Women in Churches: What Women Think

From Barna:

Broadly speaking, the research depicts two types of experiences among Christian women. The first represents the majority of Christian women. Most express a great deal of satisfaction with the church they attend when it comes to leadership opportunities. Three quarters say they are making the most of their gifts and potential (73%) and a similar proportion feel they are doing meaningful ministry (72%). More than half say they have substantial influence in their church (59%) and a slight majority expect their influence to increase (55%).

Yet, the study also shows another experience for many other women. These women are frustrated by their lack of opportunities at church and feel misunderstood and undervalued by their church leaders. About three out of 10 churchgoing women (31%) say they are resigned to low expectations when it comes to church. One fifth feel under-utilized (20%). One sixth say their opportunities at church are limited by their gender (16%). Roughly one out of every eight women feel under-appreciated by their church (13%) and one out of nine believe they are taken for granted (11%). Although these represent small percentages, given that about 70 million Americans qualify as churched adult women, this amounts to millions of women in the U.S. today who feel discouraged by their experiences in churches.

A common stereotype is that women are not as likely as men to be leaders. But the research shows Christian women are equally likely as Christian men to consider themselves to be leaders. One out of every three Christian women use the term “leader” to describe themselves—the same proportion as among men.

On a positive note, many women leaders believe the church is a receptive place for their leadership. Women who self-identify as leaders most often find that role fulfilled in congregational settings (52%). Others say they serve as leaders on the job (31%), at home (29%), in their community (28%), in a school setting (18%), or at a non-profit organization (13%).

It is slightly more common for women to self-identify as a servant, a label embraced by half of today’s Christian women. Self-described servants say they embody this role by praying for other people (46%), encouraging others (24%), helping the needy (24%), sharing the gospel (23%), volunteering (21%), donating money (17%), and giving time to a non-profit (9%).

Even so, most Christian women feel the pangs of guilt and are motivated to do more with their life. Three quarters of women say they feel they can and should be doing more to serve God (73%).

The research also looked at how women perceive various aspects of their leadership opportunities within churches. The study highlighted a mixed set of perceptions among Christian women:

• While most women (84%) say their church is either totally open to or mostly open to women fulfilling their leadership potential in their church, about one quarter of women (24%) still feel the role of pastor is not open to women.

• More than three quarters of women (78%) disagree that the Bible prohibits them from being leaders in the church.

• Most women say they are fully supported in pursuing leadership roles by the men in their lives, including their senior pastors (68%) and their husbands (63%). They are least likely to perceive this support from other male officers in their church (54%).

• More than one third of women (37%) say their church would have more effective ministry if women were given more opportunities to lead.

• Only half of women (47%) say the male leaders in their church are willing to change the rules and structures to give women more leadership opportunities.

• Reflecting some of the challenges women experience in churches, 41% of women say they have more opportunities to lead outside of their church than within their church.

• Overall, 82% of women say they can tell by its actions that their church values the leadership of women as much as it values the leadership of men.

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  • AHH

    If only 24% are saying their church does not allow women to serve as pastors, I’m guessing the survey failed to sample Roman Catholics (who according to Wikipedia make up over 30% of US self-identified Christians).

  • Honest Alice

    The reason I stopped attending church. I attended a Church of Christ affiliated university and it was like stepping backwards in time. Women were not allowed to speak at daily chapel, serve offering, give a sermon or have any leadership role, in any activity or form on or off campus, and it was almost laughable how obvious the snubbing was. I don’t know if it has changed but it made an impression on me. The men interpreted the Bible as they saw fit how to promote men and demote women. I converted to Disciples of Christ which is much more accommodating to women. I refuse to even send my kids to my alma mater. Besides 99% of church goers today are hypocrites.

  • James

    “Besides 99% of church goers today are hypocrites.”

    Have a verifiable source for that stat, or was that just a cheap potshot at your brothers and sisters in Christ?

  • James

    @AHH: You hit on something that struck me about this stat from Barna. I’d add to the Catholics the Orthodox (fast growing the US), conservative Southern Baptists, and several other groups.

