Yes, Newsweek missed the Church Ladies

NewsweekOprahFor the past week or so, something kept bothering me about the Newsweek cover story titled “How Women Lead.”

I mean, I survived reading the thing (it is soooooo neo-People magazine) and I even marked it up a bit. Then I tossed it on my desk and it has been there ever since, staring at me. If you want to see the basic, non-ghostly holes poked in it, I suggest that you turn to Myrna Blyth’s “Girly Gobbledygook” column at National Review Online.

But I decided pretty quick that there wasn’t much to write about, looking at “How Women Lead” from a GetReligion point of view.

Then somebody sent me a reminder about the recent Christine Rosen “Houses of Worship” essay in The Wall Street Journal. That’s the one with this punchy, even pushy headline: “Church Ladies — Women dominate America’s pews. Is that a problem?” Here is the opening of that essay:

This fall, the entering class of rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative institution, is 34% female. At Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, women are nearly half the student body. At many Protestant seminaries, women pastoral students now outnumber men, and between 1983 and 2000 the number of women who identified themselves as clergy tripled. It seems that Catholic scholar Leon Podles’s prediction of a few years ago, that “the Protestant clergy will be a characteristically female occupation, like nursing, within a generation,” may soon prove true.

Pulpits aren’t the only places that women dominate. According to a recent survey, the typical U.S. congregation is 61% female. Women are also the force behind most lay organizations and volunteer activities and make up the majority of church employees.

Bingo. Now I knew what was bugging me about that shallow Newsweek cover story. Somehow, the team that produced it forgot about the Church Ladies and the tremendous impact that women are having on modern sanctuaries.

This is a big news story. Some social critics will even say that this rise in female power is directly linked to at least three major Godbeat stories — the lack of men in pews, the decline of the liberal mainline and the rise (sort of, the stats suggest more like a plateau) of the new conservative mainstream. 0785260382

Here is what that argument sounds like, with Rosen riffing on the work of David Murrow, author of the book Why Men Hate Going to Church.

Interestingly, Mr. Murrow notes that, among the major Christian denominations, it is the mainline churches that suffer the largest gender gaps in church attendance. These churches, still pilloried by feminists for their patriarchal pretensions, have in fact become spiritual sorority houses. It is the more conservative denominations, such as the Southern Baptists, that have the most even ratios. In these more traditional churches, many of which do not have female clergy, parishioners hear less about cooperation and feel-good spirituality and more about spiritual rigor and the competition to win souls. Churches that embrace male leadership, including the Roman Catholic Church, remain the largest in the country, and the Mormon Church, which also does not have female clergy, is the fastest-growing.

(Personal note: Before people start leaving comments on this, let me confess that my family worships in an Eastern Orthodox parish, the most ancient of churches and one in which women can be saints, theologians, professors, iconographers, apologists and all kinds of things, but not priests.)

The power of religion does show up — very briefly — in the Newsweek mini-profile of Brigadier General Sheila Baxter. I had noticed this reference, with its strong faith language, but this theme had really not been woven into the piece. Baxter testifies:

The other thing that is very important is my spiritual background. I received my calling in the ministry in 1988 when I was stationed in Germany. The Lord called me through a dream. It was 2 in the morning and I jumped up out of the bed. I heard his voice clearly. The next day I talked to my pastor and he put me into a training program. I was licensed with the Church of God in Christ. When I retire, I plan to go to seminary and pursue a divinity degree.

However, note that the Church of God in Christ is a very conservative denomination, in terms of its culture and social views. It ordains women, but this is not a flock that most people would put on the left side of the sanctuary when it comes to moral issues and basic doctrine. This is not the United Church of Christ.

No, I think that the most important piece of Godtalk in the Newsweek package, the one most closely linked to the skyrocketing statistics about women in pews and mainline pulpits, can be found in the profile of the Rt. Rev. Oprah Winfrey.

Come to think of it, this paragraph is the closest thing this cover package offered to a thesis statement. Maybe there is a ghost in there after all.

And behold, Oprah said:

All the women leaders I have met led with a greater sense of intuition than men. I am almost completely intuitive. The only time I’ve made a bad business decision is when I didn’t follow my instinct. My favorite phrase is: “Let me pray on it.” Sometimes I literally do pray, but sometimes I just wait to see if I wake up and feel the same way in the morning.

And millions of Americans said: “Amen.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Pervious

    Is the increase in women pastors coming mainly in the old liberal mainline?

    I’m afraid that many liberals are thinking about going to church, and maybe even entering the ministry, primarily because they don’t want their side to lose the faith wars.

    Their church push, I’m afraid, is a doomed effort, no matter how much scriptural and ritual rigor (this time on the progressive side, of course) they restore to mainline services.

    This is because Southern Baptists and the like aren’t setting their houses in order and playing religious political power games for the sake of these things in themselves: they’re doing it because they think they have it on very clear authority that God wants them to.

    It’s this absolute (and pathological) certainty that theirs is the right way, and that our nation’s way is the right way, insofar as it “returns to its Christian founding principles” and “obey’s God’s laws,” that people find attractive, and that it will be impossible for liberals to reproduce with a straight face, precisely because their convictions, generally speaking, run so contrary to such a world view.

  • dlw

    I would love to read a response from you all to the movie, “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

    I wrote some about it at my blog.

    And would love to get a Christian journalist’s take on the movie.


  • dlw

    The part of the story you are missing is that Seminaries are no longer training grounds for pastors. That’s becoming less and less the case, as many denominations are no longer requiring seminary education/degree for someone to be in leadership and seminaries are diversifying their offerings.

    It’s more about Christian leadership training that can be for a variety of venues. I think it may head towards what it is like in Sweden, where I was an exchange student at a seminary, and it was common for evangelicals to take a whole year off from working to study the Bible. Of course, that’s easier to do when you don’t have to pay anything for upper-level education and receive a living subsidy for being in school, as is the case in Sweden.

    But I think this is having an effect, whereby the overall biblical literacy in the churches is being raised and helping to gird them against the pervasiveness of secularism in Sweden.


  • Molly

    If Oprah were to start a church, it would be huge. Sort of shallow and new-agey, but huge. Don’t underestimate her influence – she takes women seriously.

  • Signe

    If you read Raymond Arroy’s biography of Mother Angelica, you would see her style is similar.

  • LaTonya

    I’ve done some thinking on the spiritual leadership of Oprah:

  • molly

    How seriously are we to take an article “How Women Lead” when it leads with a picture of the most tin eared, ham fisted, blundering leader in recent memory, Karen Hughes? I laughed out loud.

    I am also troubled (by my inferrence) that the reason men don’t attend church is because women are pastors? My most strident opposition to my pastoral leadership has come from OTHER WOMEN, generally older women who have a stronger tradtional outlook and/or who were denied my role because of the times they lived in.

    Again, Oprah is a leader among women because she understands women and listens to them. Good thing Newsweek put her on the cover and saved their joke for inside or they would never move that issue off the newsstands!