Presbyterians Comfortable with Female Leaders; Don't Prefer Them

Most Presbyterians have been part of a congregation that was led by a woman in some capacity, according to a recent survey. And while most have no preference when it comes to a man or a woman for leadership roles, only 1 percent actually prefer a woman in the pulpit.

At least 87 percent of members, elders (lay leaders) and ministers of Presbyterian churches across the country indicated they have "no opinion" on whether they prefer a man or a woman for most congregational roles, such as a deacon, an elder or a committee chair. But when asked about the gender of their pastor, a smaller majority, at least 63 percent, said they have no preference, the latest Presbyterian Panel survey showed.

Among those who did express gender preferences, 37 percent of members prefer a man as pastor while only 1 percent prefer a woman.

Of male members, 41 percent prefer a man as pastor and 1 percent prefer a woman. Similarly, 34 percent of female members said a man would be their choice for the pastoral role and only 1 percent said they prefer a woman.

Female elders were somewhat more supportive of women in leadership, with 3 percent preferring a woman as pastor and 27 percent preferring a man. No male elders indicated that they prefer a woman as pastor.

Still, most members and elders would support calling a woman the next time there is a pastoral vacancy in their congregation.

A large majority hold no opinion regarding the gender of their presbytery's leaders - moderator, stated clerk, executive/general presbyter. But of those who do have an opinion, 12 percent of members prefer a man for the role and only 1 percent prefer a woman.

Regarding personal preferences on national church roles, such as the head of the General Assembly, which is the highest governing body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 88 percent responded with "no preference" and laity and pastors with a preference prefer a man over a woman.

Overall, the majorities of members and leaders in PC(USA) churches believe their fellow congregants would be "very comfortable" with a woman in various lay congregational roles. But somewhat fewer think that would be the case for the role of pastor, according to the survey.

In other findings, large majorities of members and leaders agree that "as a child I pictured God to be of male gender" and that "using male terms for God seems natural to me."

Nearly half of members and elders agree that "God is best understood in masculine terms" but far fewer (11 percent) pastors and specialized clergy (ministers who serve outside the congregation) agree with the statement. Most pastors and clergy say "God is the creator of gender, and not subject to it."

The survey is based on responses from a questionnaire distributed in November 2007 to a representative sample of 5,000 Presbyterians (members, elders, pastors, and specialized clergy) who serve for a three-year period on the Presbyterian Panel, which is part of the PC(USA). The Panel provides a way to listen to and collect information about the practices, beliefs, and opinions from both clergy and laity. The latest survey provided a snapshot of Presbyterians on "Women in the Church."