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James Thurber captioned one New Yorker cartoon: "I love the idea of there being two sexes, don't you?"
As Thurber was wryly suggesting, not only do we not have a lot of choice in the matter, the reality is infinitely more interesting than the mere idea.
Gender issues have provoked extensive discussion, especially in the church. Is there a difference between what women and men experience in congregational life? How significant is this gender gap, and in what direction does it run?
To determine the way gender impacts church life, LEADERSHIP surveyed one thousand subscribers, and nearly 30 percent responded, representing churches across the spectrum of size and theological orientation.
Average Sunday morning attendance of these churches:
100 or fewer (33 percent)
101 to 200 (26 percent)
201 to 500 (23 percent)
More than 500 (18 percent).
(In this summary, "small churches" means churches averaging one hundred or fewer; "large churches" means churches averaging more than five hundred.)
Respondents were asked to identify their theological or doctrinal preferences, and they flow out of different ecclesiastical streams: Charismatic, Conservative, Evangelical, Fundamental, Liberal, Pentecostal, Traditional Confessional, and the ubiquitous Other.
These responses were tabulated and analyzed by the research department of Christianity Today, Inc.
Here are the results.
Overall, women tend to compose the majority in church life, almost 60 percent of the general church population.
What is your best estimate of the percentage of males and females on your church membership roll? Respondents reported an average 57 percent female and 43 percent male membership.
The female majority was more pronounced in the averages for worship attendance. What percentage of adult males and females are typically in Sunday worship at your church? According to the respondents, the typical service contains 59 percent females versus 41 percent male attenders.
When the results were analyzed according to the theological orientation of the respondents, some differences in the male-female ratio emerged. Those identifying themselves as "Pentecostal" reported the highest percentage of men in membership (47 percent) and attendance (43 percent).
Those classifying themselves as "Liberal" reported the second highest percentage of male members (44 percent), but the lowest percentage of male attenders (36 percent).
"Fundamental" churches reported the lowest percentage of male membership (37 percent), and the third lowest (37 percent) of male attenders (just above "Liberal" and "Traditional Confessional" churches). But while all other churches have a smaller proportion of men in worship than in membership, Fundamental churches are the only ones to report a corresponding percentage of males in both attendance and membership.
Nonetheless, respondents perceive that the situation has become more balanced in the last ten years. Over the last 10 years, has the percentage of men in Sunday worship increased, decreased, or remained the same? The responses:
Increased (26 percent)
Decreased (14 percent)
Remained the same (42 percent)
Not sure (18 percent).
How are ministries affected by these gender ratios? Almost all churches have responded by developing programs specifically for women. But not as many plan ministries for men.
Does your church have any ministries specifically for women? Overall 90 percent of the churches said yes. Even among small churches, 81 percent offered women's ministries, and among large churches, 96 percent had programs especially for women.
Does your church have any ministries specifically for men? Overall, 74 percent said yes, but church size had much more bearing on the availability of men's ministries. Some 59 percent of small churches had a men's ministry, while 86 percent of large churches did.
When asked whether they personally felt more comfortable talking about spiritual things with men or women, pastors tended to say women, because women seemed more receptive.
A few pastors indicated that ministering to women was more difficult than ministering to men. One pastor said, "Partially it's the fear of impropriety or misunderstood care or transference. I'm also uncomfortable with physical contact that could allow my 'good to be spoken evil of.' "
Another said, "I don't understand women the same way I understand men. What kind of sermon illustrations, for instance, interest women? I know what grabs my attention."
But the majority of pastors writing to LEADERSHIP indicated that talking with men about spiritual things was much harder than talking with women. Men were described as tending to be "nonreaders" and "work-oriented" and having a "more uncommunicative approach to life."
"So many men have the idea that to be ministered unto is unmanly," said one pastor. "One man I tried to counsel informed me that he always pulled himself up by his bootstraps and didn't need anyone else's help."
One pastor said, "My husband and I serve as a clergy couple (co-pastors in one congregation). We have found that the women more easily open up to me, and the men to him. I suppose this is only natural. We feel it is a great benefit to our ministry."
Differences by gender are also seen in the counseling load of the pastor.
Of the counseling by appointment you did in the last month, what percentage of the counselees were:
Women (59 percent)
Men (34 percent)
Children (7 percent).
On the other hand, casual counseling was markedly different. Of the individuals you met informally (i.e. over breakfast or lunch, socially in a home, or a pastoral visit) in the last month, what percentage were:
Women (39 percent)
Men (52 percent)
Children (9 percent).
