Episode 60: Leading in faith

Reverend Rebecca Anderson

Reverend Rebecca Anderson

As soon as I heard the criticism of this young female rabbi, the first thing that I thought of was, ‘I don’t think that would necessarily be the way that people addressed a male counterpart.
— Rabbi Danielle Leshaw
I’ve had a very lovely older guy...say, ‘We never get to see you with your hair down.’ And I think, get to? It wasn’t in the job description.
— Reverend Rebecca Anderson
The church is still running behind. There are plenty of folks out there who don’t want a woman in a position of high authority.
— Reverend Adrian Dannhauser
Rabbi danielle leshaw

Rabbi danielle leshaw

In the wake of Easter and Passover, we have a show on women in religious life. It's far more common than it used to be to see women in roles such as rabbi or priest. But these hard-won jobs aren't without their frustrations as well as their triumphs. 

In this show we meet three women. One went straight to her calling from college, the other two are career-changers. We talk about how women are viewed by the congregation, what you can get away with when you preach, and how getting ahead can still be tougher for women - even within denominations where women are allowed to be leaders.

Appearance came up much more than I expected during these interviews. These women have to manage their image just as carefully as any corporate executive.


Reverend Adrian Dannhauser

Further reading: This is a 2012 report on the state of the clergy in the Episcopal Church.

Article in UK's Daily Telegraph: Church of England Could Name First Woman Bishops By Christmas

Rabbi Danielle Leshaw is executive director of Hillel at the University of Ohio.

Rev. Rebecca Anderson is associate minister at Glencoe Union Church in Glencoe, Illinois.

Rev. Adrian Dannhauser is currently the Rockwell fellow at St. James' Church in Manhattan.


Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show, what does it mean to be a woman in a religious role?

“…as soon as I sort of heard the criticism of this young female rabbi, the first thing that I thought of was, ‘I don’t think that that would necessarily be the way that people addressed a male counterpart.”

How to react when people regard your pastoral body as public possession…

“I was walking across the sanctuary and I head this young woman, a congregant, call out, ‘Those jeans make your butt look great!’”

And the perils of preaching when female…

“When I want to make eye contact across the room and connect with people I find myself looking at men – and older men – as if I need them to approve of what I’m saying.”

Coming up – in the wake of Easter and Passover, three women share their experiences of religious life.

None of the women on today’s show imagined they’d end up where they are now.

My first guest is Rabbi Danielle Leshaw. About 20 years ago she was a student at university in Arizona and her campus rabbi and his wife suggested she might want to become a rabbi when she grew up. Today she’s executive director of Hillel, the Jewish campus organization at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

Rabbi Danielle studied at rabbinical school in Philadelphia. Back then the thought of being any kind of leader was still intimidating, and the years of study loomed ahead…so was there a moment when she knew this was the right path?

“There were more moments of doubt, there were more moments where I wondered if this was the right choice. You know, year 3, year 4, you’re sort of slogging through it all and you think when is this ever going to end? Am I actually good at this? Can I really lead a community? Am I providing a source of comfort or strength to people in need? Am I role model? Do I have what it takes, essentially? I think those are the questions you ask yourself in the dark moments or rabbinical school. And I know that I’m not alone in having experienced that.”

And she says the whole being a woman thing – it hasn’t been a problem in her work. She’s part of Judaism’s Reconstructionist Movement. It’s been ordaining women rabbis since the ‘70s…

“I wouldn’t say that gender has never been an issue through my career as a rabbi but overwhelming it hasn’t been. I haven’t had struggles that I feel acutely because I am a woman. I have had struggles, professional struggles and challenges, for sure, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that they are because I am a women or any...well there are moments when I think that perhaps my struggle was a little bit greater because I was a woman. But no, I’m not, I just haven’t had those experiences.”

Still, she says…there is one area where she is quite conscious of her gender. And that is appearance and demeanor. She says women rabbis have to be more conscious of how they carry themselves than male rabbis. She says as a woman you can’t appear too passionate…you can’t walk around too ‘blissed out on God’ as she put it. You have to keep those instincts in check.

“And while I might want to be an incredibly charismatic, spiritually inspiring rabbi I also know that I have to balance that with being very organized and very professional and well put together and that one can’t supersede the other whereas I do think, and I have witnessed that there are men in the rabbinate in our field who don’t necessarily need to be as concerned with issues of professionalism, issues of presenting themselves in particular. I think that as in most circumstances of male privilege, there is a pass.”

