The Right Reverends

By Maria Mallory White

After a recent worship service at Branches United Methodist Church in Florida City, Fla., pastor Audrey B. Warren returned to the sanctuary to turn off the lights. There, draped in Warren’s stole and with the microphone in hand, was 4-year-old Cassandra.

“I didn’t catch what she was saying, but I have to believe that she was ‘playing pastor,’” Warren recalls. “If that is not progress ... I don’t know what is. How amazing for young girls to dream of being pastors.”

Don Rees
Elizabeth Hagan prepares to baptize parishioner Steve Robinson last March.

At 26, Warren herself belongs to a distinct minority: young women who are lead pastors.

She is among recent female graduates who, with newly minted Duke Divinity master of divinity degrees in hand, have moved quickly from seminary student to local church pastorates. In addition to Warren D’08, there’s 29-year-old Elizabeth Evans Hagan D’06, who serves as senior pastor of Washington Plaza Baptist Church in Reston, Va., and 25-year-old Meghan Good D’09. Just two months after graduating last May, Good began leading Albany Mennonite Church in Albany, Ore.

A Hopeful Trend

Reflecting a hopeful trend, these clergywomen—navigating denominational bias, interpreting the biblical role of women, and resisting age and gender-based stereotypes— are leading churches.

In the process, they are swimming against the ecclesial tide. Female clergy lead only about 8 percent of U.S. churches, reports Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religion, and divinity at Duke University, and director of the National Congregations Study. Since women serving as head clergy are more likely working at congregations with smaller memberships, only about 5 percent of American churchgoers worship at churches led by female pastors, according to Chaves.

To be sure, the numbers have risen in some denominations. In 2006, Chaves notes that 22.8 percent of United Methodist, 22.5 percent of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and 20.6 percent of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations were led by women. That compares in 1998 with 16.5 percent UMC, 12.6 percent ELCA , and 15.4 percent PCUSA .

Still, Chaves discloses, despite the rapid influx of women into M.Div. programs in the past decades, as a group female M.Div. enrollment peaked in 2002 and since has begun to decline.

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