  • Kristin

    The whole “leadership potential” phrase is interesting. I hear it from defensive complementarians trying talk about how much women can do in the church, despite disallowing them from certain positions. “Women are encouraged to fulfill their gifting and leadership potential.” It sounds nice, but it actually translates “we don’t believe women are remotely capable of pastoring.”

    I do think though that the more women fill in the ranks of “lower” leadership levels in the church, the more obvious it will become that the church is missing out by limiting women in the upper levels.

  • Deborah Hannah

    The results of this research seem odd me. As others have pointed out, the Roman Catholic church, Orthodox, even more conservative mainline churches, not to mention the numerous conservative Evangelical bodies that dissuade or downright deny women any type of leadership in the church. I am a Lutheran in a body of Lutheranism that has been ordaining women for over 30 years, and there is still debate and resistance from many in the Church around women preaching and teaching.

    I would like to see the demographics and the sample denominations that Barna used to reach these findings. It is not my experience in middle class, bible-belt Alberta.

  • gingoro

    “Besides 99% of church goers today are hypocrites.”

    I’d say that 100% of church goers today are, to some extent, hypocrites in some aspect of their lives or other. We all await the renewal of body, mind and soul.

  • I thought I was fulfilled while being a vibrant leader at my former Pentecostal megachurch. It wasn’t until the Lord led me out of the institutional church walls that I have learned what true fulfillment is as a female follower of Jesus.

  • aaron

    I would like to see the same stats for men in order to adequately compare. I would not be surprised if the above stats about women “three out of 10 churchgoing women (31%) say they are resigned to low expectations when it comes to church… ” are extremely similar to the stats on men.

    There are always those who feel marginalized and it’s not a gender issue alone.

  • Laura B.

    A) Women in the Orthodox church cannot be priests, or serve behind the iconostasis. Otherwise, at least in the Orthodox Church in America, all roles are open; a distinction is made between the “pastoral role” and being a priest. Women can minister to others in many/all other ways that non-priests can, including heading the church council, serving as readers, leading committees, etc.

    B) Hypocrisy is part of the human condition; isn’t it wonderful that we can confess it, and start over when we fall? It’s not just Christians–it’s pretty much everyone, to some extent, in my experience.

    C) My experience is also that the more women try to run everything, the less men feel welcomed in the congregation, and they are less likely to be part of the leadership themselves. I believe (with no support from any other source) that perhaps Paul stated that women should keep silent so that this wouldn’t happen… (I’m a woman, but frankly, I don’t have a whole lot of use for many of my sex who act like we’re somehow treated as less than…I don’t see it. I behave as if I believe that men see me as a person, and lo! they do–at least I haven’t run into any younger than 80 who treat me otherwise.

    I will quit now before I get myself in too much hot water!

  • Cathy

    Wow, that just doesn’t seem to line up with what we have witnessed!

  • Vicki

    @ Deborah Hannah – I agree. I would like to see the stats behind the stats. This information does not at all line up with what I see and experience in working with women leaders.

    @ Cathy – agree.

  • I think the question worded “my church does not allow women to be on the pastoral staff” is misleading. My own church will allow a woman to be “family minister” or “children’s minister.” That is, women are allowed on the pastoral staff. But– and it’s a big “but” — a woman can never, ever apply for the job of senior pastor in my church.

    How are people who responded to the survey interpreting “be on the pastoral staff”?

  • kerry

    This survey begs a question: how much can women afford to concern themselves with these questions? What does it do to our faith to wonder deeply about our value as women (as reflected back to us by the church)?

    How many women learn that there are other acceptable routes to influence besides taking up a leadership position (such as attaching oneself to an influential man)?

    I didn’t do the hard work of confronting the cognitive dissonance about women in leadership until I could no longer deny my own leadership gifts. I completely understand why women stay away from these questions and put on a smiley face instead.

  • EricW

    The aorist tense in John 11:35 should be a present.