Pat McKinstry has been preaching the Gospel for more than 50 years.
An engaging preacher who would later be recognized among the country’s most dynamic by the magazine Gospel Today, a young Ms. McKinstry began serving as an evangelist within the Church of God in Christ when she was just 11 years old. She took on the role of pastor within the United Methodist Church in the late ’80s, and, in 2008, opened her own church, Worship Center, on Collingwood Boulevard. She’s been sharing the same Bible-based message from that pulpit ever since.
PHOTO GALLERY: A service at the Worship Center
In 2015, the Rev. McKinstry took on a new role: bishop.
It’s a significant title for a woman, who, when she was beginning her ministerial career in her childhood denomination, would not have been able to serve even as a pastor. While she doesn’t believe her gender influences her interactions with her congregation at Worship Center, she said, life in ministry hasn’t always been that way.
“Years ago, there were some places where they didn’t appreciate women in the pulpit,” she said. “I didn’t let that bother me. Just give me a space on the floor.”
It’s a relatable experience for many women who entered the clergy at a time when a female preacher fell outside the norm for the communities they served. The Rev. Ann Marshall, of St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church in Norwalk, Ohio, recalled that her first assignment in the 1990s was the first time that her congregation in Indiana was assigned a woman. When a congregant complained that she made “too many changes” there, he memorably attributed it to her gender.
It’s an experience that Bishop McKinstry and Pastor Marshall said they have encountered less frequently over the years, as, even in the course of their own ministries, they’ve seen attitudes shift and congregations adjust to increasing numbers of women in clergy positions.
Women in religious leadership have come a long way in a relatively short time.
As a percentage of Protestant senior pastors, their numbers have tripled within the last 25 years, according to a 2016 Barna study. (Barna Group is a research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture.) That’s even as ordained female ministers remain significantly outnumbered by men: They account for just 9 percent of Protestant senior pastors.
And while some leadership positions remain out of reach for women of some faiths — Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, and, in some contexts, Islam, to name a few — two local scholars in Catholic and Islamic traditions suggest more shifts could be afoot.
At the First Presbyterian Church of Perrysburg, the Rev. Margaret Fox, who was ordained in January, suggested she’s already reaping the benefits of changing attitudes within religious circles.
“I think that I have been, in a large way, shielded from what women who were in the generation before me had to just battle with constantly,” she said. “I’ll talk to women who are 20, 30, 40 years older than I am about their early experience in ministry, and it’ll feel like they had endured a great deal to be here.
“There’s certainly a long way to go still,” she continued, “but I think there’s not a legitimacy question in the same way that there used to be.”
Instances of female ordination stretch to at least the 1860s, when a Universalist church notably ordained Olympia Brown. (That denomination later merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.) But, while the Universalists were not alone in its early acceptance of female ministers, they and other denominations did not see a significant movement toward women in the pulpit until much later.
The Rev. Sarah Lammert, who is the interim chief operating officer for the Unitarian Universalist Association, said the denomination particularly saw a trend of women turning to ordained ministry in the ’70s. That was around the same time that the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America opened full ordination to women. The United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church USA each had done so in the 1950s.
Buddhism, in some respects, saw a similar pattern, said the Rev. Karen Do’on Weik, a Soto Zen priest who, with her husband, co-founded the Greater Heartlands Buddhist Temple of Toledo. While there are no restrictions against women’s ordination in that tradition, which is comparatively less institutionalized than Protestant Christian denominations, she said, “it’s only in the last 50 years that we’ve had any weight and gravity in the direction of women being ordained and recognized as teachers.”
This shift within religious circles coincided with a broader social shift, said Peter Feldmeier, who is the Murray/Bacik Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo. Movements toward female ordination didn’t reflect a theological change within the denominations, he said, so much as a change within the historically patriarchal social values that had given rise to the religious traditions.
“I think it’s been a modern response to insights in the feminist movement, probably, and modernity in general,” he said.
While several denominations reported more men than women are active as ordained ministers locally, the numbers are closer than they once were. The local offices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Methodist Church and United Church of Christ each reported one-quarter to one-third of their ordained ministers in the region are female. About one-third of Presbyterian churches in the area are served by women, according to the Maumee Valley Presbytery.
