New research from Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin on the effect of women's ordination in America (Oxford University Press).

New research shows that women’s ordination boosts trust and commitment among some American worshippers

New research from Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin on the effect of women's ordination in America (Oxford University Press).

A guest post by Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin

Those who advocate for greater diversity in the leadership of religious congregations argue that diversity is important because it has an empowering effect on those who are traditionally underrepresented. The argument goes that when a religious leader shares an important group identity with worshippers, those worshippers will be more likely to believe that the leader is responsive to their needs. This, in turn, can result in higher motivation to be active in the life of their congregation.

Up until recently, however, no one had examined whether this is the case with women’s ordination in American congregations. In our new book, She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America (Oxford University Press), we directly tackle this question.

We conducted a nationwide telephone and internet survey of American worshippers (anyone who says that they attend religious services at least “seldom,” both Christian and non-Christian) as well as dozens of in-person interviews with clergy and congregants. We specifically wanted to know whether women who worship in congregations with female pastors or priests (or imams, rabbis, bishops, etc.) show higher levels of spirituality and religious investment than women who have male religious leaders.

It turns out that gender leadership in religious congregations does indeed matter, but not in ways that we expected. Our survey results show that it matters less to women whether the pastor or priest is male or female than whether the congregation allows women to serve as the principal leader at all.

Women who attend congregations with male-only leadership policies are somewhat less likely than women who attend congregations that ordain women to agree with statements like these:

  • “Generally speaking, I can trust my church or congregation to do what is right”
  • “I feel that my church or congregation leaders care a lot about what people like me think”
  • “People like me have a lot of influence over the decisions made by my local church or congregation”
  • “I identify as a member of my church or congregation and I am proud of that identity.”

In other words, when it comes to personal commitment and trust in their religious community, policies that give women the potential of gender equality are psychologically empowering, even if the women’s current leader at that moment happens to be a man.

Interestingly, the same is not true for men. Men are equally invested and trusting in religious communities that do not ordain women as they are in ones that do.

Our research uncovered a second important effect: politics matters more than gender. Democrats and political liberals, both male and female, are particularly aware of and responsive to the gender of their congregational leaders. Across the board, political liberals are more likely to trust in their congregations and feel more emotionally invested in their membership when their congregations allow women to be ordained.

Why is this the case? Sociologist Mark Chaves has argued that women’s ordination is “about something more than females in religious leadership.” He shows evidence that women’s ordination is a key way that denominations signal that they’re theologically progressive, while those that maintain male-only leadership policies do so to indicate that they are holding the line on theological traditionalism.

In this light, it makes sense why political liberals would be particularly affected by women’s ordination. When they see that their congregations provide equal opportunities for women as well as men to serve as their primary spiritual leader, they are more likely to feel that their congregations share their theological (as well as political) priorities, making continued participation more appealing.

Perhaps most importantly, our research shows that political conservatives, as well as theological traditionalists, are not affected in a similar way if their congregations choose to ordain women or hire a female pastor or priest. Whether male or female, conservatives are just as likely to attend religious services, pray, share their views on God with others, and feel invested in their congregations regardless of the policies or practices on gender and leadership.

This is important because one of the most striking trends in American society today is the strong polarization of politics and religion: political conservatives are much more likely than liberals to identify as religious and attend religious services. Our research strongly suggests that one way for religious congregations to slow the attrition from liberals and Democrats is to open their pulpits, altars, and priesthoods to women. Doing so results in higher levels of religious activity and involvement from liberals (and women) while not alienating conservatives (or men).


Dr. Benjamin Knoll is the John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Cammie Jo Bolin is currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of Government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Their book, She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America, is now available from Oxford University Press.


Other posts by Benjamin Knoll:



  1. It’s rather a self-fulfilling outcome.

    “He shows evidence that women’s ordination is a key way that denominations signal that they’re theologically progressive, while those that maintain male-only leadership policies do so to indicate that they are holding the line on theological traditionalism.”

    However, the study should have looked further at what happens after theologically progressive religious organizations ordain women.

    The Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ demonstrate: both are about one half the size they were 40 plus years ago.

    So, half the people leave, and the remaining half contain women who are pleased as punch.

    Somehow that does not sound like a recipe for success.

  2. Since Jesus ordained nobody, I suspect he’d tell us to figure it out ourselves, using the Gospel for guidance.

  3. Correlation does not imply causation.

  4. He formed and sent forth with His powers 12 men, one failed.

  5. For the established church in England it appears that ordaining women (and elevating them to bishop-hood) is merely delaying the inevitable.

    “Of the 542 candidates entering training this year, more than half (274) are women,………At the present rate, people are not entering the ministry at the same rate as others are retiring…..The total number of people in ordained ministry has declined by 470 since 2013.

    Men still outnumber women in ordained ministry, although there were equal numbers of non-stipendiary ministers; slightly more self-supporting female ministers than men; and ten per cent more female ordained local ministers. Women still made up less than a third — 29 per cent — of the total number of active clerics.

    But, while the total number of female clergy has risen steadily from 5310 in 2013 to a record high of 5690 last year, the total for men declined by about 860 in this time, contributing to the overall decline in clergy in the past four years.”

  6. Your correspondent rejects the sacraments, but most especially Holy Orders.

    He’s Richard Peter McBrienist and his favorite word is “typology”.

