Women leaders talk challenges

“Stained glass ceiling” is a phrase that refers to the limitations in leadership women face within religious institutions.

On Tuesday, March 20, Guilford College explored these limitations in a panel led by Heather Nelson, recording secretary at the Bahá’í Faith Greensboro Center, Susan Poulos, leader of the Deep River Sangha Community of Mindfulness, Margaret Webb, pastoral minister at New Garden Friends Meeting and Deborah Lawson Smith, Persimmon Grove African Methodist Church pastor, addressed these limitations from personal experiences in a panel titled, “Stained Glass Ceiling: A Forum Women in Religious Leadership.”

The panel began with the speakers describing their leadership roles and how they initially became involved in their faith communities.

“We believe in our faith system that you are called to preach. You don’t prepare to preach,” said Lawson Smith. “I woke up one morning and the Holy Spirit said to me, ‘You will preach.’ And so that was how I started. I knew that there was a calling all my life since I was a teenager.”

The panelists were also asked to speak about women they looked up to. Nelson spoke about Mona Mahmudnizhad, a member of the Bahá’í faith who lived in Iran, a place where Bahá’í people were heavily persecuted. Mahmudnizhad and her father were imprisoned in 1982 and Mahmudnizhad was sentenced to execution the following year.

There were (nine) other women in the cell with (Mahmudnizhad) who were also going to be executed that day,” said Nelson. “And she asked the executioner if she could be the last one to be hung so she could pray for the souls of the women going before her. And so, when her time came, she stood up and went to the rope and kissed it and then was hung.

Just hearing about this 16-year-old being so firm in her faith and not being afraid to lose her life because someone said, ‘You’re going to die if you remain a Bahá’í,’ that was really powerful.”

Although the challenges for women in faith communities are different today, issues persist such as the wage gap among clergy and not being accepted as a woman in a religious leadership role.

“When people first meet me and find out what I do, there’s kind of two responses,” said Webb. “There’s either shock or horror. A part of that is because of my age, because I’m younger, but a huge piece of that is because I’m a woman. I don’t look like a pastor to so many people.”

Given these challenges for women in religious leadership, panelists emphasized the importance of finding communities of other women in leadership positions. Webb found support from Young Clergy Women International, an organization of clergy women under the age of 40.

“They were the ones who helped me when I had the most difficult pastoral situations to handle in my first year of ministry,” said Webb. “They were the ones who walked with me through those experiences and who understood what I was going through and who lifted me up when I wasn’t sure I could keep going and who continually reminded me that I wasn’t alone.”

Attendees such as University of North Carolina at Greensboro alumna Alyssa Oppewal appreciated the personal perspectives of the panelists.

“I was interested in who the women looked up to, who inspired them,” said Oppewal. “It was really interesting to hear about some women in the Bahá’í faith from the past and learning about that.”

Katie Todd, executive director of UKirk Greensboro, an organization that facilitates campus and community ministries, and pastor at Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), expressed similar sentiments.

“I think for me as a clergywoman, it was refreshing to hear, as pastor Webb said, ‘You’re not alone,’” said Todd. “And I really enjoyed it. I’m going to be talking with my students later on just kind of connecting this to non-ministry-related careers, but getting them to hear this and be encouraged because right now in the news, we do hear so many derogatory things about women, degrading stories, women being fired at high levels just because they are women, gender pay gaps and things like that.”

Todd hopes to share the information from the panel with the students in UNCG’s campus ministry.

“I wrote down a lot of the resources that were mentioned, just names so I can do some research on learning more about these stories, especially young women,” said Todd. “16 years old and being willing to lose your life for your faith. That’s something in the back of my mind. Even as someone who has clearly followed a call from God into ministerial leadership, it’s always been in the back of my mind.

“Would I be willing to do this?”