New Study: Largest U.S. Churches Are Unclear on Women's Leadership | Sojourners

New Study: Largest U.S. Churches Are Unclear on Women's Leadership

Rev. Dr. Stacey Cole Wilson at a prayer event to end the government shutdown. 

I spent the first 18 years of my life blissfully assuming all Protestant churches allowed women to preach. At my home church, a tiny Presbyterian (USA) congregation in San Antonio, women spoke from the pulpit as often as they brought lukewarm casseroles to Sunday potluck. But when I left home for college, another first-year ambushed me in the dorm kitchen with his mouth full of 1 Timothy, bursting my egalitarian bubble. While I have since memorized the scriptural justifications for my equal existence and participation in the church, a new study by Church Clarity reveals that I am still far from living in a world where all Protestant churches allow women to lead.

According to this study of the 100 largest churches in the United States, only eight churches fall under the category of “Clear: Egalitarian,” meaning that their websites indicate that at least one woman or nonbinary person holds the title of pastor, or at least 50 percent of the church’s senior leadership team is non-male. Another 18 churches fall under the category of “Unclear: Egalitarian”—they state egalitarian policies on their website, but those values aren’t reflected in the composition of their leadership team or behind the pulpit. While these small numbers are discouraging, they are not surprising given that, more broadly, women make up just 15 percent of congregational clergy.

The remaining 74 churches are either non-egalitarian or unclear about whether they allow women to preach and hold leadership roles during Sunday services. In fact, the two most common scores given by Church Clarity to the 100 largest American churches are “Undisclosed” (33) and “Unclear: Non-Egalitarian” (29). Women parishioners deserve more than ambiguity and deception when it comes to how their church views their worthiness to lead.

Church Clarity, as the organization’s name signifies, believes that ambiguity is harmful when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion and women in ministry. To that end, they have created a searchable database that includes nearly 2,000 churches’ views on LGBTQ inclusion and women in ministry. On their website, they explain in-depth why clarity is so vital:

There are clear laws and regulations in the for-profit world that protect us from ‘false advertising’ and ‘bait and switch’ tactics. But while we, as a society, hold the marketplace accountable for such violations, we rarely insist that churches abide by similar expectations. Are the stakes not much higher when it comes to spiritual matters?

Sarah Ngu, the Database Director for Church Clarity, reaffirmed this point when I spoke to her by phone recently. “Information is power,” she said. “By keeping the cards in their hands, [church leaders] can get away with a lot more, and there’s a lot less accountability.”

A large part of my work as the Women and Girls Campaign Coordinator for Sojourners is to unequivocally and unabashedly promote women in ministry. Not just because it is biblically sound for me to do so, but because our churches would greatly benefit from the wisdom and world views that women pastors can offer.

I’ve come to realize that the two goals at the core of the Women and Girls Campaign are overwhelmingly connected: 1) close the gender gap in church leadership, and 2) combat domestic and sexual violence in the church and through the church. Given that domestic and sexual abuse are largely violent manifestations of uneven power dynamics in a relationship, it is hard to imagine how churches that perpetuate theologies of uneven gender roles could ever lead the way to a church free of this violence. These theologies — even when hidden or “undisclosed” — can still have damaging impacts when it comes to gender-based violence.

Churches that uplift women pastors are uniquely equipped to diminish gender-based violence. Rev. Kyndall Rae Rothaus, senior pastor of Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and co-founder of Nevertheless She Preached, has frequently written on the connection between women preaching and combating domestic and sexual violence. In an instructive article for Baptist News Global on how to end domestic abuse, Rothaus wrote:

It is not only important that women get opportunities to preach and the church receive opportunities to hear their voices — having women in leadership is one of the ways we combat violence against women, by demonstrating in public that women are more than property, more than bodies. They are intellect and soul and so much more.

Last year, Sojourners collected and presented 100 Sermons on Domestic and Sexual Violence. Ninety percent of clergy encounter domestic or sexual violence situation through their work, so 100 percent of preachers should denounce this violence from the pulpit. When we called upon pastors to preach out against this type of abuse, women overwhelmingly answered the call.

Women deserve the opportunities to lead in movements that aim to end the systemic violence disproportionately inflicted upon them. Women deserve to preach and pastor in congregations big and small, just like the first evangelist Mary Magdalene, Phoebe the deacon, and Junia the apostle. But until that day comes, women deserve some clarity.

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