She had an example of someone she knows who isn’t getting a pass…

“I was overhearing a conversation about a young female rabbi who had stepped into a synagogue community - very excited, very enthusiastic, eager to change, eager to inspire. And she wanted to inspire people in prayer and in worship and in a very high elevated, spiritual experience. I’ve spoken to her, I can tell from her social media posts, from everything that she is trying to do to change and excite a community. And people are very quick to criticize her and say things like, ‘She’s trying too hard, and she needs to calm down, and this isn’t her place, and she’s moving too quickly to change the dynamic of the community.’ And as soon as I heard the criticism of this young female rabbi, the first thing that I thought of was, ‘I don’t think that that would necessarily the way that people addressed a male counterpart. I don’t think that if a young male rabbi had come into that community with the same energy and the same enthusiasm and the same inspiration for himself and his community that he would be met with quite the same resistance. And so I think that there is this expectation that we take it slow and we’re really methodical and we think through everything really carefully before we make any changes in a community, or in a style of worship, and I think that men in their spiritual experiences and fervor and inspiration and wanting to be a light to other people are allowed to do that more easily and more readily.”

And she says other things are a bit easier for male rabbis too. One of those things? Aging.

“As female rabbis get older their opportunities for employment diminish, which is not the case for male rabbis. And so I definitely think about that, and I know that other female rabbis are thinking about that as well – that we may not be as employable as we get older, which is trend for all women, so now what does it look like for us while our male counterparts are sort of able to be seen as the wise old sage who goes into their 70s and 80s and is still hirable and welcome to serve.”

She doesn’t think this stuff gets talked about much in Jewish communities; it wasn’t something that was discussed when she was at rabbinical school either. She says she knows it’s hard to envisage the future…

“Or even, it’s hard in your 30s to think about life in your 70s, but should rabbinical associations have conversations with their membership about what career choices look like as you age and how can you remain vital to a community? I’m not sure those conversations are even happening. So I would think that issues of aging and gender and affect are issues that we need to talk a little bit more about so that we can be more effective leaders of our communities.”

She aspires to be a wise old sage herself.

Rebecca Anderson comes from a different religious tradition – one that was less accepting of women leaders than Rabbi Danielle’s.

“My dad was and is a pastor. Now he’s pastor in a United Methodist Church, which is a mainline protestant denomination. But we grew up in what a lot of people would describe as fundamentalist or evangelical churches. And I loved it. I always loved church, and the stuff of church, potlucks and singing with people. But starting really early that theology did not jive with me. Like when I was 12 or 13 I started to have questions about that more conservative theology.”

So she slipped into adult life with what she says was a toehold in church. She graduated from college and spent her twenties doing a bunch of different things: she worked in theater, she worked on a farm, she did some stand-up comedy, she ran an after-school program at a Jewish day school…

“And a friend who was not religious, who I didn’t think I’d ever talk about my faith with said to me if I were someone like you I would check out this church. And she had all the details wrong but I went. So I was like in for a penny in for a pound. I went on Mother’s Day, they acknowledged single people in their welcome, they acknowledged people who wanted to be mothers but aren’t, they acknowledged that being the daughter of a mother can be difficult. They named all these things that I’d never heard named in church. The music was awesome, the preaching was smart and creative. There was an attention to aesthetic detail that I had not experienced in my Calvinist upbringing. And the way I talk about it is I heard the faith like in a vernacular that I could understand. So I started going to that church right away. I went one Sunday and I just kept going.”

The pastors there were a married couple – the husband was associate pastor. His wife was head pastor.

“So I’m kind of sitting in the pews there, watching her do her thing, listening to another beautiful sermon and you know my twenties were...to say they were eclectic is an understatement. And I didn’t have a career path. I felt like I was all over the map. I felt like I didn’t really start things, I didn’t do all those things you were supposed to do. I didn’t get my financial house in order, I didn’t start my career, I didn’t get a partner. All these things, and everything felt disconnected and I’m watching this woman do her thing and I thought, ‘Oh, this is my skill set. This is what all this adds up to, this sort of winding path.’ And now I sort of feel like this is only thing I can do. I have a lot of skills, but this is a job that allows me to do so much of what I love, whether it’s gardening, or public speaking, or hanging out with kids, or teaching music or making meals, or being involved in social justice. I remember thinking if someone wants to show me another job where I can do all that, great. But for now, this seems like it.”

That couple had been to the University of Chicago Divinity School and Rebecca ended up following in their footsteps. Afterwards she worked at a small Methodist church in Chicago. Then she got a job in the suburbs at an inter-denominational church.

She says one of the things she’s found interesting and sometimes challenging about her role is the attitude other people have to her body. She says it’s an ongoing topic of discussion among her and her female colleagues.

