National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2007

Ministering 'where the girls are'

Ordination may not be the answer for women called to serve

I have mixed feelings regarding women’s ordination for us Catholic women. Maybe I’m biased because I never felt much of a tug toward ordination myself, having always had a rewarding career as a professional laywoman working, not in parishes, but in an assortment of chaplaincies that have given witness to nonclerical ways of preaching and being church.

I fear that ordaining married men, which will probably happen first, with ordination of women following sometime thereafter, could cause ordination to be seen as the only legitimate vocational calling as is often the case in many Protestant denominations, which, because of this, sometimes seem to lack the depth and breadth of ministerial support, outreach and imagination that Catholics have.

Maybe I’m not entirely sold on women’s ordination because I’ve met so many ordained women who didn’t strike me as being helpful toward or supportive of non-ordained women, and who in the unfolding of their ministerial careers often seemed to have been caught up in the sort of hierarchical power struggle that as Christians we are called to challenge. And maybe I’m a bit leery of women’s ordination as “the answer” for women called to serve the church after many of my Protestant women friends and associates still struggle, often harder than I’ve ever had to, to find placements that fully employ their abilities and pay a living wage as ordained members of their denominations.

In a recent article headlined “Stained-Glass Ceiling Traps Female Clergy,” New York Times writer Neela Banerjee cites that only one in five ordained women find themselves leading or co-leading congregations. Those congregations are often poorer and smaller than those of their male counterparts, with only 3 percent of ordained women leading congregations with a Sunday average attendance of 350 or more.

I find it commendable and heartening that an ordained woman would take on a small and probably financially struggling parish as its main minister, as have many Catholic women religious and lay ministers over the years as pastoral administrators of small rural and urban “priest-less” parishes. I would also suspect that these ministries, being on the peripheries of power and prestige, are probably the places where the reign of God is unfolding most powerfully and authentically week after week. As a Catholic woman who for years also found herself handed pastoral assignments that were not desirable to priests, I can attest to the richness of those “undesirable placements,” as well as the independence I have been able to exercise in such ministries and the deep joy I received in trying to serve their people well.

Yet I can attest to the fact that not having much support from the home office, or a supportive group of peers in ministry with whom to meet, share and collaborate on a regular basis can slowly kill you, and that a well-educated woman with a master of divinity degree can often feel lonely, isolated and misunderstood when working in areas where the majority of her parishioners do not share her level of education or her theological views. When I see the majority of ordained Protestant women assigned to these sorts of positions with questionable support and uncertain futures, I have to wonder about the advantages of ordination.

In my pastoral placements, I always received a living wage, although a modest one, with health care benefits, vacation time, educational stipends and professional guidance from the diocese in which I was serving. I can’t say that that has always been the case for my Protestant friends. Many of these women have had to piece together several ministry jobs to make ends meet, have had to do without health insurance, have received little denominational support or have had to make do with doing ministry on a part-time or even voluntary basis.

One of my friends had her ordination delayed for five years, partly, she suspects, because she was over 60 and her denominational board hinted that they were concerned about the numbers of “older women” that were applying for ordination. Another friend was ordained, but after two years still can’t find more than part-time work in youth ministry. Another friend does a half-time chaplaincy job on top of serving a small congregation because her congregation does not provide health insurance.

Many Protestant denominations “call” rather than assign a pastor, meaning that the congregation ultimately decides who will shepherd it, rather than a bishop assigning an individual to any given parish. Apparently men still get “called” more often than women do. Also, many congregations are far more autonomous than are Catholic parishes -- which can be a good thing as well as a bad thing. While Catholics usually receive health care benefits and other perks, sometimes subsidized by the diocese if the parish is financially strapped, many Protestant congregations do not have the means or the institutional structures to provide such benefits.

Still, the fact that ordained women are assuming “undesirable” positions, struggling to piece together enough finances to survive or going without adequate health care benefits while bringing their best to people who may not appreciate them fully are not adequate reasons to question women’s ordination. These ordained women are pioneers, and pioneers have always had to blaze an uncomfortable and costly trail countless times before that trail becomes the standard means of getting somewhere.

But I’m not so quick to assume that a denomination values women more or has done more for its women because it has made the choice to ordain them. Sometimes, I think ordaining women is a way of dismissing us, a quick and guilt-free fix to escape looking at the deeper issues that keep women from achieving their fullest potential by telling women to swim or sink in a religious system defined by men, playing by rules we didn’t make.

I am thankful for the women who came before me and made it possible for me to have more choices and opportunities. But I am hesitant to embrace the ordination of women as the answer to women’s advancement in the church. First of all, I can see from Protestant associates that the road toward equality, if equality ever fully happens, is going to be a long one. I think women’s advancement is in great part our own responsibility, and must be done among ourselves, in systems and in manners that are of our own making. Some women may be called to blaze trails, but others might be called to more immediate action on the home front.

The church needs both women and men, side by side, for the reign of God to unfold in its entirety. But I no longer think the ultimate or even desirable goal in ministry is ordination, or being “where the boys are.” Ultimately, what I really want at this point in life is to be “where the girls are,” to be with and of service to other women, especially those who are poor, vulnerable and without adequate resources to live lives that are anything more than a constant struggle. And sometimes the best way to be with the poor and vulnerable is to be a person walking as free as possible of the constraints of power, privilege and a title that is meant to carry authority. With those things tossed aside comes an inner authority that the people we are serving will recognize as lying within their own grasp.

I want more freedom to selectively align myself to male allies, and not to spend my remaining precious years pushing uphill against some man’s preconceived ideas of who I am or who I should be. I don’t want to waste time trying to take systems that were designed for and by men for a millennia, and squeeze myself into them like they were suits of the wrong shape and size. God bless any woman who feels called to ordination and heads down that long road. I think I’ll take a different route.

Karen O’Brien writes from Florida.

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2007