Can We Get An Amen? Struggle for More Women in Leadership in Religions

The role of women in leadership in religions around the world remains elusive. Billions of women across the globe reportedly follow the world’s major religions, yet leadership by women in these religions remains elusive and rare, in the United States in particular.The recent announcement by Pope Francis that he set up a commission to study the role of women deacons “raises hopes among equality campaigners that women could one day have a far greater say in the Roman Catholic Church,” according to Yahoo News.Pope Francis is the symbolic leader of 1.2 billion Catholics across the globe, a population of more than half of the 2.2 billion Christians. There are 1.2 billion Muslims globally, and that number of Muslims is expected to grow to 1. 8 billion by 2025, according to the Catholic Education Resource Center. By 2025, there will be an estimated 1.3 billion Catholics.So many religions, so many religious, so few women in leadership in religions.[bctt tweet=“So many religions, so many religious, so few women in leadership in religions.” username=“takeleadwomen”]Analyzing women in leadership positions in the major religions in this country, Aleksandra Sandstrom at Pew Research found it to be a rarity—a miracle even—if women held leadership positions at or near the top.“We looked at nine major religious organizations in the U.S. that both ordain women and allow them to hold top leadership slots. Of those organizations, four have had a woman in the top leadership position. And, so far, each of these four has had only one woman in the top position,” Sandstrom writes.“Currently, the American Baptist Churches USA and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are the only groups in our analysis with women in their top leadership positions. Susan Gillies is interim general secretary of the Baptist churches and Elizabeth Eaton is the presiding bishop of the Lutheran group,” Sandstrom writes.Some have none at all or only a few exceptions.“The Union for Reform Judaism, the central leadership arm of Reform Jewish congregations in the U.S., has never had a woman president. However, a woman, Denise Eger, serves as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the principal organization for Reform rabbis in the U.S. Additionally, another woman, Daryl Messinger, is the chair of the North American board of trustees, which is the top lay leadership post in the organization,” according to Sandstrom.“Likewise, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has never had a woman as its CEO, the professional leader at the head of the organization. However, a woman currently holds the office of the international president, a lay position. Margo Gold is the second woman to serve in this capacity,” she adds.At the recent World Islamic Economic Forum, Nita Yudi, Chairwoman of Indonesian Businesswomen Association, asserted that women need to be more involved not only with religious leadership, but also economic leadership.PR Newsire quoted Yudi: “Opportunities are still missed by women, due to poor support infrastructure. This is in spite of studies consistently showing companies that practice inclusion at the executive level generally outperform organizations with male-only boardrooms.“Muslim women in this country struggle not only with representation in Islam leadership, but in misperceptions about their faith and their roles as women in that faith.Janan Najeeb, president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition and director of the Islamic Resource Center on Milwaukee’s south side, told the Milwakuee Journal Sentinel, “But what we can do is we can try as much as possible to change the narrative, so any community that comes after us does not have to continue to go through this.”But why are women universally so under-represented in major religions?Clearly women compose a fair representation in congregations and among followers. So why are there not more women in leadership in these religions? Many point to an historic legacy that prohibited female leaders, or a newfound tradition that in modern times went back on gender equality from centuries ago.“The patriarchal nature of much of human society in recent millennia has meant that only extraordinary or outstanding women leaders have been noted and remembered,” wrote The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori , the former bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, in the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and Cultural Affairs at Georgetown University.Elected in June 2006 as the first female primate in the worldwide Anglican Communion, and retired in 2015, Schori wrote, “Women’s leadership has also tended to more broadly include the concerns of all members of the community. Community development workers know this in the maxim, ‘when women are empowered, the whole community flourishes.’ This is a reality for all varieties of women’s leadership… Religious leadership can also bring access to political leadership and systems needed to transform social injustice.”Donna Schaper writes in Religion Dispatches for the University of Southern California Annenberg Center, that in the 20th century many religious women became emboldened in this country and that their boldness became the norm.“On July 29, 1974, in Philadelphia, 11 women were ordained as the first female priests in the Episcopal Church. They became known as the ‘Philadelphia Eleven.’ While there was no law explicitly prohibiting the ordination of women, there also was no law allowing it. We continue to refer to this moment as the irregular ordination,” Schaper writes.“Two years later, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention voted to ordain women. It is great that the Pope is putting together a commission on women deacons, widely thought to be a possible route to women’s ordination to the priesthood,” she writes.Concerning Pope Francis’ recent decision to invite a study on women as deacons and women in top leadership positions in the Catholic Church, Joshua J. McElwee writes in National Catholic Reporter: “Fr. Karl-Heinz Menke, a commission member who is also a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission and a theologian at Germany’s University of Bonn, appeared to conclude that historical evidence of women deacons does not support ordaining women into the present-day diaconate. Yet he also argued for better inclusion of women in decision-making roles in the church, stating: ‘Gender equality is essential.’“McElwee continues: “In a 2013 paper in the Frankfurt-based journal Theologie und Philosophie (“Theology and Philosophy”), Menke stated: “There is clear evidence that from the third century onwards there were deaconesses. But it is equally incontestable that they were never regarded as having a sacramental office.“Franciscan Sr. Mary Melone, a commission member and the first woman president of the Pontifical University Antonianum in Rome,told McElwee: “When we women say it is important to be at the decision-making level, where the church consults about itself, it is not to occupy spaces of power.“Melone told McElwee: “Being present in the Vatican congregations is an important objective, but it is not the only result that women desire,” she said. “The essential thing is the awareness that women’s authority helps the church grow.”While this continues to be a discussion, little forward movement has happened to change the levels of women in leadership in religious organizations.“Everywhere the conversation about the role of women in leading religious communities involves the interpretation of sacred texts, the role of traditions, and the divine call of women,” according to Patheos.com in a discussion of women in religious leadership. “Despite decades of positive change toward gender equality in American society, women remain under-represented in leadership positions in most major faith groups.”Phyllis Zagano of Hofstra University, the author of many books and articles on women deacons, including her most recent book, Women Deacons?: Essays with Answers (Liturgical Press, 2016), writes in National Catholic Reporter: “There were women ordained as deacons in the early church. That is a historical fact. What they did, where they did it, and how they became deacons are all well-studied. The facts of history cannot be changed.”She adds, “So the real question the papal commission will study is whether women can be sacramentally ordained to the diaconate today. The major objections are twofold: Women deacons of history only ministered to other women and did not do what men deacons do; and women cannot receive the sacrament of orders because the female gender cannot image Christ.”Even so, modern religions need to reflect modern society, according to Zagano. “These ancient ministries carried forth by a believing church can again easily include women.”