Called: The Women in Ministry in Ireland Research Project
On International Women's Day (8 March), Dr Anne Francis writes about her current research with women in Christian ministry.
I've just been visiting my new parishioners. Frankly I think that they would have been less surprised if the new vicar was Mr Blobby.
This is not a quote from the Women in Ministry in Ireland report but from the BBC's Vicar of Dibley! Newly arrived vicar, Geraldine, is not what the congregation expect and not everyone is welcoming. How does the character feel as she delivers the one-liners? How is it for her to arrive as a new minister and face a gendered response in addition to the challenges of a new parish?
The Women in Ministry in Ireland project has investigated the experience of female ministers across the denominations, in the North and the Republic of Ireland. They are parish sisters, priests, chaplains and worship leaders; evangelists and spiritual guides. Some are ordained and some are not. They come from the four largest denominations and some other Protestant traditions. Although the circumstances of women's ministry varies in these churches it was my wish allow any differences in experience to come from the research rather than impose it by dividing the group at the outset. Women in ministry on this island already inherit Ireland's sectarian past. Doing this research across the churches may, in a small way, undermine sectarian thinking and allow new connections to be formed across the historical divides.
The central research question was: 'what is your experience as a woman in ministry at this time?'
Between February and October 2017 twenty two women sent back questionnaires and eighteen women were interviewed. Women shared their experiences of ministry, home life, sexism, inspiration, prayer, support and conflict. One respondent had been ordained for four days when she filled the questionnaire, another had been in ministry for fifty seven years and was still going aged seventy eight.
Every woman who responded loved their ministry. They had no regrets about their choice. Within this the single most important factor was call. Women described a compelling call from God which they could not ignore and which sustained them in difficult times. Another key finding was their understanding of their ministry as God's work. This related to their pastoral role, accompanying people at special moments of joy or sorrow; to their sharing of the Gospel by preaching or witness and a myriad of other elements of their work. Many had faced challenges because of their gender including sexism, theological objections, people leaving the church or refusing their ministry at funerals or weddings, and a sense of exclusion or diminishment, especially in churches where women are not admitted to ordained ministry. However, thirty percent of the women said they had never or hardly ever faced challenges as women.
A big challenge was the balance of working as a minister with its unpredictable hours and expectations, and being a mother and wife. When asked what hopes she had for her ministry one woman wrote 'a full-time cleaner, and I'm not joking!' They acknowledged the support of their husbands and families, colleagues and church members. Many of the women observed that they had inherited a 'male-model' of ministry and wanted to see changes to this giving them greater freedom to bring their diverse gifts to the Church’s ministry.
The research raised many questions. Do models of Christian ministry have to be gendered? How is the contribution of female ministers already changing inherited models? How would the flourishing of women's ministries benefit the churches? Might the commonality of experiences and needs across the denominations suggest future co-operation? These and other issues arising from the research will be discussed in the final phase of the project when a group of female ministers will gather to reflect on the findings and offer their views and recommendations. The project will be completed and published in the summer of 2018.
Dr Anne Francis is a pastoral theologian and practitioner based in County Cork, Ireland, and a Visiting Lecturer at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, Cambridge.
The WMI report (Nov 2017) can be found on the Irish Council of Churches website here.
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