Barna Study: 3 Times More Female Pastors Compared to 25 Years Ago

female pastor

After three years and 10,000 interviews, the Barna Group has some conclusive information about the “State of Pastors” in our modern age. While the study explored everything from the mental, physical, financial, emotional and spiritual well-being of today’s pastors, one thing it found may surprise you: One out of every 11 pastors is female. This number is three times what is was 25 years ago.

Barna’s Editor in Chief, Roxanne Stone, presented the research on the rising number of women in leadership in the church. Stone explained this jump is seen most consistently in mainline Protestant denominations.

Barna did a study a couple years ago which asked women if they felt “like you are held back at your church, or are you bothered by the limitations placed on you,” Stone said. The majority of women surveyed responded that they are “not bothered” by the limitations; however women representing younger generations were more uncomfortable than not with those limitations.

Women lead smaller churches while facing more criticism

While the number of female pastors is on the rise, a Christianity Today article points out they lead smaller congregations than men do. Additionally, they are more likely than men to classify their congregants’ comments on their leadership as “critical,” “judging” and “unhelpful.” Barna offered these hypotheses for why this might be the case: With smaller congregations, criticism is more likely to make its way back to the pastor; women also feel more pressure than men to “do everything” or attain “perfection.” Finally, given the ongoing debate about biblical instructions on women in leadership, female pastors feel pressure for simply being women—whether it comes from inside or outside their congregations.

Women leaving the church

Stone also drew on the studies Barna has conducted tracking church attendance over the last 25-30 years. In the past, women represented a “stable” group that consistently attended church. In the younger generations, however, the studies are showing a decrease in regular church attendance among women. Stone explains women are concerned about what they can and can’t do at church. Pointing to the disconnect between the consistent messages girls are receiving from the culture as they grow up (“You can do anything you want; there are no limitations for you”) and the limitations the church places on women, women are asking “Why are there glass ceilings at church when I don’t have those in the rest of my life?”

What opportunities are available to the church as a result of these findings?

Consistent with its mission, Barna included ways for pastors to apply these research findings to the church’s progress. Stone offered these suggestions for church leaders wishing to implement the research:

Pay attention to the cultural moment we’re in — Stone referred to the Women’s March that just occurred. Whether or not you agree with the politics involved in this march, as a pastor you can seek to understand what women were trying to accomplish by participating in it. Is there a felt need you can address for your congregants?

Address women’s need for leadership — Make the women in your church aware of the opportunities to serve and lead in your church, even if it’s not necessarily the executive pastor position.

Don’t be afraid to talk theology — Wherever you stand on the issue of women in leadership, Stone encourages you to make your church’s theological position known. Be honest and upfront and offer a thorough explanation for why your church holds this position.

Address changing family structures — As our culture shifts toward men and women pursuing career paths equally, family structures are changing. These new structures can be particularly difficult to navigate, which gives the church the opportunity to step in and provide the biblical guidance congregants are looking for.

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Megan Briggs
Megan Briggs is a content editor and passionate follower of Christ. Two things – she believes – that should be linked together more often. Her experience in ministry to youth and parents as well as the extensive amount of time she’s spent in ministry overseas gives her a unique perspective on the global church. Megan is passionate about spreading the gospel and equipping the church for holiness. When she’s not writing or proofreading, Megan likes to run.