JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Rev. Patricia Small refuses to dwell on the disadvantages a female pastor faces in the pulpit.
Instead, her experience illustrates what many church officials think is the likely future of women in the pastorate among mainline Protestant denominations.
When the Rev. Small came to Alexander Memorial United Methodist Church in Jacksonville a decade ago, she discovered a small congregation that needed spiritual leadership.
"The congregation was ready for ministry, and they wanted someone who could be effective," she says. "I could accomplish that. I stepped right in."
Pastoral need at the church trumped any reservations related to the Rev. Small's gender, she says.
Her own circumstance leads the Rev. Small to discount the significance of the gender-related hurdles identified by a study of female United Methodist ministers published this month.
The study, co-authored by a University of Florida professor, points to the difficulty that women face in fitting a model of spiritual authority and leadership that traditionally has been defined by men.
These difficulties are further compounded by the energy required to juggle family life with a pastor's long hours, and additional responsibilities come from filling obligations traditionally filled by pastor's wives, according to the study.
None of these hurdles, however, prevented the Rev. Small from moving ahead.
"I have considered difficulties to be challenges," she says.
Women pastors, after one and sometimes two generations of ordination in some of the older Protestant denominations, appear poised to once and for all banish the mindset that when church members refer to their pastor the most common pronoun is "he."
"The future for women in this church is very bright," said John Brooks, a spokesman for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in Chicago.
With women making up about half of those in seminary, the 21st century should witness a steady increase in the number of female pastors, up from the 12.4 percent of ordinations they now make up in the Lutheran church, Mr. Brooks said.
The gender balance in Lutheran seminaries reflects a similar development in the Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian seminaries, officials of these churches say.
The Rev. Mike Williams, an official at the Presbytery of St. Augustine, which oversees more than 60 Presbyterian churches in Northeast Florida, sees the coming feminization of the pastorship in his denomination as inevitable.
In another decade, he says "every church will be faced not only with the opportunity, but the likelihood they will have a woman."
The coming wave of ordained women appears likely to reshape churchgoers' ideas about gender and the pastorate.
But even so, much remains to be changed in order to make the pastorate women friendly.
Women pastors still talk about how difficult it is to be a woman in a male-dominated field, said Constance Shehan, a sociology professor at the University of Florida.
She and two colleagues based their conclusions on a 1995 survey of 190 United Methodist clergywomen.
They find that many female pastors find themselves operating at a disadvantage: the preconception of what a pastor looks and acts like are images and behaviors tightly connected to being a man. Many female pastors run headlong into this barrier.
"They are not always accepted by their congregation or their male colleagues," Ms. Shehan said.
The fact that many male pastors have traditionally benefited professionally from unpaid church voluntarism of their wives compounds this sense of disadvantage.
Female pastors report having husbands who cannot and do not fill this adjunct role, Ms. Shehan said.
Then there are the family issues that face two-career families, especially where one career -- the pastorate -- involves a lot of nighttime and weekend work.