Date of Degree
social representation, narrative, religious language, adulthood
In this study, I have used social representation theory and discursive methods to explore developmental challenges posed to the clergy by the social changes brought about by the loss of membership and resources in one mainline denomination. Analyzing the interviews of 37 Presbyterian clergywomen, I document a Presbyterian social representation of decline, the core of which aligned with a report on decline issued by the PCUSA (General Assembly Task Force on Membership Growth and Decline, 1991), shaped by themâta of death versus liveliness, moving versus stagnation, growth versus decline and decline as good versus as bad. One way in which the representation has evolved since 1991 is in the way diversity is represented.
Consonant with this development, an identified subgroup was identified by concern for issues of justice regarding inclusivity along lines of racial, gender and sexual identification. Even beyond this subgroup, diversity was the representational theme used by the most participants.
Exposure to decline was found to influence how pastors constructed their fields of representation. Exposed pastors included more concrete descriptions of the symptoms and effects of decline (but not of causes or demands). Furthermore, the types of narratives that they composed contained more unfavorable self-positions and stories with sharp articulations that bent toward unfavorable or pessimistic positions. The discursive analysis also suggested that gender concerns may inform many clergywomen’s representation of decline, in particular regarding the availability of pastoral positions and the nature of sacrifices they may be called upon to make. The dilemma of demonstrating agency, but not aggressive ambition, on the one hand, or accepting dismissive positioning, on the other, appeared to be gender related.
Representation is found to be both a process and a product whose development interlaces with personal development. The findings suggest within those processes, found in the way that themes, themâta, narratives and religious language are appropriated and deployed to construct utterances and narratives that shape a speaker’s own thinking and action. Evidence points to positioning that occurs in the articulations between action and evaluative clauses, as a site of development.
Personal development is understood to be indicated by the complex, multiphasic understanding of denominational change and its implicated influence on pastors as workers and on their relationships with others. Development under such circumstances involves courage, and was marked by moral choices negotiated between commitment to ideology and personal experience. One mediator is the narrative processing of troubling experience, juggling unfavorable and pessimistic positions, even at the cost of delaying coherent resolution. The study advocates for an ethic of authenticity in negotiating self-sacrifice that serves society rather than protects institutions.
Shelton, Miriam, "“We are all the decline”: A Mixed Methods Analysis of Presbyterian Clergywomen’s Talk About Denominational Decline" (2019). CUNY Academic Works.