It could be just your average senior-staff meeting in your average corporate office. Nine women and nine men, most of them wearing dark suits, are gathered around a conference table in a well-appointed room.

At the end of the table sits an attractive woman in her 50s with ashy blond hair and fair skin. Obviously in charge, she moves deliberately through the agenda, directing questions to the rest of the group. A familiar enough scene in corporate America, right?

Right -- except for one tiny detail: half of the men in the room are wearing Roman collars.

This is obviously no corporate boardroom, and, despite appearances, the ashy blond is no CEO. She is Jane Belford, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and she is in the middle of running her weekly senior-staff meeting in the archdiocesan offices.

With more and more women moving into leadership positions in dioceses across the United States, diocesan boardrooms, like this one in Washington, do bear an increasing resemblance to corporate boardrooms.

Today, according to Mary Gautier at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, over a quarter of all diocesan chancellors are women, while a 2003 study by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops reported that nearly twice that number hold other senior positions in their dioceses. Even more women, said Gautier, serve the Catholic Church at the parish level, with women constituting upward of 80 percent of the laity on parish payrolls.

Decline in priests

Gautier attributed the changing makeup of parish and diocesan staffs partly to the declining number of priests and religious in the United States: Fewer vocations doesn't mean fewer needs, so laypeople, and particularly women, step in to fill the gap.

As for why it's mostly lay women and not lay men filling that gap, Sheila Garcia, associate director of the U.S. bishops' secretariat for family, laity, women and youth, partially blames the low salaries paid for most ecclesial ministry positions.

"Many women have moved into these positions because there's a second income in the household," she said. "Men don't always have that option because they are the sole or primary wage earner."

Perhaps even more important, however, the Church now includes more women in decision-making at the highest levels -- and more women want to be included -- because of the teachings of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Throughout his pontificate, Pope John Paul called for greater participation by women in the institutional life of the Church, and, recently echoing his predecessor, Pope Benedict told a gathering of priests in Rome that while the Church does not have the authority to ordain women, it's still important to offer women "more positions of responsibility" in the Church.

Citing some of the great female leaders of the past, such as St. Catherine of Siena and St. Bridget of Sweden, the pope asked, "How could the governance of the Church be imagined without this contribution...?"

'Feminine genius'

Pope John Paul II attributed those contributions to "the feminine genius" -- women's unique gifts and abilities that complement those of men.

Jane Belford's experience bears out Pope John Paul's words. In her years working for the archdiocese, both as a volunteer and as chancellor, she's witnessed the Church's efforts flourish thanks to what she described as her female co-workers' innate gifts for nurturing, multitasking and consensus building.

She also has come to value the life experience many women bring to ecclesial work.

"Those of us with families have been the coach, the counselor, the disciplinarian, the cook, the dishwasher and the bottle washer. That translates well into serving others," she said.

Lisa Gulino, the director of adult education and evangelization in the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., also sees the importance of the "feminine genius" in the Church's battle against "the culture of death."

"Here in Massachusetts, the local dioceses have had to confront legislation which threatens traditional family life -- cloning, stem-cell research, abortion and same-sex marriage. Women's voices have added greatly to those efforts," she said.

Some balking

The changing face of diocesan and parish administration has not been entirely smooth. Mercy Sister Margaret Hannan, the Diocese of Pittsburgh's recently retired chancellor, became the first woman in her diocese to hold a senior-level position in the early 1980s when Bishop Donald Wuerl appointed her associate general secretary. Often the only woman in the room during meetings, Sister Margaret remembers a few people balking at a woman running the show.

Still, she pointed out: "I don't think the challenges were different than in any other place. I'm sure if I were in banking there would have been a few men who had difficulty reporting to women."

With so many women now serving in leadership positions, Belford said the real challenge today is not being a woman in Church leadership, but being a layperson in Church leadership.

"Working for the Church is not a five-days-a-week job, and we work alongside priests for whom it's a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week job. Sometimes there's that expectation for those of us who are not ordained, as well. But, when you have a family, you just can't do that," she said.

In the end, however, Belford sees the benefits of a more involved laity in the Church outweighing the challenges.

"There is so much to be done, that there's a role for all of us to play. And with the shortage of priests, the more laity, including women, that we have in administrative positions, the more our priests can be in parishes doing what they were ordained to do. Right now, that's one of the biggest rewards for the Church."

Emily Stimpson writes from Ohio.