In my own denomination, women face different access to ministry opportunities at a structural level, along with harassment based on gender and race. An extensive research project conducted by PCUSA in 2016 reported on the status of women in the denomination. It found that despite the denomination being composed of 58 percent women, men are in official leadership positions at higher rates, while women are most often found serving in volunteer positions. Women are not only underrepresented as pastors and church officers, but the vast majority of women in pastoral leadership report having experienced gender-based discrimination, harassment, or bias. Women who are pastors of a certain age are asked about their family planning. People call the church and ask to speak to the pastor, and oftentimes promptly hang up when a woman comes on the line.
Women of color face additional obstacles in order to serve in a ministry that is a match for our talents and calling. Even when we do find a good fit, we can face ongoing struggles. It is a standing joke in our denomination that most people can’t tell the Asian American women pastors apart. We have been known to take a picture of our group at conferences, standing together with our nametags held up next to our faces.
Despite these challenges, women have learned to navigate these dynamics, serving in a variety of contexts. I know women in associate and senior pastor positions, the academy, campus ministries, parachurch organizations, and church-associated publications. I know women who began non-profit ministries for homeless women, and women who have started organizations to provide services to immigrant women escaping domestic violence. Some women actively work to change systems of misogyny, while others challenge the culture simply by virtue of being themselves in ministry wherever they are called.
A Calling Wider than I Imagined
I intended to do parish ministry—I wanted to serve a congregation. But it didn’t turn out that way. I turned down some positions in parish ministry, and some parish ministries turned me down. So, I have become, for the moment—because God’s ways are mysterious—a person ordained to ministry who serves outside of a congregational setting. First, it was with Asian American young adults and pastors, which later included Latinos and African Americans in our ministry. Then, I worked in leadership development with seminarians, new pastors, emerging scholars of color, and in and around theological education. Now I serve in religious publishing, relating with individual churches and the wider church.