Pastors interviewed suggested several reasons for the preponderance of women in intentional counseling.
"Women tend to seek help more quickly than men will. Studies show that men tend not to stop to ask for instructions if they're lost. Women will. That's part of the male ego," suggested one pastor.
Time available is another factor. "Women tend to be the ones who book appointments during the day," said another. "Rarely am I going to get together with a man unless it's on his lunch hour or after work. It's funny, too, because working men often make appointments with a doctor or dentist during the work day, but not with pastors."
A marked gender gap emerged among married persons who attend without their spouses. Married women attending without their husbands outnumber men attending without their wives by 4 to 1.
This was the case no matter what the size of the church. Small churches averaged five wives without spouses and one husband without his wife. Large churches averaged 42 wives without husbands and 11 husbands without wives.
One pastor theorized why this disparity was so dramatic: "When men are hurting-if their marriage is troubled, for instance-they usually seek distance and want to be alone. When women are hurting, they tend to seek company. They would more naturally come to a church for healing."
Do these differences in male and female involvement mean the church should enact "affirmative action" to reach men? Not necessarily, according to most survey respondents, although a significant minority said men need special attention.
When asked where emphasis needed to be placed in ministry, 80 percent felt equal emphasis needed to be placed on both men and women. But the remaining 20 percent felt more emphasis needed to be placed on reaching men than women. Less than 1 percent felt their church needed to put more emphasis on reaching women than men.
How do LEADERSHIP readers approach the Bible's teaching on the topic of male and female roles? The largest group (46 percent) believe the Bible's teachings on the subject "should be interpreted in their historical and cultural contexts."
Regarding the roles of men and women, the Bible's teachings . . .
-should be interpreted in their historical and cultural contexts (46 percent)
-are very clear and plainly understood (36 percent)
-are difficult to understand and open to various interpretations (17 percent).
As might be expected, theological orientation is a factor in how respondents answered this question.
Of those identifying themselves as "Fundamental," 76 percent said the Bible's teachings regarding the roles of men and women are "very clear and plainly understood," while among those identifying themselves as "Traditional Confessional," 81 percent said the teachings "should be interpreted in their historical and cultural contexts." Those calling themselves "Evangelical" are the most likely to be confused (23 percent). The following chart lists the responses by theological persuasion.
Most respondents (68 percent) do not consciously think about whether men and women will respond differently to their preaching. But more than half (53 percent) consciously use nonsexist language in their sermons.
Specifically, the respondents indicated which of the following statements applied to them.
I consciously include sermon illustrations that would appeal primarily to men. (21 percent)
I consciously include sermon illustrations that would appeal primarily to women. (22 percent)
I don't consciously differentiate between male and female responses as I plan my sermons. (68 percent)
I consciously use nonsexist language in my preaching and public speaking when referring to people. (53 percent)
I don't consciously monitor my language for gender-related references. (40 percent)
I consciously use nonsexist language in my preaching and public speaking when referring to God. (12 percent)
I consciously use masculine pronouns for God. (57 percent)
I don't consciously monitor my language for gender-related references to God. (35 percent)
The way respondents viewed the Bible's teaching on male and female roles seemed to affect the way they answered these practical questions.
Of those who said the Bible's teachings are "very clear and plainly understood," 77 percent consciously use masculine pronouns for God, only 3 percent use nonsexist language when referring to God, and 29 percent use nonsexist language when referring to people.
Among those who said the Bible's teachings "should be interpreted in their historical and cultural context," only 37 percent consciously use masculine pronouns for God, 21 percent use nonsexist language when referring to God, and 70 percent use nonsexist language when referring to people.
The survey also asked respondents which of several offices a woman may hold in their churches, what positions a woman has actually held, and what positions does a woman now hold. If the church does not have a position listed, respondents were instructed to check "does not apply." (See accompanying chart.)
Overall, 45 percent indicated a woman may hold a pastoral staff position in their churches; 9 percent currently have a woman in such a position. Some 39 percent indicate a woman may hold the office of senior pastor; 6 percent said a woman has held that position, and 2 percent indicate the present senior pastor is a woman.
More than half the churches have women currently serving on the church board or council.
In one of the peculiarities of church life, 56 percent indicate that women have served on the pastoral search committee and on the church board, but only 36 percent have had a woman usher.
It's clear that differences remain in the ways men and women are involving themselves in local congregations.
Copyright © 1991 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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