Chapel Hill: Community

Duke study: Women clergy still hitting the ‘stained-glass ceiling’

By Flo Johnston

Even as American churches become more diverse, female clergy seeking leadership positions are hitting a glass ceiling, a Duke University study finds.

Women still hold just a small minority of leadership posts in American congregations, according to the newly released National Congregations Study report.

The study found essentially no overall increase in the number of congregations led by women since 1998, with about 11 percent of congregations led by women.

“That’s one of the most surprising non-changes in our data,” said Mark Chaves, a Duke professor of sociology, religious studies and divinity who directs the study. “When I first saw this result, I thought it had to be wrong. But it’s accurate. The ‘stained-glass ceiling’ is real.”

There are several contributing factors, Chaves said. The proportion of female master of divinity students peaked in the early 2000s and has declined slightly since, and some with those degrees are less likely to seek pastor positions than men. Moreover, several major religious groups don’t let women lead congregations, and even those that do ordain women still contain congregations reluctant to have a woman lead them.

Many women are assistant pastors and fill other secondary leadership roles in churches across the spectrum, especially in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, the study notes.

Published on Dec. 9, the study is based on a 2012 survey and builds on two previous waves of data collected in 2006 and 1998.

When I first saw this result, I thought it had to be wrong. But it’s accurate.

Mark Chaves, a Duke professor of sociology, religious studies and divinity

Other study findings include:

▪ The larger the church, the smaller the donation it receives from each of its members. Across the board, smaller American churches receive larger financial gifts than larger churches, the study finds. For example, an evangelical Protestant congregation of 100 adults receives an average annual gift of $1,750 per adult, while an evangelical congregation of 400 receives $1,480, and an evangelical congregation of 1,000 receives $1,140, according to the study. Overall, a congregation of 100 adults receives about 18 percent more money from its average member than a congregation of 400, the study finds.

▪ Gay rights has split churches like no other social issues has. When churches engage in activism on hot social issues of the day, they tend to fall almost entirely on one side of the argument. For example, most churches take a pro-life stance when engaging in the abortion debate. But on the same-sex marriage debate, there are roughly equal numbers of churches on either side of the issue, the study finds.

▪ Clergy are aging. Fewer young people are going to seminary right out of college, and more clergy come to that vocation as a second career, creating a church leadership population aging more quickly than the American public, the study says. In 1998, the senior leader in an average congregation was 49 years old; in 2006, it was 53 and in 2012 it was 55.

Here is a look at other local church events coming up:

‘Blue Chriustmas’

A holiday service called “Blue Christmas” will beheld Wednesday, Dec. 16, at Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 4907 Garrett Road.

This is a contemplative way to explore holiday themes for those experiencing grief or seeking a less traditional expression of the Christmas season. The 7 p.m. gathering will include reflective readings, an altar for mementos of loved ones and a low-key fellowship time.

A celebration of Solstice from 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19, will mark the return to light and the New Year. This inter-generational servicein the fellowship hall will include songs, poetry and ritual for the turning of the year. All are welcome.

Bach concert

New Hope Presbyterian Church, 4701 NC 86, will celebrate Christmas with a concert and carol sing by the Pittsboro Bach Society at 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20. The concert will be preceded by 20 minutes of music by instrumentalists from New Hope Church.

Carols by candlelight

United Church of Chapel Hill, 1321 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., will hold a candlelight service of lessons and carols at 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20.

The event will feature children, youth and chancel choirs as well as the Bronze Voices Handbell Choir, an oboe player and percussionists performing traditional and contemporary carols from Germany, France, New Zealand, Nigeria, England and the United States.

The Christmas story will unfold through readings from Genesis, Isaiah and the New Testament gospels. After each reading carols and hymns will be sung that reflect the message of the reading. At the end of the service, the congregation will light candles to symbolize the light of Christ entering the world.

The public is invited to this free event.

Contact Flo Johnston at or call 910-361-4135.