“There’s this way that, people feel, congregants I should say, people in the congregation, feel free, just feel free to talk about our bodies in this way. That’s too sweeping a statement, but I’ll say what I mean, I mean at my previous church I remember walking across the sanctuary, it was a pretty casual place so I was wearing jeans or something. I know I was wearing jeans because I was walking across the sanctuary and I heard this young woman, a congregant, call out from across the sanctuary “Those jeans make your butt look great!” And I was like “uh…good, great!” But also, I guess people walk that way to each other I guess it was the nature of that church it was very casual, but it didstrike me as something a mentor had said to me a couple years earlier, he was my teaching Pastor, he said, ‘Oh you have to deal with body and dress in a way I will never understand in this job.’ He said you know people, we were talking about the way people commented on his looks, “you’re a nice looking guy”, but he said I can’t begin to understand the way people talk about your body and feel like they have the right to. One thing I experience here, this is an older congregation and on more than one occasion I’ve had a very lovely older guy, I’m talking octogenarians, say, “We never get to see you with your hair down.” And I think, get to? Get to? What do you mean? It wasn’t in the job description, I think my hair down looks sloppy when I wear a robe. So I always wear it up at church.”

And talking of robes, when Rebecca first arrived at this church she says she resisted wearing the traditional minister’s robe. She told a female mentor of hers she thought the congregation should get used to seeing a regular female body in the pulpit – she didn’t want to be swathed in a billowing garment. But her mentor pushed back.

“She convinced me so thoroughly when she said, ‘Your people are used to seeing women in everyday clothes, what they are not used to seeing is women in the authority of the robe. You need to wear it because it is your authority in this position, and that is a symbol in their culture, in the culture of this church, not the culture of this community, that is a symbol in their culture of authority. It’s important for them to see you in that robe.’ [Snaps her fingers.] Done.”

She’s been happily robed ever since.

Her divinity school class was mostly male, especially by the time they all graduated. But given women have made up the bulk of believers for centuries, why aren’t there more women pastors – I wondered is the authority of the office unattractive?

“I mean that’s a question I have about myself in general professionally is whether I am willing to put myself out for what I have long called “the big girl job”, and for me that’s about owning my own authority as an adult, as a professional, as a pretty skilled pastor. I bring a lot of skills to the job and I think, I think there have been a lot of times in my life when I have been reluctant to own that authority and I’m still not entirely sure what that’s about, so if it’s true for me, I’ve managed to kind of blow past that and do what I’m called to in this work and in this job, I would assume that yes, it’s true for other people as well.”

For her that big-girl job is leading a church – she says she knows she’s meant to do that. But like a lot of us she wishes someone would just pick her to do that job. What intimidates her is the hoops you have to jump through, the interviews – she says she knows she’s undermined herself in interviews before. Then there’s becoming more of an expert on church finances, which any church leader needs to be. And she says some of it comes down to not wanting to pretend to be someone she’s not to get that job. She’s still grappling with it all.

I asked what her parents think of her career now and she says they’re really proud of her, despite their different politics and theologies. Sometimes her dad asks her for advice. She says she’s conducted some tough funerals, and she finds inspiration and comfort in the Book of Common Prayer.

“My dad knew I had done at least one extremely difficult gigantic funeral and when it came time for him to do a funeral for someone who he did not know who had committed suicide, he got in touch with me to say, “Hey I know you did this service, what kind of resources do you have because I am just at a loss.” My dad’s been pastoring for, man, like 30 plus years, so it’s not like he’s short on experience or knowhow, but I never expected to be able to offer my father resources to very practically help him do his job, so that’s been an interesting dynamic and I find it very, it’s mutual, so my folks are over the moon.”

Rebecca Anderson.

Appearance came up in these interviews a lot more than I expected it to. And before I even began the next interview at St. James’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan I found the Reverend Adrian Dannhauser looking at a website called Beauty Tips for Ministers. And I will come out and say it: she was fashionably dressed in black pedal-pusher pants or trousers, short-sleeved black top with dog collar, and she had a colorful floral-design shawl thrown around her shoulders. Her hair was in a ponytail.

She was reading a British article about appropriate style for lady vicars…

AM-T: “Oh look at this, the Vicar Wears Prada…”

“…and I think with this article, she’s calling someone out and saying this is what not to do, but the point is, it’s possible to look too sexy.”

Who knew?

When she was younger Adrian wanted to be a psychologist or psychiatrist – she thought she’d use Christianity a lot in her work.

AM-T: “OK, so you didn’t come to this late…you were very interested in leading a Christian life and doing that through your work when you were 18.”

“Yes, that was idea at time and then I got a C+ in freshman chemistry. But yes. I grew up with my faith being of central importance to me. I never thought I would be an ordained minister. I grew up in a very fundamentalist, conservative, Christian tradition. Southern Baptist. And the theology – sometimes my head and my heart did not meet.  And I struggled a little bit, but the Holy Spirit was always very real for me, the experience of Jesus, the joy of the lord. All those things were dear to my heart, and that’s what has seen me through.”

Still, after college she was far from pursuing her current career. She ended up going to law school in her twenties.

