One Sunday morning during coffee hour a parishioner and I were talking about our children’s ministry when we were interrupted by a five year old girl who had something to tell me. As usual she was articulate, brilliant, and charmingly hilarious. Afterward I said to the parishioner that the girl was “leadership material in the making.” In response he commented on the challenges of women in leadership and the difficulty his boss encounters because people say she is “bossy.”

Eighteen years ago, when I first discerned a call to ordained ministry, I was determined to not work in a parish. I had enough experience with church dynamics to know that ordained women navigate a terrain of obstacles. God, however, had other plans. Ordained fourteen years, I have spent all of it in parish ministry.

My early assessment of parish ministry was an accurate read on the challenges ordained women encounter. However, serving as a parish priest has brought me more emotional, spiritual, and professional growth than any other career choice I might have made. I have been challenged to understand myself and others at a deep level. I’ve grown in and through conflict and the subsequent effort to stay in relationship with others. I have grown by the need to sometimes let relationships go, because others have chosen to leave. I have grown in skill and wisdom and compassion. By virtue of being women clergy, in the paradigm of Christian patriarchy, our very presence is a challenge to the status quo.

Christian denominations are essentially “masculine” in their “sexual orientation.” The world has been organized around the premise that men hold the standard for what is “normal” in psychological development, in medicine and physical health, and in corporate and parochial leadership. Traditional religion holds a negative view toward human sexuality, women’s in particular. Society sexualizes women in commercials, advertisement, television, literature, and movies. Girls are valued because they are pretty. Women and girls receive affirmation for appearances, it’s a social norm to say “You like nice.” Appearances rarely define who men are. Sexuality and gender are used interchangeably, although they mean different things. Gender is understood as the sex we are, but sometimes that is not clear. One can be look one gender but identify as another or both. Sexuality is our quality of being sexual, and that too can take many forms. Regardless, in a patriarchal world, female is always “other,” the antithesis of “normal” male. (For more on this, refer to research by Carol Gilligan and her book, “In A Different Voice”).

Over the last four years I have noticed an increase in the reports of clergy, particularly women, from all denominations, who are experiencing congregational conflict. A recent article by William Doubleday, printed on the Episcopal Café blog addresses this growing concern. (March 10, 2013, The Episcopal Café). Even more recently a resolution passed at the Diocesan Convention in Newark, NJ addresses the issue of congregational bullying of clergy. (Diocesan Resolution 2014_AC140_03: Dignity at Work). Ordained women seem to have become a particular target for systemic anxiety in our worshiping communities.

Generally congregational conflict involves a pull to restore some level of homeostasis that has been disrupted by change. Simply because we are women and clergy, we present a change in what leadership looks and sounds like. I’ve been told that people can’t “hear” me because I “speak in a higher range” than men. I’ve also been told my hair is too long, in my face, and people can’t “see” me.

Responding to the anxiety aroused (unconsciously ?) by having different leadership “faces” and “voices,” people complain about small details. Over time the small details may pile up until they seem to be insurmountable problems.

The root cause of the anxiety is multi-layered. For example, ideologically people may say they “want” justice and equality. Yet, when challenged by leadership that looks or sounds different than one is used too, an unspoken, perhaps unconscious anxiety is aroused. Additionally, skepticism for voices of authority and institutions is on the rise. Anxiety that is external to church policy and practice, such as personal worries over finances, health, children, marriages, and retirement, is increasing. According to a poll published in USA Today on Nov. 30, 2013, there is an increasing lack of trust among two-thirds of all people in the United States. Lack of trust, growing skepticism, changing paradigms of leadership, and other life challenges have created a society of fear, anger, and reactivity.

Managing the anxiety manifested by an individual or a system undergoing change or conflict requires knowledge and compassion. Managing anxiety requires the ability to move through the initial reactivity into a more reasoned perspective. Managing congregational anxiety in hierarchical systems requires the upper leadership to have the skills to support clergy and congregations through conflict. Sometimes homeostasis, “normalcy,” is restored by firing the clergyperson. This, however, is usually not a healthy approach, nor a long term solution. (I am not referring to clergy misconduct). It is crucial that upper levels of denominational leadership understand congregational dynamic and conflict and are able to support the clergy and the congregation as they move through the issues and anxiety. All too often upper leadership sides with the anxiety and ends it prematurely, usually at the expense of the clergyperson.

Managing anxiety requires self-differentiation; clarity about one’s values, beliefs, and principles (see Lombard Mennonite Peace Center). Managing anxiety requires a commitment to stay in relationship with the other, honoring the integrity of each person. Navigating conflict can be transformational and sacred, building trust and deepening relationship. However, transformational relationships require stamina.

Women are physical beings. Because of our reproductive cycles and birth process we learn how to breathe through pain. Thus women bring a unique strength to the transformation God is calling us to lead. The “curse of Eve” is our strength, a gift from God. May our laboring through the birth pangs of new life bring forth a new paradigm, wherein being a “bossy” girl is valued as good leadership.


RevGals thanks Terri Pilarski, who is pictured in the feature image, for this guest post. If you have an idea for an essay on the intersection of church and public life, send an email to Martha Spong at revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

18 thoughts on “The Pastoral is Political – Bossy Girls and the Church

  1. I love the connection you make between giving birth to something new and breathing through the pain to do it. I had nice drugs for the birth of my own child, but have given birth to other things, and the pain is always there. I love the connection — that has a lot of resonance, for me.


  2. Great piece, Terri. You articulate well the complexities and subtleties of conflict, and the subtexts and manifestations of anxiety that arise. Ditto what revmaryaustin says about birth and breathing. Instead of “dealing with,” women seem better equipped to work through the situations you describe above. That capacity is more about transformation than problem-solving, which is what the church is about, ultimately! Thank you for this.


  3. I love this post. I think this pastor is dead-on both about the process of clergy scapegoating she describes, the sexism undertones and the compassionate strategies she recommends. I am amazed that I have experienced verbatim some of the exact criticisms she has and I’m a new pastor!

    A must read for church leaders.

    Marisa Brown Ludwig Associate Pastor First Church of Christ UCC Longmeadow, Ma

    Sent from my iPhone



  4. This pastor is right on. She has captured with deep insight a group social process I have witnessed in churches a a female lay leader and now as a pastor.

    I admire her clear description of a clergy scapegoating process during church change points, the underlying sexist content that can further harm and confuse pastors, and also her compassionate strategies to deal with this. They will only work, though, if lay leadership and pastors together can maintain these kinds of powerful, authentic and faithful relationships. We all need help to leap in trust with God.


    1. I have found the work with the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center on Clergy Family Systems and Congregational Mediation to be helpful – the more work I do to clarify myself and not get hooked by the anxiety of others the better I am able to navigate the complexities of congregational life and leadership. Helping others to gain insight into their own behaviors and how they influence the congregational angst is useful.


  5. Excellent essay. Definitely “been there, done that.” In addition to the Sandberg book, I could mention “The Confidence Code” which our book group of clergy women read recently.


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