03/22/2011 07:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Celebrating Female Clergy

A college chaplain once candidly described the process for him, as a Protestant, as one of simultaneous celebration and mourning when he recognized that Protestantism was no longer a universal norm on American university campuses. He celebrated the presence of Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu and humanist chaplains working together so effectively -- but also lamented the loss of singularity that he experienced, now as but one of many chaplains.

Something similar may be said of the way a portion of male religious leaders have experienced the rise of female clergy in a number of religious traditions and denominations. From reverends to rabbis, Buddhist nuns and the growing push for female imams in America, China and Europe, women are emerging as transformational religious leaders. Most male clergy that I have been in touch with have been welcoming of their female colleagues. Yet a sense of loss often lingers below the surface for them.

At Hebrew Union College in New York, where I am studying to become a rabbi, a majority of my classmates are women. Yet unlike some more seasoned male clergy, who experienced the transition to mixed-gender clergy firsthand, I do not to feel a sense of loss at all. In fact, I do not know how I could effectively lead in a mixed-gender congregation (or non-profit, chaplaincy position, or anything else) without them.

My appreciation of female classmates goes beyond a belief in gender equality: they have helped increase my awareness of gender as it relates to Torah, prayer and Jewish law. They have forced me to recognize inequalities I would otherwise have overlooked and even take time to study the gender-based assumptions within our sacred texts. In short, I would be ill-equipped to teach, live and enliven Judaism -- especially for the 50 percent of Jews who are not male -- if I did not have female classmates, and such talented ones at that. I would leave rabbinical school ill-prepared to grapple alongside congregants and colleagues about the principles of our tradition and how we can apply them to lives more egalitarian than our ancestors could have imagined.

Sadly, while I and other male seminarians graduate more equipped to lead because of learning alongside female classmates, many of our female classmates will face unfair disadvantages once they are ordained and enter the workplace. To cite but one troubling statistic from my own religious community, a 2009 study by Forward concluded that female Jewish professionals earned just 61 percent of what their male counterparts did. This statistic is not only symptomatic of the challenges female pioneers in the rabbinate and Jewish professional world faced; it also suggests that the Jewish community -- like so many others -- has yet to fully adapt to the presence of female clergy and lay leaders.

I would venture to suggest that much of this relates to the endurance of gendered archetypes for clergy. When people think of a rabbi, for example, they think of a man with a beard who talks and carries himself in a certain way. Our communities do not yet instill within us equal reverence for a woman rabbi, even if she is every bit the leader that her male counterparts are. They do not "seem" familiar, familial, a continuation of our chain of patriarchs. As such, female clergy often find themselves second-guessed and overlooked for promotions and job opportunities.

It is time for male seminarians and clergy to repay their female classmates for all they continue to teach us and celebrate their coequal presence within our communities. By consciously modeling respect for female colleagues, our congregations and communities are likely to follow suit. This may be as simple as publicly recognizing their insights in communal decision-making processes or as challenging as recognizing and admitting when we ourselves are acting due to unfair, gender-based assumptions.

Even as some male clergy may privately mourn the loss of an exclusive "old boys" club, none should do so without publicly acknowledging the talent and leadership of our female colleagues and rejoicing in the God-given capacity that our communities have for social change. The clergy will never be the same in any tradition now that women serve as clergy in many. Nor would we want it to be. Their presence is one to celebrate.

Interfaith organizations may likewise play a crucial role in supporting female clergy and setting new norms for gender equality. Auburn Theological Seminary, an institution affiliated with the Presbyterian Church but dedicated to interfaith work (and where my team with the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue calls home) is a prominent example of an interfaith organization that spends significant resources cultivating female religious leaders. For nearly a decade and a half, its Women's Multifaith Program has brought together panel discussions and art exhibitions, performances and lectures to discuss the contributions of female religious leaders from across traditions. Its Women's Preaching Academy has likewise focused on reinforcing leadership skills in female clergy and providing peer support for them as they set out on their careers.

Based on Auburn's example, it would seem that programmatic support for female clergy may be an ideal way to foster inter-religious collaboration. While our religious traditions vary widely, hopes and challenges that female religious leaders experience are in many ways parallel. That shared experience may provide a crucial point of common ground from which to convene inter-religious gatherings of female clergy -- and foster collaboration that extends well beyond the bounds of gender alone. In fact, such programs may also ensure that the ongoing rise of female clergy is paralleled by their ongoing rise to places of leadership within inter-religious projects and organizations, as well.

This article is republished with permission from the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions.