Research suggests that support for women’s ordination may be lower than it appears, especially among women

By Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin

Americans are “all in” for women’s ordination.

Or at least, that’s what the public opinion polls seem to indicate. Multiple surveys have recently shown that about four out of every five Americans support women serving as pastors or priests in their houses of worship (see here and here, e.g.). This includes majorities of traditions that exclude women from serving as congregational leaders such as 59% of Catholics and 70% of Adventists. Even nearly 40% of Southern Baptists say that they are on board. (Indeed, the only major U.S. tradition where a strong majority opposes women’s ordination is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

cover_r3_shepreachedtheword_knollbolin-smallBased on a nationwide telephone and internet survey conducted in 2015 and 2016, research from our new book She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America shows similar results: nearly three-quarters of Americans who attend religious services at least “seldom” are in favor of women being allowed to serve as the “principal leader” of their congregations. This includes 85% of Mainline Protestants, 68% of Evangelicals, and 70% of Catholics.on the 

Is there reason, however, to suspect that support for women’s ordination in America’s congregations might not be as overwhelming as these public opinion polls might suggest? After all, many people may not feel inclined to share their candid feelings on a topic if they feel that they will be seen negatively for it. In our case, those who oppose women’s ordination may feel pressure not to reveal their true feelings on the matter so as not to appear parochial, or even sexist, to the interviewer. As a result, they might say “yes” when they really mean “no.”

One way to assess the likelihood of kind of effect is to use something called a “list experiment” (also known as an “item count technique”). It works by giving survey respondents a list of statements and instead of asking them to specify which ones they agree with, to instead only report how many. Respondents are randomly sorted into two groups and both receive the same list. The second group, however, is given an additional item. Theoretically, the difference in the average number of items agreed to between the two groups is the proportion of the sample population who agrees with the item given only to the second group.

In our case, we asked survey respondents the following question: “Now I’m going to read you a list of statements. Please tell us how many of the following things you would support in the church or religious congregation that you attend most often. We do not need to know which ones, just how many.”

The first group received the following list, the order of which was randomized for each respondent:

  • Encouraging religious leaders to openly discuss political matters over the pulpit during campaign season
  • Offering marriage ceremonies to gay and lesbian couples
  • Discouraging members of other faiths to visit and participate in religious services
  • Focusing more on interfaith and outreach programs in your community

The second group received an identical prompt and list of statements, with the exception of this additional list item:

  • Permitting women to serve as the pastor, priest, or principal leader of the congregation

In our survey, the average number of agreed to statements in the first group was 1.97 compared to 2.52 for the second group. This statistically significant difference of 0.55 suggests that about 55% of our survey respondents included support for women’s ordination in the number of things that they agree with. Note, though, that is this less than the 72% who said the same when asked directly whether or not they were in favor of women serving as the principal leader in their congregations. This suggests that a full 17% of our survey respondents said that they support female pastors and priests when asked directly but decline to do so when asked indirectly.

In other words, these findings suggest that support for women’s ordination among American worshipers is only a little over half, and about 15%-20% lower than public opinion polls might otherwise suggests. While 55% is still a majority, it is less overwhelming than previous survey evidence would lead us to suspect.


Further analysis revealed important patterns when breaking down the numbers by gender. When asked directly, 68% of men said that they are in favor of women’s ordination in their congregations. In our list experiment, support was 73%. This small difference of 5% suggests that men are more or less sincere when they say they do or do not support women’s ordination in their congregations. If anything, it seems that they are slightly more supportive than they tend to let on.

In contrast, 74% of women expressed support for female clergy in our survey when asked directly. When given the opportunity to express more candid views in the list experiment, however, it dropped to 40%. In other words, this suggests that women’s ordination is opposed by a majority of women, even as three in four tell surveyors that they are in favor. It seems that most of the “hidden opposition” to women’s ordination in America’s congregations is coming from women, not men.

As we interpret these results, we should keep in mind that the list experiment tool is not without its flaws and has been critiqued by survey methodologists. Thus, we should exercise caution before taking these results at face value. At the same time, these results should also give us pause before assuming that support for female clergy, especially among women, is as widespread as public opinion surveys might suggest. The truth is likely somewhere in between.

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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