Women in Church Leadership
Women and the Word
Conference Names, Bridges Gaps for Women of the Word

On June 13th 130 energetic women and men attended FutureChurch’s first ever Women and the Word: Bridging the Gap conference at Mount St. Mary College in Los Angeles. Presenters and participants worked to develop strategies for “bridging the gap” between the leadership of biblical and historical women leaders in the early Church and what most churchgoers experience today. The conference was designed to retrieve the historical memory of biblical women and to overcome obstacles to gender-balanced proclamation of scripture in churches.

Internationally acclaimed biblical scholar, Dr. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza gave an inspired morning keynote Wo/men of the Word - Reclaiming Our Power of Memory. Her presentation grounded a subsequent small group process identifying what was heard, and “naming the gaps” between the practice of Jesus and the first century Church and the practice of the Church today. Here are some of the gaps named:



Discipleship of Equals

Women subordinate

Community of trust

Community of fear

Ministry and authority based on service

Ministry and authority based on power

Married clergy

Mandatory celibacy power

Community Fluid/Flexible


Jesus first among equals

Concern over who will “wash the liturgical dishes?”

Ministry based on who has gifts

Not always true today

Management of dissidents:
Group decision-making

Management of dissidents:

Insights from Keynote:

  • When non-inclusive language is used, women in the Church are always forced to think twice about whether they are being spoken to or not. It is a good consciousness-raising experience for men to be put in the position of wondering whether they are being spoken to with the inclusive use of: wo(man), s(he) and fe(male).
  • Women who work in the Church do not have the same freedom to advocate for change that women in academia do, because in the University there is tenure, but in the Church, there is no tenure and no job security.
  • If you are working against domination within the institution, you cannot be employed by it.

Panelists speak frankly:

Four female pastoral ministers from diverse cultural backgrounds comprised the afternoon panel addressing pastoral implications of the conference theme, especially as they relate to the experience of Catholic parishes. The panelists noted that women who work in minority cultures need to be rooted in and sensitive to the distinctive ways in which women claim influence in their particular cultures. For example, pastoral associate Fe Musgrave stressed the matriarchal nature of the Philippines where there is a strong reliance on strong, older women as wisdom figures.

Each panelist spoke from her own personal story and life experiences. Many named their sense of standing on the shoulders of the strong mothers, grandmothers, aunts and mentors-- women who had gone before. One panelist shared her story of breaking up with her fiancé rather than acquiesce to the dominant machismo in Latin culture. This allowed her to negotiate a far more equal partnership in her happy marriage. Pastoral associate Juliette Marsh Williams told of writing to the Pope at age twelve about the lack of female altar servers. She is now studying Canon Law to understand exactly what ministerial and pastoral possibilities are open for women. Campus minister Sheryl Lange spoke of those who supported her on her journey to be an expert in catechesis from the black perspective. While all panelists spoke with hope and obvious energy and enthusiasm for their ministry, it became clear that women’s ministry is contingent on sympathetic male leaders. It can be severely constrained by the existing male power structure in the Church. Bishops and Pastors have the ultimate authority to hire and fire and thus control all opportunities for women to serve in leadership.

The rest of the afternoon was devoted to small group work identifying strategies for bridging the gap between early church practice and today, as well as what conference attendees wanted to say to church leaders.

What To Say to Church leaders:

Among other things, participants wanted to tell church leaders of the need for greater openness and education, for working collaboratively and charitably, for inclusive language, and the application of Catholic social justice teachings in the church itself. Other pointed questions were considered:

  • How can we together solve the problem of women being excluded so that we can validate the gifts of all the laity?
  • Can we invite the clergy to be lifelong learners who listen to people’s stories? Can we say, “Could you listen more and talk less?”
  • Can we ask: “Instead of closing churches, could you consider opening doors to married priests, women priests and women deacons?”

Over Forty Strategies Identified.

A wide range of strategies were identified…everything from studying canon law to being grounded in contemplative prayer. Some especially creative actions included using social networking sites such as Facebook, My Space and Twitter, increasing media activism via letter writing and working to get innovative ministries highlighted in religious news coverage. Attendees wanted to encourage men to be educated about the early church and help them understand the importance of recognizing and supporting the gifts of women. Strategies fell in the following four major areas:

  • ensuring the growth and development of women leaders,
  • building the momentum for change within the communities served by women and developing tools for outreach to larger communities,
  • empowering other women to join a new “Discipleship of Equals”
  • effectively collaborating within the existing structure; but also prophetically challenging the status quo

This conference could never have happened without the commitment, passion and planning skills of a group of ten women from various educational and pastoral settings in Ohio and southern California. Underwriting support came from two special benefactors in Los Angeles, and from a number of communities of women religious, including but not limited to these congregations:

Benedictine Sisters of Baltimore, Sisters of the Divine Savior, Congregation of St. Joseph, Sisters of Providence of St. Mary of the Woods, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Los Angeles Province Leadership of Sisters of St. Joseph, West Hartford, CT.

Keynote speaker Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza with Brigidann Cooper, who helped with many conference logistics.

Juliette Marsh Williams shares her experiences with other panelists.

Dr. Darlene Kawulok CSJ introduces Friday evening session designed for pastoral ministers given by Dr. Karen Elliott CPPS (not pictured).

Three attendees of LA Conference share lunch and strategies for bridging the gap!