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Female clergy members face challenges

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By Molly Rossiter

The Gazette

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The Rev. Brenda Peconge is asked quite often when she and her husband, Brian Middleswarth, will start a family.

She doesn’t necessarily mind the question, but she’s certain most of her male counterparts aren’t confronted with it. She’s also sure they aren’t asked about recipes, what they will bring to the church dinner or whether they will join a circle.

"I do think there tends to be a differing initial response to women clergy," said Peconge, 36, pastor at Holy Redeemer Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids. "People have certain cultural expectations of women that are fairly well ingrained, (like) motherhood, which sometimes seem to lead them to viewpoints and opinions that they would not have of men."

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Peconge is one of a growing number of women filling lead roles in churches and temples across the country. In 1977, there were 1,311 women in lead positions in eight faith groups such as Lutheran and Reform Jewish congregations, which starting ordaining women during that period. By 2000 there were 16,994 in those groups, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Hartford, Conn.

Despite the passage of 30 years, many female clergy say they are still confronted with gender stereotypes. Most assumptions are well-meaning, pastors say, but reflect attitudes that differ from those toward male clergy.

"With male clergy, there was this kind of reality that the pastor’s spouse was automatically a member of the worship team," said the Rev. Linda Livingston, pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church in Marion.

Pastors’ wives have long served as Sunday school teachers, secretaries and Bible study leaders and in other roles.

"For pastors’ wives, at least in my experience growing up, there was a lot of responsibility placed on them, but the congregation didn’t really know what to do with the clergy’s spouse when it was a man," said Livingston, 57. "If you were the wife of a minister, you understood that your husband was on call 24/7."

Peconge came to Holy Redeemer seven years ago and followed a male pastor.

"Here it was just an issue of getting to know each other, and that happened fairly quickly," she said.

Peconge said residents in metro areas, such as Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, have a more open attitude toward women in pastoral roles. Still, she said, people in general can’t help but look at female pastors differently.

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"For most people, they have a pretty good historical sense of what a male pastor is, and it takes a while longer for them to see them as ’just a guy,"’ she said.

One thing Livingston said she noticed when she was called to Ascension was that the congregation was "very interested in wanting me to take care of my husband when I got here and was very concerned with my time, being very respectful of making sure I had family time."

Livingston, mother of four — two of whom have gained fame as actors, Ron and John; a third, Nick, who is pursuing a film career; and Jennifer, who’s a TV news anchor — still had a child at home when she started the job.

"They definitely wanted their woman pastor to be a good wife and mother, and they really didn’t have the expectations placed upon (husband) Kurt that churches placed on pastors’ wives," she said.

Livingston welcomed the concern for her family that her congregation expressed.

She was the first female pastor to serve at Ascension, where she has been for all 10 years of her ministry.

The Rev. Elizabeth Coulter is "semiretired" from New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, a church she helped create in 1994. Because it was a new church, Coulter wasn’t confronted with pre-existing attitudes about male clergy from her congregation.

"When a new church opens, you never hear, ’Oh, we used to do it this way,’ so that kind of helps," the 64-year-old said. "Just because it was a new start, I think, made a lot of difference in how a woman was perceived, what the expectations were."

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Coulter encountered mixed reactions, however, while traveling throughout Eastern Iowa to visit with Episcopal churches about the new church. One congregation, she said, was "hostile" about the idea of a woman being there and being ordained.

"I would be fairly certain to this day they would not call a woman," she said.

Regardless, Coulter said her denomination has made strides. In Iowa, 51 percent of Episcopal priests are women, she said, and last year the Episcopal Church named Katharine Jefferts Schori of the state of Nevada as its first female presiding bishop.

Coulter sees the trend slowing, however, and it bothers her. There are now 11 female bishops across the country in the Episcopal Church, Coulter said. And it’s been five years since Schori was named a state, she said.

"I think women are a little reluctant to put themselves up to ’run’ as bishop, as it were, to put their name in a diocese that is looking for a bishop, because they are not likely to be called," she said. "I’m a little disappointed that it’s slowed down."

According to the Association of Theological Schools, which collects information from 251 seminaries in the United States and Canada, 36 percent of students in seminary last year were women. Many religious groups still don’t allow women to be ordained, though, mostly because of custom, tradition and or theological rulings.

"I think those denominations deny themselves a lot of things women can bring to the ministry," Peconge said. "It’s unfortunate that they close themselves off to that."

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