise of good leadership.

Women overcome large social and psychological barriers — jumping the likeability gap and the accomplishment gap — when they move successfully into leadership. In ministry settings the move is even more daunting because the gender gaps are more deeply entrenched. Gender bias is bolstered by scriptural interpretations, the long history of women’s roles as supporters (rather than leaders) and the inertia of institutions. Churches and religious institutions are designed to resist innovation, and women’s pastoral leadership remains an innovation in many churches, even progressive ones like Riverside and Watts Street.

Closing the gap

Many of the social and psychological barriers that create the gender gap remain hidden, unconscious or implicit. In other words, such barriers are not easy to see or correct. This point was driven home to me recently when I took a short quiz at Project Implicit, an ongoing Harvard study of hidden biases. Despite years of working on issues of women’s leadership in religion and my conscious belief in equality, I still came up “moderately associating” women with family and men with work. I demonstrated gender bias. The online test highlights how implicit bias rests outside our observable awareness by measuring in milliseconds how we react and make associations.

The only known pathway to change implicit gender bias is to see and experience more women in leadership, allowing visualization and normalization of women’s leadership as pastors. The power of visualizing and normalizing successful or effective women leaders challenges bias across all professions. Failing to see women’s work of ministry keeps the gender gaps in ambition, pay and advancement in place for churches. In other words, news coverage of stories like Cooper’s and Butler’s are essential for changing implicit gender bias in ministry.

Among moderate and progressive Baptists, Cooper and Butler, and others, are already leaders, widely-known and well-networked, preaching at Baptist meetings, blogging and serving in denominational roles. A growing ecology of networked connections is also key to advancing beyond a first pastoral call for women in Baptist life.

For nearly a decade Pam Durso and I have continued to track trends in women’s leadership in moderate and progressive Baptist circles. Durso’s list of pastors stands at 160, expanding more than 10-fold since 1986, when there were 14. Women currently pastor just over 5 percent of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregations, nearly 30 percent of Alliance of Baptist congregations, and almost 10 percent of American Baptist churches.

To be sure, Butler likes to tell a story of an early defining moment in her ministry when she was advised that she could either make her work about women’s advancement in the pastorate, or she could just do her work as pastor. She says, “I try not to be defined by my gender.” Although she prefers to defocus on concerns over women’s progress, she, Cooper and scores of others are the inheritors of women’s advocacy in the last five decades. They are also the leaders, who by their very presence, are closing the gender gap and changing the way we see the pastorate.

This article appeared originally as a commentary at the ABPnews/Herald.