Motherhood Penalty in the Pulpit

Recently on 60 Minutes, Leslie Stahl reported on Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s commitment to closing the wage gap between men and women in his company. I was impressed with Benioff’s decision to raise wages for women employees and create a fair work environment. If only all businesses and organizations were this committed, including religious institutions.

I hear comparable stories from women in ministry. Although things are slowly changing for women in denominations that ordain them, there is still a bias against women being pastors. There is also a separate set of expectations and pay level for women.

In an article in Christianity Today, Kate Shellnutt wrote, “In 2016, married women and moms with kids at home earned 72 cents for every dollar made by men in the clergy. Their pay gap—28 percent less than men—was twice as big as single women’s, which was 12 percent less, or 88 cents on the dollar.”

Stahl also spoke with Ellen Kullman, former CEO of DuPont about gender issues in the workplace. Kullman brought up the phenomenon called the motherhood penalty (she called it “mommy penalty”)—the unconscious bias against pregnant workers and working mothers. She told a story that reminded me of an experience I had when interviewing for a pastoral position.

At the time my first husband and I had two young children, ages seven and two. We were candidates for a co-pastorate. The search committee interviewed us together and then separately. During my interview one of the committee members asked what I would do if my two-year old wandered up to the pulpit while I was preaching. The first thought that came to my mind was, “Did you ask my husband the same question?” I kept my thought to myself and answered the question. I was also asked about who would take care of the children during worship and what I would do if they misbehaved.

My husband was the ideal candidate for most churches—thirty-something male, married with young children. I, on the other hand, was a questionable risk. The underlying assumption was that I would be distracted by my parental responsibilities, but my husband would not. What does that say about him as a father? What does it say about the Church? More important, what does it say about the Church’s theology?

Christians say that they place great value on family. If so, then why do they value mothers less than other women and even more so less than men? Unfortunately, the Bible and our traditions offer little help to change this mindset. Therefore, we need alternative theologies, including feminist theology; we need to hear the voices of those who have been marginalized by our sacred texts and traditions. We need to read and study the Bible through different worldviews. We need to lift up the contributions women have made to our faith, and value today’s female leaders for their unique perspective and gifts for ministry.

Mothers bring great value to pastoral ministry, a value that no one else can. We understand all too well what Jesus meant when he said he wanted to gather his children together like a mother hen gathers her chicks (Luke 13:34). We are nurturers and care-givers, organizers and leaders.

We have seen improvements for women in ministry. The wage gap is smaller, and women now hold more church offices than ever before. In recent years, women have been called to senior positions at large churches. However, we have further to go before we can pat ourselves on the back for being equitable and nonbiased. It takes men and women speaking up when they witness inequity. It takes intentionality in setting policies and salary standards. It takes more women in leadership, and a change of congregational culture.

To judicatory leaders: What policies and procedures need to be created to ensure equitable treatment for all pastors? What can judicatories do to create a shift in congregational culture so that pastoral candidates are considered for pastoral skills and gifts instead of gender and parental status.

To pastor search teams: What are the unconscious assumptions that you bring to the search for your next pastor?

To women clergy: What do you need to value yourself as worthy of the same respect and compensation as men? How can you be empowered to speak up against conscious and unconscious discrimination?

To those who recognize the gifts of all women and value them as equals: Thank you.

 

 

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