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.'”

No, 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.

8 thoughts on “Women and organized religion”

  1. I doubt gender inequities explain this. I suspect it’s far more to do with growth in single mother households. UU Churches given to hearing Doug Muder sermons on Red Family Blue Family divides and how UU families have lower rates of divorce, are going to be ill suited to welcoming the single mother. Women “who have always sustained those churches with their time, sweat and cash” are now dumped with supporting all of the time, sweat, and cash of family rearing. It’s not that men have taken power. It’s that men have abidicated their duties.

  2. I would second the assertion that DRE’s are usually part-time and poorly paid – and almost always women. I can’t think of a single UU church in the NNED that has a female DRE, and the average salary, from what I’ve been able to determine, is something like 15 hours a week. Bill’s point about men abdicating their duties is spot on. We have a number of married women who attend church without their partners, with and without kids. It’s not usually due to job conflicts – just lack of interest.

  3. This is an extremely sore subject for me, after what my now former church has gone through in the last year. Right now I’m having trouble seeing any evidence of feminism in the UUA or UUMA other than a commitment to abortion.

  4. As a “spiritual but not religious” woman I can tell you succintly why I don’t go to church: worship services interlaced with politics, after service coffee hour discussions, the calls for work on this or that project … it all feels like yet another committee meeting. And who does most of the committee work? Women.* This woman says: No thank you.

    *Can I prove this? No. But I bet someone can.

  5. Joel — Ouch. But yeah.

    Jean — Apparently on national polls lots of people report that they don’t want worship services interlaced with politics. The theory is that we’ve all gotten so badly burned by the conservative Christians promoting their politics that we just don’t want to hear any politics at all in Sunday services (and I would count myself as one of those people).

    And yes, I also believe women do most of the committee work.

  6. As a woman and a member of a recent ministerial search committee for a “larger” church that was very open to finding a female Minister I can tell you how disappointing it was to me to have a female canidate turn down our offer and go to a smaller congregation. I honor the choice, however, I also feel they did not want to take on the task. OUCH! However, I need to be mindful that the whole point is that they had the choice.

  7. When I joined our congregation six years ago, the active participants were predominately women. Our woman’s group was the go to group for getting anything done. Over the years this has changed and we have more of a mix. One of the changes I have noticed more is that Generation X couples tend to do things together. One young woman stated to me, “I don’t get enough time with my husband as it is, if we did not do things at church together we would never see each other”. Another trend is that single dad’s are willing to be involved. Ironically, it is a men’s group that gives them a place in our community. Next year I will be taking over the leadership of our “Community life Council” and will be working on formalizing what has been a de-facto transition, making that the “go to group”. As a woman, a feminist and a former leader of our woman’s group, I embrace this evolution.

  8. Why should females go to church, it is for MALES only. Why do you think the bible always say He that… Men can speak and sevre at the altar while women are not allowed to serve. I wanted to be a subdeacon (altar server) but was denied becauce I was a female. CHURCH IS FOR MALES ONLY!! This is why I stay at home.

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