Another myth about gender and church leadership

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the regularly-heard assertion that embracing the ministry of women led to a slide into liberalism, and pointed out that there was simply no evidence to back this up. Today someone told me that a certain well-known pastor from Seattle had spoken at a church leaders conference in the UK and insisted that one proof of the rightness of denying preaching and leadership roles to women was that denominations that did were growing and denominations that did not were shrinking. It struck me on hearing this that I had heard the same argument four or five times in the past few weeks – sometimes as a broad assertion, as my phrasing above; sometimes phrased more anecdotally (‘I have encountered very few churches pastored by women that are growing…’), but with the anecdote used to establish a general principle which was then the basis of an argument.

In an idle moment this evening, I wondered what the evidence base for such assertions looked like.

First, comparing denominations is of little use; they differ on too many variables. Good evidence will come from comparing local congregations which are as similar as possible in all things save the gender of the core leader. Data like this is in fact easily available, for Church of England parishes, and it suggests that the gender of the incumbent (=senior/sole minister in CoE terms) does in fact influence the prospects for church growth slightly but measurably: Churches with female senior/sole pastors grow more often and faster than churches with a man in the role.

This data can be found in tabular form in Bob Jackson’s The Road to Growth (Church House Publishing, 2005), p. 44. Jackson was a mission enabler for the Church of England, and did some survey work on various dioceses (and the New Wine network) between 1999 and 2004. 75 of the parishes he considered had a female incumbent for some or all of the time surveyed, and on average they recorded growth of 9%, against 2% for parishes with solely male incumbents. Now, this data is far from perfect: n=75 is not bad, but not very good either; given the dates and the Anglican context one has to consider whether openness to a female incumbent is acting as a proxy for some other variable (Anglo-catholic parishes shrinking badly, e.g.); it would be much more convincing to have data across a range of denominations – and indeed countries; …

All that said, this is hard data, as compared to the windy rhetoric or the personal reminiscence of my opening paragraph. As such, it deserves respect at least until other, better, data is available. The evidence, such as we have it, is that churches grow faster with female senior pastors.

How does this play into debates over gender and ministry? I am pulled two ways on this: as an evangelical, there is a strongly pragmatic streak to my beliefs about the church: ‘if people get saved, if churches grow, then we should do it – I’ll make the theology work later…’; as a Baptist, I have a conflicting hesitancy about ‘numbers’ arguments: ‘we are called to fidelity, not to success; you can grow easily by compromising with the spirit of the age…’ So, even if the data were compelling in one direction or the other, I would still hesitate to argue from data to ecclesiological principle.

That said, I opened this post with the comment that I have heard the assertion that churches led by women do not grow four or five times in recent weeks; each time, it has been offered as a reason to reject the ministry of women. But the assertion is, on the evidence available, simply false – just as the assertion about ‘egalitarianism’ being a slippery slope to liberalism is simply false on the basis of available evidence.

The temptation to get polemical here is strong; I will resist, and simply note in general terms that if someone continues to pile up demonstrably false arguments in support of a position, there inevitably comes a point when the reasonable response is to suppose that there are in fact no good arguments to offer, and that the position is based simply on prejudice. Those who believe there is good reason to support the position in question, therefore, should be as hawkish in calling out poor arguments as their opponents are.


  1. I wonder whether this “mysterious” pastor from Seattle would accept that the fact that across the world it is churches with non-Calvinistic theology that seem to be experiencing greater numerical growth as evidence for the need to reject Calvinism.

  2. Kevin Davis
    Sep 22, 2012

    It should also be noted that the Assemblies of God, one of the largest and fastest growing Pentecostal denominations (here in the U.S. and abroad), has long ordained women. Yet at the same time, the Church of God in Christ, the largest Pentecostal denomination in America (and also growing fast), has long prohibited the ordination of women. The history of the AG’s and the COGIC is roughly parallel (origins, growth, theology, worship patterns, etc.).

    My observation of the church landscape is that women’s ordination has little, if any, influence on either the growth or decline of a church or denomination. As for the mainline, of which I belong, we can attribute our decline to a number of factors: theological trends and demographic trends, both of which do a far better job at explaining our decline than women’s ordination.

    • Steve H
      Sep 22, 2012

      Thanks, Kevin. I think you’re right that there is really no effect of gender.

      I suspect the data above is explained by the particular historical moment in English Anglicanism in which it was gathered. (The ordination of women to the priesthood only began in the CoE a few years before – I have 1994 in my head, but that may be out by a year or two – it seems reasonable to suppose that the first female priests were generally particularly gifted, and so that for a while the average quality (whatever that means in this context…) of female priests was a bit higher than that of their male colleagues.

      That said, this is supposition on my part. More data would either show this study to be an outlier, explained perhaps as I have suggested, or would confirm the pattern.

  3. Bev Murrill
    Sep 22, 2012

    Prejudice is always a difficult issue to deal with, in that its very presence indicates a determination to find proofs to back up its point of view, rather than openly exploring all factors that may contribute to the right conclusion, whatever that may be. The Seattle pastor is unfortunately making himself anathema to most thinking Christians because of his overwhelming determination to set the rest of the Body of Christ straight on any and every subject. Unfortunately for him, history shows that taking this sort of line always ultimately leads to exposure of some humiliating issue that the person never got around to sorting out in themself, so busy were they in sorting out everyone else.

    • Steve H
      Sep 22, 2012

      Thanks for stopping by Bev.

  4. Lucy Peppiatt
    Sep 22, 2012

    Thanks Steve for clear-thinking yet again. I’m really concerned also by the assertion that men aren’t coming to church because of ‘the feminization of the church’ which is a phrase which seems to have caught on and is being bandied around. Apart from the fact that I have no idea what is meant by the phrase, the two arguments seem to have the same foundational prejudice – that the ‘feminine’ ultimately acts as some sort of repellent.
    Btw – have you seen the reviews of ‘Bic for Her Amber Medium Ballpoint Pen’ on Amazon? Hilarious.

    • Steve H
      Sep 22, 2012

      (Yes on the Bic – but looking at it has changed the recommendations I get from Amazon in all sorts of interesting ways!)

      The ‘feminization’ idea seems to run (in its least objectionable form): churches generally have had significantly more female members than male members for a century or more now; in very broad terms, women and men tend to socialise in observably different ways; and so inevitably churches have unconsciously adopted patterns of being together that are more comfortable for women than for men. The second premise (women and men socialise differently) needs a lot of nuancing, at least; and given the leadership has largely been male, I am not convinced that the conclusion follows from the premises.

      That said, when (say) Carl Beech (of Christian Vision for Men) argues that there are ways in which a certain, significant, social class of men like to gather, and which have tended not to be ways in which churches have gathered, and that we should leverage that for evangelistic purposes, I think there is something in the argument. It’s not male/female in essentialist terms; it’s a recognition of broadly-gendered social patterns that we can colonise to spread the gospel – and then probably subvert or overthrow by spreading the gospel!

  5. RuthG
    Sep 22, 2012

    Our membership has gone up in the last six years…. Just saying 🙂

    • Steve H
      Sep 22, 2012

      Yes, Ruth, but the stats are about churches with female senior pastors. You keep telling me you’re not the senior pastor, but an equal member of an anarcho-syndicalist collective, or something…

      • ruth
        Sep 28, 2012

        This is very true hoist by my own petard, I guess!! 🙂

  6. ruth
    Sep 28, 2012

    especially the anarcho- bit!!

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