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New research shows that women’s ordination boosts trust and commitment among some American worshippers

New research from Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin on the effect of women’s ordination in America (Oxford University Press).

A guest post by Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin

Those who advocate for greater diversity in the leadership of religious congregations argue that diversity is important because it has an empowering effect on those who are traditionally underrepresented. The argument goes that when a religious leader shares an important group identity with worshippers, those worshippers will be more likely to believe that the leader is responsive to their needs. This, in turn, can result in higher motivation to be active in the life of their congregation.

Up until recently, however, no one had examined whether this is the case with women’s ordination in American congregations. In our new book, She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America (Oxford University Press), we directly tackle this question.

We conducted a nationwide telephone and internet survey of American worshippers (anyone who says that they attend religious services at least “seldom,” both Christian and non-Christian) as well as dozens of in-person interviews with clergy and congregants. We specifically wanted to know whether women who worship in congregations with female pastors or priests (or imams, rabbis, bishops, etc.) show higher levels of spirituality and religious investment than women who have male religious leaders.

It turns out that gender leadership in religious congregations does indeed matter, but not in ways that we expected. Our survey results show that it matters less to women whether the pastor or priest is male or female than whether the congregation allows women to serve as the principal leader at all.

Women who attend congregations with male-only leadership policies are somewhat less likely than women who attend congregations that ordain women to agree with statements like these:

  • “Generally speaking, I can trust my church or congregation to do what is right”
  • “I feel that my church or congregation leaders care a lot about what people like me think”
  • “People like me have a lot of influence over the decisions made by my local church or congregation”
  • “I identify as a member of my church or congregation and I am proud of that identity.”

In other words, when it comes to personal commitment and trust in their religious community, policies that give women the potential of gender equality are psychologically empowering, even if the women’s current leader at that moment happens to be a man.

Interestingly, the same is not true for men. Men are equally invested and trusting in religious communities that do not ordain women as they are in ones that do.

Our research uncovered a second important effect: politics matters more than gender. Democrats and political liberals, both male and female, are particularly aware of and responsive to the gender of their congregational leaders. Across the board, political liberals are more likely to trust in their congregations and feel more emotionally invested in their membership when their congregations allow women to be ordained.

Why is this the case? Sociologist Mark Chaves has argued that women’s ordination is “about something more than females in religious leadership.” He shows evidence that women’s ordination is a key way that denominations signal that they’re theologically progressive, while those that maintain male-only leadership policies do so to indicate that they are holding the line on theological traditionalism.

In this light, it makes sense why political liberals would be particularly affected by women’s ordination. When they see that their congregations provide equal opportunities for women as well as men to serve as their primary spiritual leader, they are more likely to feel that their congregations share their theological (as well as political) priorities, making continued participation more appealing.

Perhaps most importantly, our research shows that political conservatives, as well as theological traditionalists, are not affected in a similar way if their congregations choose to ordain women or hire a female pastor or priest. Whether male or female, conservatives are just as likely to attend religious services, pray, share their views on God with others, and feel invested in their congregations regardless of the policies or practices on gender and leadership.

This is important because one of the most striking trends in American society today is the strong polarization of politics and religion: political conservatives are much more likely than liberals to identify as religious and attend religious services. Our research strongly suggests that one way for religious congregations to slow the attrition from liberals and Democrats is to open their pulpits, altars, and priesthoods to women. Doing so results in higher levels of religious activity and involvement from liberals (and women) while not alienating conservatives (or men).

 

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

 


Other posts by Benjamin Knoll:


 

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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