“And I actually enjoyed law school. I love all kinds of school. I enjoyed practicing law. I was at a Wall Street firm, I was a junior associate, slogging through, long hours. But I have to say I was probably one of the happiest people in my department.”

AM-T: Wow, and you don’t hear that all that often…from overworked associates.

“Yeah, and maybe that has to do with disposition and faith – and the rest of my personal life being pretty strong, I have a wonderful husband, very supportive.  But here’s something interesting - when I let everyone know I was going to be leaving my firm and going to seminary I got several other associates saying I’m so jealous, I wish I knew what I wanted to do.”

But she says it’s tough for most people to drop that golden handshake. These big law firms pay first year associates as much as $160 thousand a year. Adrian stayed until she’d paid off her law school loans and saved up enough to go to Yale Divinity School.

Adrian’s a bit of an outlier in the Episcopal Church. When you look at the numbers almost as many women as men are ordained these days, so no problems with taking on authority here, apparently. But Adrian’s in her thirties. That makes her a lot younger than most career changers who become Episcopal priests in their late 40s, 50s or older – and many priests being ordained today are in that age group.

In the Church of England it’s the same story – the clergy is still mostly male but so many women are being ordained the numbers will probably tip in the future. The Episcopal Church already ordains female bishops. The Church of England has voted to start doing that. And both churches are concerned about their congregations – they are aging fast.

After she graduated from divinity school Adrian began a two-year fellowship at St. James’s on Madison Avenue…

“But this is a very vital, vibrant, healthy church, with a lot of children and families and a lot of young adults which goes against that trend of a greying congregation. So it’s also a wonderful place to start my ordained ministry…”

Adrian’s own boss, the rector of St. James’s, is a woman. Adrian says she’s an inspiring example.

AM-T: Do you think it’s easier being a woman in leadership in the church than it is at a big Wall Street law firm?

“I’m not sure. The church is still running behind. There are plenty of folks out there who don’t want woman in a position of high authority. I will say, my experience, I’m not getting paid anything like I was and not going to work anywhere close to what I was working. I mean generally it’s about 50 hours a week and that’s perfect. Unless someone dies or is in crisis…and it might be more. And you’ll have some time in the summer when it’s slow. But I think the balance is easier to strike, especially as a parent.”

She and her husband have a little girl who’s six.

AM-T: “You were talking about authority, there are people who don’t want to see women in that role…where do you feel you had the most power…the ability to do things…the ability to make things happen, here or at the firm?”

“One place where I’ve found authority is around mission work and in particular human trafficking. I chair a task force against human trafficking for the Episcopal diocese of New York. This is a place where the hierarchy and the structure of our church is very helpful. Because I can get out a message to thousands of Episcopalians to call their legislators in support of state legislation that ended up passing this past Monday.”

She says being there at the press conference with her dog collar on – yes, she felt authoritative, she knew she’d brought about some change for good, and it felt fantastic.

But it hasn’t always been easy. She’s had her share of uncomfortable experiences. During her training she worked at a hospital.

“I’ll tell you the story, it still makes my skin crawl. I was serving as hospital chaplain – I don’t strike folks as what they would expect. Lots of times they expect a middle-aged man who is white and perhaps balding. So I was in the hospital…”

And this interaction took place in the hallway. A patient she knew was being pushed along on a stretcher. She stopped to say hello.

“…and this man who was pushing it had this quizzical look, like, ‘Who are you?’ And I said well, I’m a hospital chaplain. And he looked me over, and he said, ‘Wow, you’re a shapely chaplain.’ And it was like – instantaneous – I tried to defuse the situation and I said, ‘Well, we come in all shapes and sizes.’ And there was nervous laughter and the encounter was over and they had moved on down the hall. And I thought to myself, wow, what a reaction, if I’d had maybe ten seconds to think or an opportunity to go back and um, say something different, I wish I would. I was disappointed with him but also just reflecting how I’ve been conditioned, to smooth things over.”

And there’s something else she’s noticed about her conditioning – her upbringing in the south, as a woman, and the religion she was raised in, which doesn’t ordain women…

“…something I found when I would preach and still even now when I want to make eye contact across the room and connect with people, I find myself looking at men and older men as if I need them to approve of what I’m saying.”

She has been working on that. Her fellowship at this church is coming to an end and she has a new position, a promotion, at a church in midtown Manhattan – she’ll begin that job this summer.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. I’ll be posting some show notes and photos of my guests under this episode at The Broad Experience.com.

Thanks so much to April Laissle – she conducted the interview with Rabbi Danielle Leshaw at the University of Ohio.

And if you like the show but you haven’t posted a review to iTunes I’d love it if you could. The podcast has been featured recently in the US version of the iTunes store and I put that down to the fact a lot of you have taken the time to write a review. It really helps bring the podcast to other people’s notice and I need to keep doing that.

Thank you.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time.