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A majority of U.S. Protestant pastors affirm that women could serve as the pastor of their congregation, according to a LifeWay Research report published Aug. 23.

The survey asked pastors to respond to the following question, “Which of the following roles are women permitted to have in your church?”

While 55% said their church would allow women to be the pastor, the survey did not ask whether the church currently employs a female senior pastor. In addition, the results are somewhat unclear about whether respondents’ views are their personal opinion or whether they represent the official position of their church.

The number of churches who theoretically allow women to serve as their pastor was the lowest percentage of all positions included in the survey.

Most pastors said their churches would allow women to serve as a minister to children (94%) or a committee leader (92%), compared to ministers to teenagers (89%), coed adult Bible study teacher (85%) and deacon (64%).

Significant disparities exist between denominations in their congregations’ position on female pastors.

More than three-quarters (76%) of Mainline pastors said their churches would allow a female to serve as the pastor, compared to less than half (44%) of Evangelicals.

Methodist pastors (94%) were most likely to say women can serve as the pastor at their churches, followed by Pentecostals (78%) and Presbyterians / Reformed (77%).

By comparison, 47% of Lutheran, 43% of non-denominational, 25% of Church of Christ and 14% of Baptist pastors said their congregation would allow a woman to be their pastor.

The full report is available here. The overall margin of error is plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

Good Faith Media reached out to several faith leaders for the reaction and response to the survey’s findings.

“While the Lifeway report that most mainline Protestant churches affirm women senior pastors is encouraging, it is important to note that affirming women senior pastors is not equivalent to calling women as senior pastors or paying women senior pastors the same as male senior pastors,” said Merianna Neely Harrelson, pastor of Garden of Grace, United Church of Christ in Columbia, South Carolina, spiritual director and author of Morning Light: A 30-Day Devotion Journey and Toast the Day: A 30-Day Prayer Journey.

“If mainline Protestant churches are going to affirm women senior pastors, we also must call them and pay them as senior pastors,” she said. “Just as Jesus affirmed women as essential in his own ministry, appearing to a woman first after his resurrection, we must encourage and support women’s voices to proclaim the gospel.”

Eileen Campbell-Reed, visiting associate professor of pastoral theology and care, co-director of the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project, and author of the report, State of Clergywomen in the U.S.: A Statistical Update (2018), said: “In the first place, the opinions in this research resonate with what I found in data of actual numbers of ordained women and women serving as pastors, which I published in the State of Clergywomen Report in 2018.”

“Secondly, LifeWay researchers did not appear to ask (or did not report) how many of the surveyed pastors are themselves women, a serious (and deeply ironic) oversight in the report of findings,” she continued. “We are left to wonder: How can a study report on the opinions of 1,000 pastors about ‘women in the pastorate’ and not tell us how many of the interviewees identify as women (or men)?”

“Third, a snowball effect seems in evidence. The more one completes higher education and the greater ones’ exposure to women’s pastoral leadership, the less objections one has to it,” Campbell-Reed said. “This fits with the findings of the Harvard implicit bias study. Greater exposure and experience with any group, the more familiar and less intimidating they become.”

Meredith Stone headshot“Being able to report that over half of Protestant churches would affirm a woman in a senior pastor role is a significant milestone, however it is also a great sadness that the percentage of Baptists joining in that affirmation was the lowest reported of any denominational group,” said Meredith Stone, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry.

“The tradition from which Baptists come is often defined by its freedoms — Bible freedom, soul freedom, church freedom and religious freedom. But these statistics highlight that our tradition can also be defined by the limits it has placed on those freedoms for some,” Stone said. “In order for Baptists to live into our heritage of freedom, greater attention and intention needs to be spent transforming congregations into places where every woman experiences the fullness of God’s love and can fully participate in the life of the beloved community.”

Christine Smith headshotChristine A. Smith, senior pastor of Restoration Ministries of Greater Cleveland, Inc. and author of Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors, said: “On a positive note, across Protestant denominations in the U.S., increasing numbers of pastors and churches say that women should be allowed to serve as lead/senior pastors. On a persistent, challenging note, women senior/lead pastors continue to comprise approximately 12.9% of senior pastor positions, across Protestant denominations.”

“When they do serve in senior level positions, the churches they lead tend to be small and economically depressed, with fragile infrastructures. We have ‘miles to go before we sleep,’” she said.

Carole Collins headshot“It’s disappointing to see the low number of Baptist pastors that said their congregation would allow a woman to be their senior pastor because for the Alliance of Baptists that number would be 100%,” said Carole Collins, co-director of the Alliance of Baptists, who joined the Alliance staff in 2009, transitioning from a corporate career in accounting.

“From our founding in 1987, the Alliance has been committed to ‘The freedom of the local church under the authority of Jesus Christ to shape its own life and mission, call its own leadership, and ordain whom it perceives as gifted for ministry, male or female,’” she said, quoting the Alliance of Baptists founding covenant. “Many of our congregations are not only open to it, but indeed do have female senior pastors who are serving them with excellence.”

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