Written By: The Rev. Dr. Mary Brennan Thorpe

We are a changing diocese. One marker of this change is in our clergy. According to the Church Pension Group, we currently have 187 priests actively serving parishes in this diocese. It is an almost even gender split: 101 are male and 86 are female. This is a dramatic shift from the church of 40 years ago, when nearly all clergy were male. According to research prepared by diocesan archivist and historiographer Julia Randle, Patricia Merchant Park was the first regularly ordained woman priest in the Diocese of Virginia.  Her ordination took place at Episcopal High School on 01/02/1977, making her the “first” in that category.  Later that year Gloria Berberich, Blanche Powell, and Constance Ward were also ordained priests in Virginia and Allison Cheek (one of the irregularly ordained women known as the Philadelphia 11 ordained in 1974) was also “regularized” as required by the General Convention for women in her category.  Five women among all those men. It must have been a challenge in so many ways.

But even though the numbers of women priests serving in the Diocese of Virginia are almost as high as men priests, challenges remain.

We look around and see the gifts of these women priests in so many places and in so many ways: serving in Spanish-speaking congregations, in small rural parishes, in large urban and suburban parishes, near universities and hospitals, with highly educated and powerful “Washington players,” with tillers of the soil in the Shenandoah Valley, with watermen and –women on the Northern Neck. These women priests serve well and faithfully in all sorts and conditions of churches.

But some of the data around their service raises concerns, particularly data regarding compensation of male and female clergy.

Among assistant and associate rectors, women hold 70% of the positions and men hold 30%. Among rectors and vicars, women hold 36% of the positions and men hold 64%, almost an exact inversion of the ratio.

Looking at salary data gives us a foggy picture: among assistants and associates, on average women now make more than their male counterparts, earning an average of roughly $63,400 per year versus the men’s average of $63,200. A slight difference, to be sure, but worth noting as a hopeful sign.

Salary data among rectors shows a different story. For male rectors or vicars, the average compensation is around $95,000 per year. For females fulfilling the same role, the average is $75,500, or approximately 80% of the rector average.

Are parishes in the diocese deliberately shortchanging female clergy? The answer is “it’s complicated.”

First, let’s consider the fact that there are some male rectors who have been in their positions for a significant amount of time, they have been priest for decades, and they serve large parishes with great resources. Tenure, time and treasure matter when it comes to clergy compensation. Diocesan compensation guidelines are keyed to the number of years that a priest has been ordained. Parishes that are large and complex and that have money pay more: they are hiring someone who will function as a CEO of a large organization as much as they are calling a shepherd for the flock. And rectors who remain in such systems for a long period of time get regular increases in compensation, particularly if the parish grows by the usual metrics of Average Sunday Attendance and giving.

How many female rectors serve such large parishes?


She was called last year. Her compensation is good, but, not surprisingly, it is lower than that of a priest who has served a similar size parish for twenty years. She has been a priest for over a decade, but the priest who has served a similar sized parish may have been ordained thirty years ago, and is now in the top compensation bracket.

And since there is only one female among the rectors of the twenty largest parishes in this diocese, and since the male rectors in this category are highly compensated (and to be sure, they deserve their compensation given the complexity of their work), it is not surprising that the averages show women rectors to be lagging in compensation levels.

Second, let’s consider the fact that women are often the only candidates willing to take smaller parishes, or troubled parishes. A bishop once said to me “But women are so good with those places. They can heal them and love them.” All that may be true of some women priests, even many women priests. But it is not the only gift that women bring to ordained ministry. Some have gifts of prophetic preaching, or creative outreach, or evangelism. Others have brilliants skills of administration, or of empowering youth. Just like – dare I say it? – men who are priests. What this translates into is a situation where women are more often called to smaller, less well-resourced parishes not because they are particularly gifted in serving such parishes but because they are not being called to the places where their gifts can be put to their highest and best use. And the further corollary is that women rectors of small parishes are compensated less than male rectors of large parishes.

Third, there continues to be both conscious and subconscious bias that women priests do not have the gifts to lead a large parish. This is something that continues to be a theme among search committee members, particularly if they are of a generation where men were always the rector and women, if they were part of the system at all, were either pastoral care givers or youth workers, whether or not those areas represented their gifts and graces. If a search committee is biased against an equally qualified female candidate in a search for the next rector of a resource-size parish, that search committee will invariably recommend a male candidate to the vestry, and the compensation differential continues.

A key to solving the problem of unequal pay is equal opportunity: if equally qualified  female candidates for rectorships in large churches are passed over simply because of gender, pay equity will elude us.

More important, the church is deprived of the gifts of women who might be able to serve a large parish with grace, creativity and vision. It is denial of the gifts that God has given these priests.

One of the ways that we are addressing the issue of equal opportunity for women priests seeking a call to a rectorship is in the way we now guide search committees to assess parish needs and the qualities needed in the parish’s next rector. We suggest search committees consider the story of the call of David to be the king of Israel after Saul’s failing as Israel’s first king(1 Samuel 16:7.) Samuel is sent to seek a king from among the sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite, and God presses the prophet to ignore the obvious choices: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” We encourage search committees to focus on the gifts they need from their next rector rather than the externals such as age, gender, marital status, or ethnicity. Results in searches conducted using these suggestions have borne fruit; pools of finalists have been more diverse and have been notable for the alignment of the candidates’ gifts with the parish’s needs.

Our hope is that there are more ways to even the playing field for female priests and to resolve the issue of pay inequity for women priests. This is a hope that was articulated in Resolution R-1 passed by Diocesan Convention this past March, which calls for the Bishop to create a Task Force   to report and to issue recommendations to the 222nd Annual Diocesan meeting for diocesan, regional, and parish-level actions to address pay and pension disparities. The work of the task force will include data analysis and identification of best practices to provide context for their recommendations. The Bishop is in the process of considering candidates to serve on the Task Force so that this important issue can be addressed thoroughly, systematically, and strategically, because, indeed “the laborer is worthy of her pay.”

IMG_2877 The Rev. Dr. Mary Brennan Thorpe serves as director of Transition Ministry, assisting parishes as they say farewell to their pastors and seek new ones. She also works with clergy as they seek new calls. She is particularly interested in encouraging discernment and creativity in the search process. In addition, she recently received a Doctor of Ministry in Church and Ministry from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

Posted by Diocesan Communications

One Comment

  1. Well presented, Mary. This blog will help broaden the conversation. Thank you.


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