March 2, 2016

Women relatively rare in top positions of religious leadership

While many large religious organizations in the United States allow women to be ordained – and to hold leadership positions within the organization – few women have actually served at the very top.

Women in religious leadershipWe looked at nine major religious organizations in the U.S. that both ordain women and allow them to hold top leadership slots. Of those organizations, four have had a woman in the top leadership position. And, so far, each of these four has had only one woman in the top position.

Currently, the American Baptist Churches USA and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are the only groups in our analysis with women in their top leadership positions. Susan Gillies is interim general secretary of the Baptist churches and Elizabeth Eaton is the presiding bishop of the Lutheran group.

The Episcopal Church had a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, serving as presiding bishop from 2006 to 2015. In the United Methodist Church, another woman, Rosemarie Wenner, served two terms as president of the council of bishops, an international body charged with providing spiritual leadership to Methodists around the world. (The church does not have its own governing body in the U.S.; Wenner, who is German, is based in Europe.)

The Unitarian Universalist Association has had women running in the past three elections for president, but, so far, no woman has won. This year, there are two women candidates.

The Union for Reform Judaism, the central leadership arm of Reform Jewish congregations in the U.S., has never had a woman president. However, a woman, Denise Eger, serves as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the principal organization for Reform rabbis in the U.S. Additionally, another woman, Daryl Messinger, is the chair of the North American board of trustees, which is the top lay leadership post in the organization.

Likewise, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has never had a woman as its CEO, the professional leader at the head of the organization. However, a woman currently holds the office of the international president, a lay position. Margo Gold is the second woman to serve in this capacity.

Many churches, including many of the largest denominations in the United States, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and the Southern Baptist Convention, do not allow women to be ordained or hold top church leadership positions.

In recent decades, there have been efforts among some American Catholics to lift the church’s prohibition on ordaining women. More recently, some members of the LDS church have advocated for the ordination of women into the priesthood, an office held by most adult Mormon men who are members of the church in good standing. While roughly six-in-ten American Catholics (59%) in a 2015 Pew Research Center survey said they support ordaining women in their church, 87% of Mormons (including 90% of Mormon women) in a 2011 Pew Research Center survey said they do not support allowing women to enter the LDS priesthood.

Topics: Gender, Religion and Society, Religious Leaders

  1. Photo of Aleksandra Sandstrom

    is a copy editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Luis Gutierrez1 year ago

    Everything is connected. I am very concerned about the conflation of patriarchal gender ideology and revealed truth in our sacramental theology:

    Meditations on Man and Woman, Humanity and Nature

    These meditations are based on my understanding of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    Themes: Humanity, Patriarchy, Flesh, Sacraments, Church, Solidarity, Sustainability, Mercy, Evangelization

    The patriarchal culture of male domination and female subordination is the root cause of social and ecological injustice. Thankfully, families are already evolving from sole male (father) headship to joint male-female (father-mother) headship. To continue the process narrated in Acts 15, when the Church transitioned out of the Jewish culture, now the Church must let go of the patriarchal culture, which predates biblical times but emerged *after* original sin (Genesis 3:16).

    Prayers and critical feedback would be appreciated.

    In Christ,


  2. Jeremy Valentiner1 year ago

    Regarding: “87% of Mormons (including 90% of Mormon women) in a 2011 Pew Research Center survey said they do not support allowing women to enter the LDS priesthood.”

    This statistic seems to have been heavily affected by the default bias built into how the question was phrased. There is a difference rooted in Mormon theology based on concepts that “obedience is the first law of heaven”, “the Lord will never allow the Prophet to lead the Church astray”, “follow the brethren”, etc. that stifles advocacy and support for women’s ordination. If the question is asked differently, the vast majority of Mormons would support women’s ordination, IF it came from the Prophet. See here:

    “The vast majority of LDS women and men would support ordaining females to the faith’s all-male priesthood if — and it’s a big if — such a mandate came from a Mormon prophet.

    That’s one of the key findings from a newly released Mormon Gender Issues Survey, put together by a group of LDS-affiliated academics across various disciplines and amassing responses from about 50,000 members of the Utah-based faith.”


  3. Megan Dosher Hansen1 year ago

    While I greatly appreciate Pew’s work on religion and gender in religion, I do take issue with the misunderstanding of Presbyterian Church (USA) polity – the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly is not the leader of the church, thought often acting as a spokesperson for the PC(USA).

    Our polity is based on ordained leaders, both Ministers of Word and Sacrament (Teaching Elders) and Ruling Elders, who work, in concert with the movement of the Holy Spirit to discuss and make decisions by majority rule, at all levels of the church, from local to national. The Stated Clerk is appointed by this body to maintain the polity of the PC(USA) within our assembly gatherings, and has no decision-making power on behalf of the church other than authorities granted by the General Assembly. It is unfortunate that, to date, a woman has not occupied this position, and that may be changing soon as we are just now working to select a new Stated Clerk as the current Stated Clerk is retiring.

    If anyone were to be considered the “leader” of the church, it would be the Moderator of the General Assembly, and we have had many women elected as Moderator of the General Assembly since the inception of the PC(USA) in 1983.