    He used to post this same material at National Catholic Reporter and then joined the exodus when they closed their Comments.

    I finally blocked him.

  7. You claim that you block folks and yet you know just what they’ve posted and you respond to them. Lying appears to be one of things which you do best. That and filling the comments with cheap dog kibble.

  8. Thank you for the heads up.

  9. All the apostles were Jewish. Why allow any men but Jews to be ordained?

  10. God chose to start His Kingdom with believers in monotheism (in fact a narrow set of Jews within the broader Jewish faith), a convenient economy of belief if you will…less “distance” to take the people if you will.

    A belief system isn’t the same thing as a set of human capacities.

    Have most liberals not taken a good course in Thomistic or Aristotelian philosophy, or even biology, which would give them a refinement in their intellect, allowing them to study matters down to their essence and natures?

  11. Which specific tasks of an ordained minister require x-y chromosome set?

  12. “Form[ing] and sen[ding] forth” is not ordaining.

    Our fellow blogger, “R.A. Bob” below, has lost to me more times than I can count. Yes, he blocked me. I won too many of his catseyes so he got up from our game, took his marbles home, only apparently to pout in his bedroom

    “Come on out ‘an play, ‘R.A. Bob’. I wanna’ win more of your catseye marbles!”

  13. I’ll give ya’ an UP arrow, just to make ya’ feel better, OK, “R.A. Bob”? Even if I do embrace the 7 sacraments.

  14. Not only did Jesus not ordain anyone to Christian ministry, i.e., “priesthood” or anything else, but he didn’t even state that he himself was any kind of “priest”, high or low. As a future pope once acknowledged, “[F]acts, as history teaches, carry more weight than pure doctrine” (Joseph Ratzinger, THEOLOGICAL HIGHLIGHTS OF VATICAN II, Paulist Press/Deus Books, 1966, p. 16). Jesus, instead, said he was a “prophet”, and his followers, based on other passages in the New Testament, apparently believed likewise. If you demonstrate you are a pharmacist and somebody else claims you are a CPA, to whom are we to give credibility, you or the other person???

  15. He gave them power, gave Peter the keys (read Authority) and sent the Holy Spirit, specifically to them.

    The lack of formation and even a basic understanding of Scripture is appalling.

  16. In your most intimate dreams…

  17. Ask Jesus, if you get to see Him.

  18. Apparently, I’ve forgotten more than you’ve ever learned on the subject.

  19. Jesus gave the Twelve “power”: to do what?

    “The lack of formation and even a basic understanding of Scripture is appalling.”

    I fully agree: get back to your Bible.

  20. The power to forgive sins and to make Himself truly present again in the Mass.

    Get back to the Bible.

  21. About 20 years ago that expression was cute, today it simply self-embarrasses.

  22. I’ve known “that expression” for 40 or more years, and it’s still true. You must be a young’un.

  23. Each of us has “the power to forgive sins”. Indeed, Jesus instructed his followers not only to forgive but to initiate forgiveness! And, if we do not forgive? Consider: “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Mt 6:14-15). Hmmm…………

    Jesus “make[s] Himself truly present again in the Mass” because, where “two or three are gathered together in [his] name,…[he is] in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). Hmmm…………

    “Get back to the Bible.”

    So true — so get back to it!

  24. The passage states that he gave Peter the keys to the kingdom, that what was loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven. Nothing stated there defines what that means specifically and it certainly doesn’t even hint at making “Himself fully present again in the Mass.”

  25. Just read the Acts of the Apostles and realize, more deeply, what Jesus’s words meant to the apostles who heard Him!

    Their witness “speaks” to the meaning. The Holy Spirit connected the dots for them.

  26. More assumptions by Latin Church members to justify their dogma. There isn’t anything in Acts that comes close to the leaps of logic on your part as stated above. Nothing about the Apostles forgiving sins, nothing about them making anyone present in a Mass that didn’t yet exist!

  27. What you miss is the continuity of action, long before the New Testament was pulled together.

    They were healing, they were breaking Bread as Christ taught them, they were interpreting His words as well as the OT prophets.

    A cleared eyed person can see it.

    Then there are the words of the Early Church Fathers.. just take Justin Martyr’s words, written in the early 130s.

    “…But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation.

    Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands.

    And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to ge’noito [so be it].

    And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.”


  28. A clear eyed person can see it. [SIC]

    A majority of non-Latin Church scholars, liberal & conservative, would state that you are projecting your own prejudices about your church back into the writings. You have crafted your own tinted reading glasses.

  29. 1. You made an assertion that you can’t back up (a majority). Love to see you waste your Friday night trying to cobble together the impossible, even with the cherry picking that we’d see from the obvious prejudice.

    2. When you say non-Latin scholars, you really mean members of protestant and schismatic churches…and their number and variety are so many that they self-undercut their own authority as they often do. Preening chickens without heads, running into each other and bleeding on each other.


  30. Since the majority of non-Latin Church scholars don’t accept Latin dogma, such as the primacy of the Latin Bishop of Rome, nor transubstantiation, it isn’t something that I have to cobble together. Your description aside, their scholarship isn’t usually questioned by Latin Church scholars, just their conclusions.

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