Who Worships in Congregations with Women Clergy?

By Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin

Pope Francis recently made waves by saying that the door was forever shut to female priests in the Catholic Church. Elsewhere, indicators show that women’s enrollment in many Protestant seminaries is growing while female congregational leaders remain relatively rare in America’s churches and other religious congregations.

Research from our new book, She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America (Oxford UP), focuses on women’s ordination from the perspective of those in the pews. We ask questions like: Who attends congregations with female clergy? Who supports women’s ordination in their congregations? And what effect do women clergy have on the attitudes and behaviors of those in their congregations?

Much of our research is based on data gathered from the Gender and Religious Representation Survey, a nation-wide telephone- and internet-based survey conducted in successive waves throughout 2015 and 2016. The survey sampled members of all major U.S. religious traditions, both Christian and non-Christian (including “Nones”), so long as they reported that they attend religious services as least “seldom.”

Our survey found that slightly over half (54.8%) of American worshipers report that they currently attend congregations that allow women to serve as the “principal leader.” This includes 75.7% of Mainline Protestants, 66.1% of Black Protestants, and 61.1% of Evangelical Protestants.

When asked the gender of their congregation’s current leader, though, this figure drops to only 9.1% of all respondents. Similar to other survey findings, we find that less than one in ten of Americans who attend religious services say that their congregation’s principal leader is a woman. Mainline Protestants reported the highest rate with 15.3%, followed by 13.5% for Black Protestants, 7.7% for Evangelical Protestants, and 3.3% for Catholics (evidence of a “priestless parish” phenomenon in the United States among Catholic congregations). Thus, while most congregations in America allow women equal access to congregational leadership positions, very few currently have a woman actually serving in that capacity.

Looking at individual demographics, we might expect women to be more likely to attend a congregation with a female leader. Our survey found only weak evidence that this is the case: 10.6% of women say that their congregation’s leader is a woman compared to 7.2% for men.

In contrast, the strongest predictor of attending congregations with female clergy is political. Democrats are nearly three times as likely than Republicans to attend a congregation led by a woman (13.5% to 4.8%). Similarly, political liberals are 12.6% likely compared to 5.8% of political conservatives. In our survey, political identity and ideology are the most powerful demographic predictors of whether someone attends a congregation with a female leader, more powerful than gender, age, education, or levels of theological orthodoxy. This difference holds even after statistically controlling for whether someone attends an Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, or Catholic congregation.

What might explain this? One explanation is that congregations with many political liberals are more likely to interview and hire women as their spiritual leaders. Indeed, as political ideology is a strong predictor of attitudes on gender and the workplace, these preferences may spill over into hiring decisions in religious congregations.

It is also possible, though, that there is a self-sorting effect going on. Much research has shown that political identities are driving religious choices in America, often much more strongly than the reverse. Also, previous research by Mark Chaves has shown that a denomination’s choice to ordain women is a key indicator of they wish to signal that they are modernist or traditionalist in their theology.

Liberal worshipers may be more attracted to a congregation with a female pastor or priest because they assume (often correctly) it means that the theological orientation of the congregation is also more progressive. They figure that they will be more likely to find a congregation focused on poverty, discrimination, and social justice. Likewise, political conservatives may be more likely to seek out congregations with male-only leadership policies in place as they imagine that their theological convictions will be more likely to better match those of the congregation, particularly in terms of teachings on traditional gender roles and holding the line against abortion and same-sex marriage.

In sum, our survey results show that while a majority of American worshipers attend congregations where women are permitted to serve as the principal religious leader, less than one in ten currently has a woman as his or her principal congregational leader. It appears that women’s ordination is more common in principle than in practice throughout America’s houses of worship.

Further, those most likely to find themselves in a congregation with a female pastor or priest are Democrats while those least likely are Republicans. Women’s ordination continues to be a key marker of the relationship between religion and politics in contemporary American society.

Dr. Benjamin Knoll is the John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, @benjaminknoll28. Cammie Jo Bolin is currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of Government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., @cjobolin. Their book, She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America, is now available from Oxford University Press.

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