SAN DIEGO — Six San Diego women, trained in drama, political activism, social work, education or music, are changing direction to embrace a career that until a few years ago would have been barred to them.
Each is studying to be a minister.
Susan Gregg-Schroeder, Sue Farley, Pam Daniel and Katherine Gara are Methodists; Susan Tobias is an Episcopalian, and Carol Rawlings is a member of the Disciples of Christ. They represent a growing female enrollment--24.4% of the total--at Protestant theological seminaries across the country.
They attend classes at Claremont Theological Seminary, an ecumenical graduate school. When they have completed studies at the seminary they will be examined by their own denominations before being ordained.
The women face a two-hour commute several days a week.
"We meet in a church parking lot at 4:30 a.m.," said Gregg-Schroeder, who, with Farley and Gara, makes the round-trip commute twice each week. "The church put up lamps for us because it's pitch dark."
The three other women--Daniel, Rawlings and Tobias--stay on campus three days each week.
Life as seminarians is far from peaceful for these women. They must make quick changes, juggling studies of Greek, the Old and New Testaments and theology with grocery shopping, vestry meetings and dental appointments for their children.
"We live a schizophrenic existence," said Gara, a mother of boys 10, 12 and 13. "People at seminary have the same expectations of us as they do of other students. Then we drive two hours and suddenly we're family members, wives, mothers, church members, den mothers. The two worlds don't meet."
An Emotional Issue
Ten years ago, the ordination of women was an emotional issue within many denominations. Today, an estimated 16,000 women clergy (5% of all clergy members, compared to 6,000 women in 1973), are part of a nationwide trend toward women achieving equality with men in placement, leadership roles, salaries and impact on church policies.
Precedents differ on the ordination of women within various denominations, but the call for change is being heard even in denominations staunchly opposed to admitting women clergy.
And the movement has spread to other religions. Women are increasingly lobbying for more authority within the Catholic Church and in February, the Assembly of U.S. and Canadian Conservative Rabbis broke with tradition and voted to admit both males and females ordained in Jewish seminaries. (A similar resolution recently passed the General Synod of the Church of England.)
An important mark in the movement came in 1976 when the Episcopal Church first officially sanctioned ordination of women. That followed a controversial, unauthorized ordination of 11 women that took place in 1974.
Nationally, some 600 women are now ordained, with many more in seminary training. Moving up the career ladder into top level positions within the church, however, has proved to be more difficult. But Bishop Edmond Lee Browning, newly elected Episcopal presiding bishop in the United States, said he is "tremendously committed to enhancing the ministry of women."
One woman deacon and one woman priest work in the San Diego Episcopal Diocese, and Tobias is one of two female candidates for ordination.
In contrast to the street clothes worn by the others during a recent interview, Tobias wore the traditional black clerical garb required for her summer intern job at Episcopal Community Services, the thin black strip down the center of her white collar marking her status as a seminarian.
"Electrical tape," Tobias smiled.
The Disciples of Christ, to which Rawlings belongs, has been ordaining women for 75 to 80 years, primarily for work as missionaries or with social agencies. It has 500 ordained women on the national clergy mailing list.
Long Methodist Tradition
The Rev. Clarice Friedline, Disciples of Christ associate regional minister, said, "Ten years ago, there were no more than a handful of women working as senior pastors or heads of entire congregations. In the last few years, the situation has snowballed nationwide. In our region alone (Southern California, Hawaii and Las Vegas) there are 24 ordained women, 17 of whom are employed. We've placed four women in full-time senior pastorates in the last 12 months. That's significant growth."
The Methodist church of the other seminarians has ordained women since the late 1800s, but women were not granted full clergy status and rights until 1956. Today, women make up 8.2% of the total number of pastors nationwide. At the 13 Methodist seminaries across the country, 36% of the students are women. Women also hold 29 of the district superintendent positions.
The Rev. Faith Conklin, San Diego's Methodist district superintendent, is the first woman to have come up through the ranks of the Methodist hierarchal system in the area.