Girls need clergywomen

July 25th, 2018

Most arguments over the ordination of women usually center on theology and scripture, but in their new book She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America, authors Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin ask the question, “What difference does the presence of prominent female religious figures make for girls and young women?” Their research uncovered some startling answers, namely that women who had female congregational leaders in their youth enjoyed higher levels of self-esteem as adults.

With low levels of self-esteem being linked to higher levels of depression, anxiety and lower levels of relationship success and job satisfaction, these findings potentially have a large impact. Women who grew up with their most influential congregational leader being a woman are as likely as men to be employed full-time and to obtain another full year of education. Knoll and Bolin found this to be the case even controlling for a number of other factors. Considering that 60% of Americans report that they never had a female religious leader growing up, this affects a great number of women.

Those of us who grew up and currently worship in traditions and denominations that ordain women might overlook this research. But even in Mainline traditions, where we frequently pride ourselves on our progressive views on gender, there are many girls who will still grow up without exposure to female religious leaders. Growing up in a large Episcopal church in Texas, most of the clergy I remember were men. In worship, most of the visible lay participants were men — lectors and ushers in dark suits — while the women of the altar guild exercised their ministry behind the closed doors of the sacristy. I never had a question of whether women could be ordained, but I rarely witnessed women serving as congregational leaders in public.

Despite ordaining women, female pastors are more likely to serve in part-time positions or outside of the church walls in chaplaincies, and though the number is on the rise, only ten percent of congregations have a woman in senior or solo leadership. In their article, Knoll and Bolin point out that behavior modeled by one gender or another becomes internalized as distinctly masculine or feminine, including exposure to religious leadership. On the flip side, I love hearing stories of children who primarily attend a congregation with female leadership first being exposed to male religious leadership, upon which they frequently exclaim, “I didn’t know that boys could be pastors!” But when children, and particularly girls, only see men in positions of leadership, they begin to associate gender, leadership, and self-confidence.

How can churches respond to these findings? In the consumerist model of “church-shopping,” one might take into consideration if a church has female clergy on staff and in public positions of leadership, particularly for families raising young girls. For smaller congregations with only one clergyperson, they can make sure that girls are still exposed to women preaching and participating in leading worship. Leadership that includes both genders holds the possibility of improving the gender gap in leadership outside the church walls by modeling female leadership in action within them.

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