Back In Action

Sadly, it has been approximately 7 months, since I last posted a blog. The explanations for this are numerous: finishing my dissertation, having an extended Spanish language immersion trip this past summer (I will post on that at a future date), experiencing family medical issues, and just plain getting out of the disciplined habit of weekly writing.  Enough excuses, because I want to post this week with a summary of my PhD dissertation findings.

Out In The Pulpit

The dissertation is dedicated to the thirteen lesbian clergy that graciously allowed me the honor of interviewing them extensively between 2012-2013. Therefore this book is dedicated to these pioneering women, with the words, “To the brave women, out in the pulpit, who unabashedly told their stories, so that the women who come after them would not have to struggle so much in the Church that they love. “ 

Summary of Findings

The results of this qualitative study of thirteen lesbian clergy were descriptive of their respective journeys towards becoming clergy. Each of the women came from the sampling population of one of the four Protestant mainline denominations (e.g. the Evangelical Lutheran Church’ the Presbyterian Church, USA;  the Reformed Church in America; and the United Church of Christ).  Each of thewomen were interviewed for an extensive interview(s) between 2012-2013.

  • Building a Stage Theory

In reviewing the narratives, the researcher found that these thirteen women shared a similar journey in terms of the sequence of their spiritual and professional development.  Each of these women moved through these various stages of identities in a sequential manner. Thus, one stage of identity gave rise to another identity, all within the context of environmental and personality factors. Movement through the continuum was driven primarily by the growing awareness of their lack of fit with the restraints of their conservative upbringing.  In essence, movement from one identity stage to another identify stage was defined by: 1) the awareness of a lack of fit and experiences of oppression; and 2) the individual’s emotional ability to individuate and to define herself during a life crisis, i.e., how she was able to maintain her sense of worth and self while navigating her way through various denominational affiliations.

The researcher found that the journeys of the women could best be detailed in a stage theory of lesbian clergy development.  The stage theory involved seven sequential stages that were less tied to age and instead tied to developmental tasks. The exceptions were the second and sixth stages, which were spiritual identity stages that all thirteen women did not pass through.

Seven unique stages were identified: (1) each woman began her journey having internalized the conservative religious identities born out of the homophobic policies of her individual denomination of childhood; (2) after the early religious identities, many (but not all) of the women experienced a stage of strong spiritual development in adolescence or early adulthood, adopting a sense of spiritualism that lay outside the orthodox teachings of their denominations; (3) following their self-identification as being spiritual, their sexual identity as lesbians or as bi-sexuals emerged;  (4) after the women came out to themselves and to others as lesbians, the women went through a stage in which their religious identities became integrated with their sexual identities; (5) the women were able to recognize their calls to ministry, as a religious formation process, and went through their processes of seminary training, ordination, and employment ; (6) for the women who left the ministry, there was a interim temporary or permanent stage in which spiritual identity became primary; and (7) after becoming ordained clergy, some of the women appear to have moved towards an integration of their spiritual, religious, and clergy identities within a context of lesbianism.  While their spiritual identity remained constant, it is important to note that their denominational identities changed at various developmental stages: generally before and during the coming out process; at the point of reworking their religious identities; during seminary; during the ordination process; and/or during the employment process after ordination.  

  • Interpreting the Findings

All thirteen of the women were a part of the early religious identity stage, which was both formative and oppressive for each of the women. The women experienced the oppression, in varying degrees: there were two women who remained in not only their early religious identities, but the same denominational identities, throughout their lives.  In addition, there were seven women who had experienced such significant levels of homophobic oppression that they exited their religious identities to enter into the spiritual identity stage (stage 2). Finally, there were five women who existed their denominational identities to enter into new ones, but who maintained their religious identities life-long. The two women who remained in their denominations of birth were most able to tolerate their experiences of oppression because it appeared that their strong denominational/family identities ameliorated the pain from the institutional oppression they experienced.

An interesting finding relates to the age of experiencing a “call to ministry”; seven of the women cited being called in childhood and that it was realized only after they came out and six of the women cited being called in adulthood. All but two of the women perceived that both their calls and coming out processes had been delayed due to their internalized early religious ideas that supported straight male leadership in churches.  Another significant finding was that the multiple themes of oppression in becoming clergy and being clergy were evidenced in the narratives of the women’s lived experiences. It appeared that the lesbian clergy in the discriminated out-group of their denominations that has been victimized by denominational hetero-normative oppression also became change agents.  The reason that the eleven women, who remained clergy at the time of the interviews, remained in their denominations despite institutional oppression, was their stated commitment to remaining within their oppressive denominations for the purpose of creating change. These women stated that were committed to creating LGBTQ-inclusion in their denominations in the years ahead.

Finally, eight women in this sample were able to achieve a terminal clergy identity stage that synthesized fully their religious, sexual, and spiritual selves. The women who did enter into the synthesized identity stage, were the women who were able for various (e.g. supportive families of origin; intact partner/spouse relationship; strong goodness of fit in congregation or organization; involvement in LGBTQ advocacy work) reasons to find new meaning in being a part of the marginalized “out-group” of their denominations.

What appeared to enable these women to achieve this stage was their ability to move beyond their wounds of oppression, due to their strong commitment to their clergy calls, which functioned to enable them to seek justice in an unfair and violent world. In this final stage, these women who achieved this final stage of development were able to reframe their wounds resulting from homophobic oppression into redemptive ways of healing other wounded individuals living at the margins of society.

  • Concluding Themes for Now

In summary, the five major findings pertaining to this lesbian clergy identity development were: 

  1. with the exception of one woman no matter what age the women came out, their Early Religious Identities preceded their Sexual Identities;
  2. the first Spiritual Identity stage was a replacement for church for the women who had left their Religious Identities and a place to come out with the perception of less guilt;
  3. for seven of the women, they perceived that their coming out ages were delayed by their experiences of their Early Religious Identities;
  4. the coming out age was influenced by the interplay of each woman’s unique experiences of fit and oppression;
  5. the ability to go to seminary and become ordained was preceded by a reconciliation of their religious and sexual identities;
  6. the second spiritual stage was again a replacement for church for the two of the women who left church due to their ongoing experiences of institutional oppression; and
  7. the highest level of functioning for clergy is marked by being out to their denominations and by involvement in social justice work.