Another myth about gender and church leadership

Posted on September 21, 2012


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.

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