Breaking Barriers: Women Pastors May Be Paving Way for Gay, Lesbian Leaders

The long struggle for women to break the stained-glass ceiling in houses of worship may be easing the way for openly gay and lesbian leaders, new research indicates.

Congregations that allow women to be head clergy are nearly twice as likely to accept gays and lesbians as members.

And the odds of congregations being open to gays and lesbians as leaders are three times greater in congregations that permit women pastors than in congregations that do not allow women to be head clergy, researcher Andrew Whitehead found in analyzing data from the 2006-2007 National Congregations Study.

“Greater numbers of female clergy, or greater numbers of congregations that allow for women to be head clergy, could lead to a greater level of acceptance of gays and lesbians as members or leaders,” Whitehead writes in an article on “Gender, Homosexuality and Inequality Within Religious Congregations” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Close to half of all congregations in the 2006-2007 National Congregations Study allowed women to be head clergy, while 37 percent of congregations accepted gays and lesbians in committed relationships as members. Just 19 percent allowed gays and lesbians to be leaders.

Whitehead, director of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, found a congregation’s openness to women pastors was significantly associated with its acceptance of gays and lesbians. The relationship remained significant even when taking into consideration factors such as religious tradition and theological conservatism.

The findings suggest the possibility that barriers broken in one area of congregational life could lead to greater equality in others. Simply focusing on creating equality in a dimension such as women clergy could make congregations more inclusive across the board, Whitehead notes.

What may be less clear is how influential women clergy will be in advocating for greater acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Some research has shown clergywomen are more likely than male clerics to speak out for gay rights. And, Whitehead says, “Usually female clergy are much more open and inclusive of gays and lesbians and really any group of disadvantaged” individuals.

In their book “Leadership That Fits Your Church,” US CLS researchers Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce note that women clergy are more likely to be “transformational” leaders, pastors who work in a collaborative way with congregants to help worshipers think about issues in new ways.

However, it can also be more difficult for women clergy to address controversial issues because for many church members having a woman pastor is a major change in itself. More than male clergy, women pastors may face a greater need to prove themselves and gain acceptance before pushing for new directions in an area such as gay rights.

To illustrate the difference, a married, male pastor generally comes into a congregation with “four aces,” cards he can play to deal with conflict or push for change in a congregation, Woolever says.

“Coming in as a woman, you’ve already got a couple of cards down on the table,” she says.

But times are changing.

The percentage of women clergy in mainline Protestant churches increased from 20 percent in the 2001 U.S. Congregational Life Survey to 28 percent in the 2008-2009 survey. The 2012 National Congregations Study found nearly three in ten U.S. congregations permit gays and lesbians in committed relationships to hold volunteer leadership positions, a major increase from the 19 percent of congregations in 2006-2007 that allowed such opportunities.

As more congregations embrace different forms of leadership, that may well open more doors for women clergy and gay and lesbian leaders.