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This article was published 18/8/2018 (881 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In 1990, my church — River East in North Kildonan, part of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches — was the very first church in that denomination in North America to hire a woman to be its lead pastor.
At the time, the decision was very controversial. But eventually there was a change of hearts and minds, and it was decided women in the denomination could lead churches.
At the time, I was glad for the women who now could follow God’s call in their lives to be pastors. Later, when my children were born, it was great to know they were growing up seeing it was normal for women to be clergy — especially for my daughter.
It turns out there was another reason why this was a great idea: seeing women in leadership in religious groups is also good for the self-esteem of girls.
That’s the conclusion of a new book, She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America, by Benjamin Knoll, an associate professor of politics at Centre College in Danville, Ky., and Cammie Jo Bolin, a PhD. student in political science at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (Oxford University Press.)
In the book, the authors indicate that research has consistently shown that positive adult role models contribute to the health, education and overall well-being of young people. This includes learning about gender roles.
"When children see a behaviour modelled exclusively by men or by women, they internalize that behaviour as distinctly masculine or feminine," they say about the world of business, politics and other places of work.
"The more children see positions of power occupied only by men, the more they come to think of leadership as an exclusively masculine role."
This, they add, can "implicitly generate an association between gender, leadership and self-confidence."
They wondered if what was true in society in general was also true in churches. Does the presence of female church leaders affect the self-worth and empowerment of girls and young women?
The answer, they say, is yes.
Based on a U.S.-wide survey of churchgoers, "one of our most striking findings is that women who had female congregational leaders in their youth enjoyed higher levels of self-esteem as adults."
What about men? Do they experience less self-esteem if they have a woman as a pastor?
Apparently not. "Men who had female congregational leaders frequently growing up have levels of self-esteem that are just as high as those who never had a female pastor or priest," the authors say.
Why is this finding about the effect of female church leaders on girls important?
One reason, they say, is because "low self-esteem has been linked to higher levels of depression and anxiety, as well as lower levels of relationship success, job satisfaction and motivation for personal improvement."
Another is that women whose most influential leader in church growing up was a woman are likely to be employed full-time, and to advance further in university.
To the authors, this "strongly suggests" that the lack of women leaders in many churches "is at least partially to blame for the contemporary gender gap" in society.
Increasing the proportion of women in pulpits "would not only improve women’s psychological well-being, but would also likely help close the gender gap in the workplace and other positions of societal leadership," they state.
If that’s the case, then churches have some work to do. Research a few years ago in the U.S. by the Barna Group showed that one out of every 11 Protestant pastors is a woman, and that one in five seminary students are female.
A survey by the Presbyterian Record in 2016 found that 24 per cent of Presbyterian clergy were female, compared to 39 per cent of Anglicans and 56 per cent of United Church.
For religious parents of girls, what might this mean?
If you want them to grow up strong and secure, there are many things you can do to encourage them — in and out of religious services. But it might also mean choosing a church or other place of worship where women are given equal access to leadership, including preaching and teaching.
And it wouldn’t be a bad thing for boys to see that girls can do anything they want, too.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
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