If Every Barrier Is Down, Why Does My Head Hurt from Hitting the Stained Glass Ceiling?

by Rev. Leigh Goodrich

In 1995, Sally Purvis wrote one of the first books about clergywomen and the significant discrimination they face.  It was called The Stained-Glass Ceiling: Churches and Their Women Pastors.  Since that time, at least 50 books have been written about the pitfalls of women who choose ordained ministry as their primary vocation.

photo of Leigh

Rev. Leigh Goodrich

In case you are wondering, the stained-glass ceiling is a societal and economic phenomenon similar to the “glass ceiling” many women encounter in secular employment.   Just like the discrimination women face in broader society, women frequently find themselves barred from particular leadership roles in their faith community, or they find it particularly difficult to rise to levels of authority, status or power within their denomination.  Thus, they hit the predictable “stained-glass ceiling”— a metaphor that tells women they have accomplished all that the power structures are willing to tolerate.

Most of us are familiar with the stained glass windows that adorn many of our churches.  They are filled with images that represent stories illuminating Biblical scriptures and Christian tradition.  However, sometimes those scriptures and traditions, grounded in a patriarchal worldview, hold back women from fulfilling God’s call on their lives.  What does that stained-glass ceiling look like?  When we speak with women who feel safe sharing their experiences, we find disturbing themes running through their experiences:

  • Clergywomen “mommy tracked,” that is, given positions of less responsibility during the “child rearing” years, whether they have children or not.
  • Women paid less than their male counterparts because they are married and “don’t need” the salary, insurance, parsonage, etc.
  • Clergy couples, in which the woman is paid less than her spouse so he won’t “feel bad” because she makes more money.
  • Clergywomen asked to take a part-time appointment so their spouse can take a larger, more prestigious church.
  • Churches that cut the salary of their newly appointed pastor when they learn she is a woman.
  • Women discouraged from pursuing ministry by their pastors and district superintendents, and encouraged to “go home and take care of your children.”

And there are many, many more examples!

That does not mean that women have not persevered.  For the last twenty-four years, our Women by the Numbers column has faithfully reported a small but steady increase in the percentage of women in the pulpit.  From 1992 to 2002, the percentage of clergywomen in The United Methodist Church rose from 11% to 19%, an 8 point shift.[1]  It has taken us thirteen years to realize the next 8 point movement from 19% in 2002 to 27% in 2015.[2]

Conversely, the number of female bishops in the United Methodist Church seems to be waning from 25% to 19%.[3]  While the number of bishops in the church has increased to 66 throughout the world, the number of women filling those positions has decreased from 16 to 13.  However, in 2012, we did see the election of the first woman in Africa.

All of this is happening in a denomination that reports more than half of its members are women!

In The United Methodist Church, it seems that we have, as a denomination, hit an impasse, a metaphorical “stained-glass ceiling” in which women comprise about 25% of all ordained people in parish leadership and are hovering between 19% and 25% of all bishops.  Yet, women continue to make up half of our seminary graduates who intend to enter some form of full time ministry.

Is that good enough?  Are we a “credible and reliable witness to Christ’s exemplary embrace of all women as valued, respected partners in the total institutional life and global witness and impact of the Church?”[4]  Do we truly believe Paul’s prophetic pronouncement in Galatians 3:27-28 that men and women are one in Christ?  Do we live it?

Let me ask the question another way.  If we have removed all of the barriers that allow women to grow and rise in esteem and effectiveness in the Church, why do our collective feminine heads hurt from hitting them on the stained-glass ceiling?

Until we are able to remove every barrier to women’s equal status, role and advancement, we cannot claim to truly be following the example of Christ in the world.  One way we can promote change and reduce the barriers women face is by supporting Resolution 3442, “Every Barrier Down: Toward Full Embrace of All Women in Church and Society” when we join together in May at General Conference 2016 in Portland, OR.  This legislation reflects upon the current state of women in the United Methodist Church.  It continues to ask the nagging question, “Are we there yet?”


[1] “Women By the Numbers,” July 2005

[2] “Women By the Numbers,” July 2015

[3] The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church, Resolution 3442. Every Barrier Down: Toward Full Embrace of All Women in Church and Society.   (Note the change from the 2012 report to the 2016 report)

[4] Ibid


Leigh Goodrich is Sr. Dir. Of Leadership and Education, and the newest member of the GCSRW team.  She is a second-career clergyperson from the New England Annual Conference, and frequent blogger for GCSRW.  You can read more about her here or email her at lgoodrich@gcsrw.org. 

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