Women are the backbone of U.S. Christian churches. They are more likely than men to comprise the ranks of churchgoers, volunteers and Sunday school teachers. Yet, how do women feel about occupying these roles at their church? Do they feel valued? Undervalued? In this article, the first of four parts, the team at Barna Group looks at the perceptions of Christian women in America, beginning with their views of leadership, church and their place in it.
Broadly speaking, the research depicts two types of experiences among Christian women. The first represents the majority of Christian women. Most express a great deal of satisfaction with the church they attend when it comes to leadership opportunities. Three quarters say they are making the most of their gifts and potential (73%) and a similar proportion feel they are doing meaningful ministry (72%). More than half say they have substantial influence in their church (59%) and a slight majority expect their influence to increase (55%).
Yet, the study also shows another experience for many other women. These women are frustrated by their lack of opportunities at church and feel misunderstood and undervalued by their church leaders. About three out of 10 churchgoing women (31%) say they are resigned to low expectations when it comes to church. One fifth feel under-utilized (20%). One sixth say their opportunities at church are limited by their gender (16%). Roughly one out of every eight women feel under-appreciated by their church (13%) and one out of nine believe they are taken for granted (11%). Although these represent small percentages, given that about 70 million Americans qualify as churched adult women, this amounts to millions of women in the U.S. today who feel discouraged by their experiences in churches.
A common stereotype is that women are not as likely as men to be leaders. But the research shows Christian women are equally likely as Christian men to consider themselves to be leaders. One out of every three Christian women use the term “leader” to describe themselves—the same proportion as among men.
On a positive note, many women leaders believe the church is a receptive place for their leadership. Women who self-identify as leaders most often find that role fulfilled in congregational settings (52%). Others say they serve as leaders on the job (31%), at home (29%), in their community (28%), in a school setting (18%), or at a non-profit organization (13%).
It is slightly more common for women to self-identify as a servant, a label embraced by half of today’s Christian women. Self-described servants say they embody this role by praying for other people (46%), encouraging others (24%), helping the needy (24%), sharing the gospel (23%), volunteering (21%), donating money (17%), and giving time to a non-profit (9%).
Even so, most Christian women feel the pangs of guilt and are motivated to do more with their life. Three quarters of women say they feel they can and should be doing more to serve God (73%).
The research also looked at how women perceive various aspects of their leadership opportunities within churches. The study highlighted a mixed set of perceptions among Christian women:
David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, says this study helps to give context to the ongoing debate regarding women’s roles and the Christian community. “It’s tempting to take the examples of those closest to us as representative of all Christian women today. Yet, the research shows there is an enormous range of experiences for women in today’s churches, from those who are very satisfied to those who feel as if the church is one of the least welcoming places for them to be.”
Kinnaman also cautions that the research “should not be equated to customer service research, where church leaders try to keep their most committed constituents—women—happy. Instead, the study should be an invitation to better understand how both women and men work together to form a more Christ-like community.”
About the Research
The study on which this report is based included telephone surveys with 603 women who are ages 18 or older who describe themselves as Christians and have attended a Christian church service within the past six months (excluding holiday services or special events). These Christian women were randomly chosen from the 48 continental states. The maximum margin of sampling error for a sample of that size is estimated to be within +/- 4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. There are other forms of survey error that cannot be statistically estimated.
About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. It conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to moral and spiritual development, and works with a variety of organizations to facilitate the healthy moral and spiritual growth of leaders, children, families, individuals and Christian ministries.
Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each update on the latest research findings from Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Other research-based resources are also available through this website.
© Barna Group 2012.