Local Women Find Places for Leadership in Religion

They’re cracking the stained glass ceiling, proving faith is genderless.

Jennifer Clark (left) and Ann Hatfield at their home church, Westminster Presbyterian in West Chester//Photos by Tessa Marie Images

It’s an undeniable pull that many liken to a life’s calling. For Jennifer Clark, a summer ministry job at Yellowstone National Park was a turning point. There, she preached her first sermon—a memorable sunrise service with a canyon wall as the backdrop. “I began to entertain the thought that maybe God was calling me to be a pastor,” says Clark. 

Now the temporary associate pastor for spiritual growth at Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Chester, Clark majored in religion at Grove City College in north of Pittsburgh, with the goal of working in Christian education. Then she met with a Princeton Theological Seminary recruiter and decided on the ministry. Clark was ordained in 1982, serving several congregations before coming to Westminster in 2015. 

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Through the centuries, women have served congregations in a variety of ways —volunteering, teaching, cooking and caregiving. But actual ordination to the ministry has moved slowly. When Clarissa Danforth was ordained in 1815, it was only because her church, Free Will Baptist, was governed by a congregation that approved her ordination. Thirty-eight years later, Antoinette Brown Blackwell was ordained, but her Congregational Church denomination refused to recognize her. In response, Blackwell joined the American Unitarian Association, which did recognize her as a minister. 

For Episcopal deaconesses, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s stirred up feelings of oppression. They wanted to be treated the same as male deacons, with the ability to be ordained priests. At the church’s 1970 meeting of the General Convention, a group presented a resolution to approve women’s ordination to the priesthood and episcopate. The resolution failed. It was rejected again in 1973. 

Not wanting to wait another three years to present their case, 11 deaconesses took matters into their own hands. They found three retired bishops who agreed to ordain them. The service for the “Philadelphia 11” was held on July 20, 1974, at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. A year later, on Sept. 7, 1975, four more women, the Washington Four, were ordained priests at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church in Washington, D.C. The Episcopal Church approved ordination of women in 1976. 

Ann Hatfield

Ann Hatfield addresses the congregation at Westminister Presbyterian.

“Something was pushing me, urging me forward,” says Rev. Betty Powell, reflecting on the 40th anniversary of her dramatic ordination in 1975. “It was a day of great joy and trepidation. At first, my mother refused to attend because she thought it wasn’t right. There were threats of violence toward the participants, and I wasn’t sure if my new title of ‘priest’ would result in a job anywhere.”

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Those early leaders made a modern career path in ministry more welcoming to women. Some women enter the seminary right after college, while others follow a different path first. The associate pastor for pastoral care at Westminster, Ann Hatfield is a birthright Quaker who joined the Presbyterian Church when she married her husband, Jim. Her strong math and science skills had led her to study civil engineering at Johns Hopkins University. She worked in the field for seven years before leaving to take care of her mother. Always interested in education, social work and the ministry, Hatfield re-entered the working world as a teacher at her sons’ preschool. She entered Palmer Theological Seminary in 2003 as a part-time student and completed her Master of Divinity in 2009. Hatfield was ordained in 2011 and joined the staff at Westminster. 

The National Congregations Study, published by the sociology department at Duke University, found that the proportion of women in the role of solo or senior pastor has not changed since 1998. Even though most main line Protestant denominations in the U.S. allow women to pastor their churches, they lead only 11 percent of congregations. Still, that’s progress. A Religion News Service article reported that, in 2014, three women became solo or senior pastors at churches of significant size—Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner of Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, Rev. Amy Butler of New York City’s Riverside Church, and Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli of the Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.  

Today, roughly one in five Protestant seminarians are women. These women stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. No longer encumbered by the early barriers, they now enter the ministry with unbridled ambition. Some are intent on assuming the top leadership positions in their congregations. 

A final challenge for female clergy is one they share with all working women: pay equity. This year’s Church Law & Tax Compensation Handbook for Church Staff reported that male senior pastors receive 27 percent, or roughly $15,000, more than their female counterparts. 

Hatfield was always active in her family’s church, serving as a deacon, an elder and a clerk of session. It was fulfilling, but the clergy was constantly in the back of her mind. “Friends kept telling me I should become a minister,” she says. “Finally, I realized they were right.”

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