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Ten things to know about women’s ordination in the United States

Pope Francis recently appointed three women for the first time to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an important advisory body to the Pope on matters of Catholic orthodoxy. He has also recently established a commission for studying the role of women deacons in the early Christian church. While encouraging for supporters of women’s ordination in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has also made it clear that he is keeping the door firmly shut in terms of the possibility of women priests.

Elsewhere, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints excommunicated feminist activist Kate Kelly in 2014 for advocating for women’s ordination. At the same time, LDS leaders have also expanded roles for women in the faith’s semiannual conferences and global governing committees.

In 2015, Katharine Jefferts Schori ended a historic term as the first female Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, nearly forty years after the denomination opened the priesthood to women. Even in American denominations that have ordained women for decades, however, questions about pay equality and sexism toward women pastors and priests continue.

This ambiguity toward the role of women in American religious organizations is emblematic of wider conversations about gender equality and women’s roles in American society. Thus, understanding the dynamics of women’s ordination in religious congregations can reveal important insights into wider trends and the intersection of gender and leadership in America today.

Dozens of one-on-one interviews, as well as a nationally representative public opinion survey, have provided us with a contemporary snapshot of women’s ordination in American congregations, investigating two primary questions: 1) who supports female clergy in their congregations and why?, and 2) what effects do female clergy have on those in their congregations, especially young women and girls?

Here are ten things you should know about women’s ordination in the US:

  1. A little over half (55%) of Americans who attend religious services at least occasionally say that their congregations allow women to serve as their principal leader, although only 9% currently attend a congregation where a woman is serving in that capacity. Thus, women’s ordination in America is more common in principle than in practice.
  2. Religious traditions and denominations in the United States that generally permit female clergy in their congregations include American Baptists, United Methodists, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian (USA), the Episcopal Church, Buddhism, Reform/Conservative Judaism, and Unitarian Universalists. Those that generally prohibit female clergy include the Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Judaism, Mormons, and Muslims.
  3. Two of every five American worshipers say that they “strongly prefer” that their congregation allow women to serve as their principal religious leader. When added to the 32% who say they “somewhat prefer,” it makes for nearly two-thirds (72%) of American worshipers who say that they support women’s ordination. This includes 68% of Evangelicals, 85% of Mainline Protestants, and 70% of Catholics.
  4. 70% of female worshipers say that they support women’s ordination in their congregations. This is, however, nearly identical to the 69% of male worshipers who say the same. In other words, women are no more or less likely than men to support or oppose female clergy in their congregations. Contrary to what might be expected, gender does not structure attitudes toward women’s ordination in American society today.
  5. Instead, those most supportive of female clergy in their congregations are theological modernists who believe that their traditions should adapt to modern sensibilities, those who identify politically as liberals and Democrats, those that currently attend congregations that allow for female clergy, and those who attend religious services less frequently.
  6. When asked about their support or opposition to female clergy in their congregations, the most common reasons included scriptural authority, personal experiences, and gender stereotypes. These three issues were cited by both those in favor and those against female ordination, selectively applying arguments and experience to support their positions.
  7. While support for female clergy is high, only 9% of worshipers report that they would personally prefer that their own congregation’s leader were female. This might help partially explain the persistent gender gap in the leadership of American congregations, even among those that have gender-inclusive leadership policies in place.
  8. While many people are quick to say that it “doesn’t matter” whether their congregation’s principal leader is male or female, they are quick to point a variety of ways in which they have personally seen that it does matter in their own lives. Specifically, they tend to focus on ways that gender affects what type of counseling clergy are able to provide (in talking about issues such as rape or abortion, for instance), as well as the ways that female clergy can often successfully attract young people and families to their congregations.
  9. In our survey, women who had influential female clergy growing up have higher levels of self-esteem as adults, as well as higher levels of education and full-time employment, compared to those who had only male leaders. They are also more likely think about God in more graceful/loving terms instead of a more authoritarian/judgmental way. This is important because self-esteem, education, and one’s view of God have all been linked to psychological and emotional health and well-being. Thus, female clergy can indirectly improve future levels of health, well-being, and economic empowerment of young women and girls in their congregations.
  10. Politics structures attitudes toward and responses to women’s ordination more than gender. Political liberals, both men and women, are most supportive of female clergy and are also the most likely to disengage from their religious communities if their congregations maintain male-only leadership policies. This is yet another example of how politics is driving religious identity and affiliation much more often than the reverse in contemporary American society.

Featured Image: Brown Wooden Church Pew by MichaelGaida. CCO via Pixabay.

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