How the world has changed in a few short years! That realization came to me afresh when one of my research colleagues asked for suggestions for survey questions about women in ministry. He realized as he looked back over previous surveys that the questions we asked in the 70’s and even 10 years ago just don’t make sense any more.
Praise God for that! In 1982, over 30 years ago when women clergy in most mainline denominations were still a rarity, my first publication in a religious research journal examined “Women Pastors: What Happens After Placement?” It was a cross-denominational study comparing Yearbook statistics including membership growth, church school attendance, numbers of new members, and budgets for churches with female and male pastors, matched for size and years in the church. At that time, many people feared that having a woman pastor would result in membership losses. The study did find membership losses in churches with women ministers. However, those losses had been happening before the women arrived. When previous history was considered, the differences disappeared. And women, more than men, had been called or assigned to churches that were already on a downward curve.
Nowadays, a finding that churches are in equally good hands with clergymen or women would be greeted with yawns and probably questions as to why anyone would even bother to do such a study. How the world has changed!
This year’s theme of the Annual Meeting of the Religious Research Association is Revisiting Gender and Religion. It, too, invites researchers to pursue new questions or revisit older ones. What are the remaining hurdles to clergywomen? Or are there any? What difference does it make to the women in the pews, who make up a supermajority in many congregations, to have a woman pastor? Or is there any difference? What impact has feminist theology had in our churches? Or was there any? Are clergywomen so common now and so accepted that even these questions are obsolete? As I start this blog, I’d love to hear your answers to some of these, or your questions as well.
Kristina Lizardy Hajbi asked me, in my first post, to tell a little about myself. So here it is. I’m a church junkie. I’ve spent my whole life involved in church, first in the United Methodist Church, and then in the UCC, holding most positions in my local church and many in conference circles as well. I’m an applied research psychologist by trade, studying organizations to help make them work better. At Claremont Graduate University, I discovered that scientific study of churches and denominations had the potential to make them better, and I was hooked for life. In 1986, when the Board for Homeland Ministries had a researcher position open, I found that one could even make a living out of religious research, and I worked there until the offices moved to Cleveland in 1991. It was the most exciting, most fun and most exhausting job I’ve ever held.
Since then, I’ve worked in the health field, but continued to pursue religious research interests. Upon retiring (sort-of), I started Clay Pots Research as a way to feed my habit. I chose the name from 2 Corinthians 4:7 – “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us,” to capture my belief that the church, though cracked and flawed, holds a treasure beyond ourselves. While studying the treasure belongs more to theology, studying the vessel is well within the sphere of psychological research.
The Women Pastors study where it all began illustrates some of my philosophy of research. It gathered data on important questions to the organization to inform decision-making and planning, and maybe even push the state of the world forward a bit. It supported my clergywomen friends with hard facts to counter prejudice. Since then, I’ve studied hymnals and worship, clergy stress, church growth, vitality and decline, and lots of other topics in support of the church. Some research psychologists develop and test theories. I try to use tested theories to develop studies that inform the important questions churches and denominations face today.
The Women Pastors study also provides hope for the future for many of the causes I support. Over the years, I’ve researched and worked for inclusion for many marginal groups. As I look back on that study and how the world has changed since then, and I watch as state after state allows two people to marry, no matter what their sexual orientation, I am confident of the words of Martin Luther King that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In my work, I hope to help the arc bend just a little faster.
NOTE: March is Women’s History Month, and the UCC celebrated Women’s Week earlier this month (March 2-8). Resources for honoring Women’s Week (which can be celebrated at any time) are found here.