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Women ministers, clergy of color report higher incidences of discrimination than their counterparts

Minister Survey also explores opportunities, leadership struggles

by Dr. Sean Payne and Dr. Susan Barnett, Research Services | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Dahiana Waszah via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — In the Minister Survey conducted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Research Services, Ministers of the Word and Sacrament were asked about their experiences with discrimination, opportunities and leadership struggles. Their answers form the basis for the Discrimination, Opportunity, and Struggles of Leadership Report, available in English, Spanish, and Korean.

Three groups of questions explored ministers’ experiences with discrimination, opportunity and leadership struggles. First, respondents were asked if they had ever faced discrimination or harassment in the PC(USA). Respondents were next asked if they felt that social identities such as age, disability, gender, race or sexual orientation had impacted their acceptance as a leader, consideration for promotion or dismissal. Finally, respondents were asked to rate how much they struggled with being included by other leaders, experiencing inappropriate or offensive comments, or receiving low pay, among other aspects of leadership in the PC(USA).

Thirty-seven percent of all ministers indicated that they had experienced some kind of discrimination or harassment. Looking at the responses in demographic categories, patterns of discrimination emerge based on the age, gender and race of the respondent.

Women, people of color and younger respondents all report experiencing discrimination or harassment more frequently than their counterparts. While this conforms to what might be expected, the extent of discrimination reported may be surprising. Looking at all ministers, 63% of women report some form of discrimination, compared with 21% of men. In addition, 58% of women report specifically gender-based discrimination. Racial or ethnic based discrimination or harassment is reported on a less prevalent basis than gender-based discrimination or harassment but is still significant. Among respondents, 23% of Asians, 47% of Blacks, 35% of Hispanic or Latino/as, and 21% of other people of color report experiencing race-based discrimination.

While one might expect older respondents to report age-based discrimination, among the respondents to the survey that expectation is reversed. Younger respondents often feel that they have difficulty being accepted as leaders and authorities within the church.  Younger women especially find their age to be a barrier to leadership.

One pattern that stands out in the data is the intersection of gender with both age and race and ethnicity. Women report more discrimination because of age in every age group. Women also report more discrimination based on race or ethnicity than do men in every racial or ethnic group except white.

In a positive sign, reports of discrimination based on an individual’s disability or sexual orientation were low. Only 12% of respondents who self-identified as living with a disability reported discrimination or harassment based on their disability. Only 2.5% of all respondents reported discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation.

In addition to asking about discrimination and harassment generally, the survey asked about more specific circumstances related to discrimination. Ministers were asked if they felt they had difficulty in being accepted as a leader, if they felt they had been passed over for a promotion or if they felt targeted for dismissal because of any of their social identities.

Overall, the patterns established earlier hold for responses to these questions as well. Women, people of color, and younger ministers report facing more barriers. Several examples of the results help illustrate these trends.  Seventy-one percent of women under the age of 40 reported difficulty being accepted as leaders as did 51% of Black respondents. Forty-two percent of women felt overlooked for promotion because of their gender.

The ministers were asked to rank how much they struggle with various aspects of leadership on a scale that ranged from “Not at all” (1) to “A great deal” (7). About one-half to two-thirds of ministers responded that they faced some degree of struggle on leadership issues such as being included by other leaders, being recognized for their leadership abilities, having their work validated, receiving inappropriate comments, loneliness and low pay. Across all demographics, ministers most commonly marked struggles with low pay and loneliness as 5 or above; 31% struggled with low pay and 29% struggled with loneliness to a high degree as a leader.

In every category of leadership struggle, women responded two to three times more often than men that they had a high degree of struggle with that aspect of leadership.

The survey marks a good beginning in understanding the discrimination, opportunity and struggles of leadership experienced by PC(USA) ministers and points to needed work to deepen that understanding and to address those dynamics of discrimination and struggle that have been identified.

Want to learn more? The findings in this article come from the Discrimination, Opportunity, and Struggles of Leadership Report, available in English, Spanish, and Korean. This report is based on data from the PC(USA) Minister Survey, a massive 110-question survey which fielded from September to November of 2019. Invitations were sent by postcard to all ministers for whom the Office of the General Assembly had an address. The survey was also one of the Board of Pensions’ Call to Health challenges. This partnership contributed to nearly half of all responses. Twenty-three percent of the denomination’s 19,243 ministers (n=4,495) responded to the survey.

The survey was completed prior the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not related to a consultant’s visioning process report released Sept. 16 on recommended changes to the Presbyterian Mission Agency. The challenges and stresses of the pandemic impacted all of life — ministers and ministries included — and may have resulted in different responses in some instances had the survey occurred during the pandemic. The results, nonetheless, provide insights into the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of PC(USA) ministers.

This is the sixth in a series of eight articles on the survey results. Those articles, being published on a weekly basis are:


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