The Unitarian Universalist Association stands out in nationally counting more ordained female than male ministers. As of 2016, 60 percent of its active clergy were women.
The Rev. Lynn Kerr, of the Maumee Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bowling Green, said that, when she was considering a career shift in her late 20s, it was easy to see herself as a pastor.
Pastor Kerr was raised Catholic and briefly attended a Mennonite church with a friend as a child. So when she was introduced to a Unitarian Universalist congregation as a college student in the ’80s, she recalled, “that was the first time I had seen a woman in the pulpit.”
“It was inspiring to see that,” she said.
Despite their progress, women continue to face limitations in some denominations.
The Barna study indicates that just 44 percent of nonmainline pastors reported that their denomination, church network, or congregation ordains women for senior pastoral leadership, compared to essentially all mainline pastors, according to the study. (Baptist, Episcopal Church, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and United Church of Christ denominations are typically considered mainline.) Levels of comfort with a woman in the pulpit vary by denomination, with evangelicals expressing the least comfort and, perhaps surprisingly, Catholics registering a slightly higher comfort level than Protestants surveyed.
While a woman can serve as a rabbi or cantor in most branches of Judaism, it is not permitted under Orthodox Judaism, according to the Rabbinical Council of America. And within some branches of Hinduism, a woman might be restricted in some cases from performing specific rituals, said Pandit Anant Dixit of the Hindu Temple of Toledo.
The Hindu tradition, though, is “flexible and adaptive,” as Pandit Dixit explained. He said, in some cases, female priests today are taking on what would have been considered male-specific roles in the past.
Within Islam, it’s modesty and not theology that typically prevents a woman from kneeling in prayer as an imam in front of a mixed-gender group of worshipers, said Fatima Al-Hayani, an Islamic studies scholars. A woman could lead prayer as an imam in front of an all-female group without this concern.
Ms. Al-Hayani also said she anticipates this will change under the next generation of Muslims.
“Change doesn’t come very fast,” she said. “It comes slowly, in increments.”
The Catholic Church is particularly prominent in barring women from ordination, citing in part the apostolic succession that church leaders believe Jesus established in designating 12 male followers as his apostles.
“At least for the Catholic Church, the role of ordained priesthood is seen as being in the image of Christ Jesus and following his appointment of men who were apostles and then priests for the church,” said Bishop Daniel Thomas, of the Diocese of Toledo, describing a position on which Pope John Paul II came out strongly in the ‘90s and which has been reiterated by subsequent popes. “The Church does not believe she can change the teaching and the action of Christ himself.”
The doctrine is not without its challengers within the Catholic Church. Professor Feldmeier also noted that, under Pope Francis, a commission is considering whether women could fill leadership positions as deacons.
Among the local challengers to the Catholic Church’s policy on women’s ordination: the Rev. Beverly Bingle and the Rev. Sydney Joan Condray, each of whom considers herself an ordained Catholic priest.
The Rev. Bingle, who was ordained in 2013 through Roman Catholic Womenpriests, presides over Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Toledo. The Rev. Condray, who was ordained through the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, does not have immediate plans to open a church.
The Catholic Church does not recognize either organization and excommunicates those who participate in the ordination of women. Roman Catholics account for about 21 percent of religious adherents in America, according to the most recent study through the Pew Research Center, second only to the about 47 percent who belong to the various Protestant denominations.
The Rev. Condray, 78, has been a devout Catholic since she attended Mass for the first time as a college student in the 1950s. When she began to think about priesthood in the ’80s, she said, she initially considered converting to Episcopal or Lutheran traditions, which would have allowed her to pursue ordination.
But, she said, “somehow or another, it didn’t feel like home.”
She later learned about the Association of Catholic Women Priests and, on June 10, was ordained at a ceremony at Sylvania United Church of Christ. While she said she “respects and appreciates the responsibility of the official leadership” of the Catholic Church, she disagrees with its policy on women’s ordination.
“I expect it to change, but I don’t expect it to change within my lifetime,” she said. “It takes the leadership a long time to make changes that really are necessary.”
“After all, it only took them 400 years to decide that Galileo was right.”
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