Status of Women Study Underway

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Author Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty

A church-wide study of the status of women on all levels of the PC(USA) is now underway. This will be good news to many advocates who invested time and energy in advancing the idea of the study or served on the task force that created the original design which was brought forward at the 220th General Assembly (2012). Download a PDF here.

A Long Time in the Making

The Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns (ACWC) originally began discussing a church-wide study of the status of women in 2004 and first brought forth a resolution to form a task force to design the study at the 217th General Assembly (2006). Lillian Oats, a member of ACWC at that time, introduced the idea to the committee after having seen a study done by the Episcopal Church. ACWC’s resolution failed in 2006 but passed at the 218th General Assembly (2008). However, the task force was not actually fully formed until 2010.


We know relatively little about the experience of women who serve churches as ruling elders, deacons, Christian educators, candidates for ministry, those who serve extra-parish ministries, or in other roles in congregations.

I served as the chair of the task force from 2010 through 2012. Other members included: Courtney Hoekstra, Associate for Advocacy Committee Support; Eric Johnson, Data Analyst; Deborah Kapp, Edward F. and Phyllis K. Campbell Associate Professor of Urban Ministry at McCormick Theological Seminary; Lois Gehr Livezey, Professor Emerita at McCormick Theological Seminary; Lillian Oats, former ACWC member; and Carmen Rosario, Interim Pastor of the First Spanish Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn. The service of Deborah Block, Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, and Patricia Petty Morse, ruling elder and former member of the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, should also be mentioned here. Deborah served as the first chair of the task force, but due to other commitments both Deborah and Patricia had to resign from the committee.

ACWC_Logo_400x400The task force worked together for about a year and a half to design the methodology for the study that was brought to 219th General Assembly (2010). The original design for this study included extensive analysis of data already gathered by Research Services of the PC(USA), 750 structured interviews of women serving in leadership positions on all levels of the church, and a theological consultation to create up-to-date materials to be used in local congregations. One of the main purposes of the study was to determine best practices in supporting women in ministry and to examine how intersecting dynamics of gender, race, ethnicity, and age impact the experience of religious leaders. None of the data collected at this point by the PC(USA) attends to significance of the intersecting dynamics of gender, race, ethnicity, and age.

Our proposal passed narrowly in the Social Justice Committee to which it was assigned, but failed on the floor, due primarily to the proposed cost and lack of funding. Of course, the failure of the original design for the study was a great disappointment. However, after the 219th General Assembly, I met on different occasions either in person or via conference call with several members of the PC(USA) staff to see what might be salvaged. Linda Valentine, Executive Director of the PC(USA), Rhashell Hunter, Director of Racial Ethnic and Women’s Ministries, and Deborah Coe, Research Services, played key roles in envisioning a more streamlined design for the study that could begin in 2014. These meetings resulted in the creation of a reduced budget for the study and a coordinating team, primarily made up of PC(USA) staff, that now oversees the process of analyzing existing data concerning the status of women and creating additional surveys. Another team is in the process of being formed that will plan a theological consultation to be held sometime in the fall of 2015.

What Will the Study Entail?

While the budget for the study has been reduced, the original essence and intent remains the same. The theological basis for the study is the model of church as a community of shared Jesus’ healing of the bent over woman from Luke 13 remains a powerful metaphor calling the church to be concerned about women who are undervalued, underpaid, and overburdened by responsibilities for caregiving.

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” — Luke 13:10-12 

The study will be comprehensive and conducted in two main research areas, sociological and theological. There are five main questions that the study seeks to explore:

  1. Where are women doing the work of leadership, and how do women define their own leadership within the PC(USA)?
  2. What is the status of women, relative to men, in the positions/areas of leadership in which they are working?
  3. What factors support/hinder women’s level of representation and participation in decision-making?
  4. In what ways are our perceptions of leadership in the church shaped not only by gender, but also by race, ethnicity, class, and age?
  5. How do our current definitions of leadership reflect the Reformed theological traditions of the church, and how do these definitions of leadership specifically impact women?
Jesus heals the bent-over woman
Jesus heals the bent-over woman

The sociological aspect of the study will focus on interpreting existing data concerning the status of women gathered by Research Services of the PC(USA) as well as information gathered in the past during group meetings sponsored by the “Deborah’s Daughters” project of the Racial Ethnic and Women’s Ministries unit. “Deborah’s Daughters” brought together women in small groups in twenty different presbyteries. Nancy Young began the project in 2010 and the work was continued by Nancy Benson-Nicol in 2013. In addition to analyzing existing data, both a comprehensive survey of women in leadership roles in the church will be conducted and a Presbyterian Panel survey will be created to investigate how perceptions of leadership in the church are shaped by the intersection of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and age. There is a new effort to engage in conversation with women in ministry through the Women’s Listening Visits led by Merri Alexander, the Senior Director for Strategic Partnership Development at Montreat Conference Center, and Jewel McRae, Associate for Women’s Leadership Development & Young Women’s Ministries.

A theological consultation will be planned for 2015 that will bring together at least eighteen theologians, both academic and those within congregations, who intentionally write and reflect out of women’s experiences for the purpose of bettering both church and society. The main goal of this consultation will be to produce a relevant, fresh, and innovative resource to assist church leaders in recognizing best practices to support women in ministry and a resource that will offer liturgical resources and rituals that speak to and emerge from women’s experiences.

Why We Need a Church-Wide Study of the Status of Women on All Levels of the PC(USA)

Church-in-the-Round-Letty RussellSome have wondered whether such a study takes away from mission work that address the needs of people living in poverty during a time of diminishing resources in the church. This issue was raised by a commissioner speaking on the floor of the General Assembly when the original resolution was debated. When the task force was in the midst of envisioning the original design, we concluded that what we know relatively little about the status of women leaders in the church because we have primarily limited our definition of leadership to women clergy. We know relatively little about the experience of women who serve churches as ruling elders, deacons, Christian educators, candidates for ministry, those who serve extra-parish ministries, or in other roles in congregations.

We also became very aware through our discussions and research that gaining access to ordination does not guarantee equal treatment of women – and that access for all women to serve as full partners in the church was gained slowly over time. Other denominations have conducted studies on the status of women’s leadership, but they recognize that their studies are now incomplete. New patterns for women’s leadership are emerging all the time and, in many cases, women are defining ministries for themselves. Women’s creativity and innovation in ministry is worth the church’s attention as we continue to challenge ourselves to be a “church in the round.”

What do you think are some key issues/questions that should be addressed by the church-wide study of the status of women on all levels of the PC(USA)? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!


Some additional resources and reading:

AUTHOR BIO: The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty is a minister member of Mid-Kentucky presbytery and professor of theology and chair of the department of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. In addition to numerous articles, she is author of Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians (2014), Beyond the Social Maze: Exploring the Theological Ethics of Vida Dutton Scudder (2006), and Reconciling Paul (the Horizons Bible Study 2014/2015). She has also co-edited two books, Prayers for the New Social Awakening (2008) with Christian Iosso and To Do Justice: A Guide for Progressive Christians (2008) with Rebecca Todd Peters. Among other honors, she has distinguished herself as a Fulbright Scholar (Hungary 2010) and received the Wilson Wyatt Faculty Fellowship for excellence in teaching and scholarship (2010). She served as an elected member of ACWC from 2006-1012.

Read more articles from this issue, “Hearing the Voices of Peoples Long Silenced”: Gender Justice 2014!

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