Women and organized religion

Last summer, Barna Research Group released a report in which they examined trends in 14 different religious variables for the period 1991-2011. One of their more interesting findings was that women, long the majority in many congregations, have been dropping out of organized religion:

Church attendance among women sank by 11 percentage points since 1991, declining to 44%. A majority of women no longer attend church services during a typical week. [Link to report.]

A year earlier, Jim Henderson, an evangelical Christian author and minister, had contracted with Barna Group to conduct a survey of how self-described “Christian” women who attended church regularly felt about their experience of church. The vast majority of those women felt satisfied with their church, with their church’s leadership, and with their church’s views of women.

It sure looks like the self-described Christian women who go to church regularly like their churches. But Henderson asked himself why so many other women were leaving church. According to a Washington Post report on his new book, The Resignation of Eve, Henderson came to a logical conclusion: women in Christian churches are getting increasingly disillusioned by the sexism that’s all too common in those churches:

In [The Resignation of Eve], the author, an evangelical minister named Jim Henderson, argues that unless the male leaders of conservative Christian churches do some serious soul-searching — pronto — the women who have always sustained those churches with their time, sweat and cash will leave. In droves. And they won’t come back. Their children, traditionally brought to church by their mothers, will thus join the growing numbers of Americans who call themselves “un-churched.”

Never mind that the Bible talks about women submitting to men and sitting silently in church, Henderson declaims. That’s ancient history. “Until those with power (men) decide to give it away to those who lack it (women), I believe we will continue to misrepresent Jesus’ heart and mar the beauty of his Kingdom,” Henderson writes.

Henderson bolsters his argument with data from the Barna Research Group…. And although the Barna data have been disputed by other researchers, Henderson goes further. Even those women who go to church regularly, he says, are really only half there: Their discontent keeps them from engaging fully with the project of being Christian. He calls this malaise among women “a spiritual brain drain.”

I wouldn’t expect many of those Christian women to transfer to their local Unitarian Universalist congregation. Instead, I would expect them to join the growing ranks of Americans who are “spiritual but not religious” — i.e., those who have religious leanings but who stay away from organized religion.

However, all this does lead me to believe that we need to continue the feminist revolution that has stalled within Unitarian Universalism. While most of our ministers are now women, men still get the majority of the prestigious, well-paid jobs in the biggest congregations; and while I can’t find any hard data to back this up, I’m inclined to believe the average female minister makes less than the average male minister. Furthermore, the vast majority of professional religious educators are women, who are most often part-time and poorly paid. I think it would be wise for us to correct the existing gender inequities within Unitarian Universalism before we start alienating Unitarian Universalist women and men.