Centre College’s Cammie Jo Bolin ’16 and Benjamin R. Knoll, John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics, collaborated on research that culminated in the publication of the book She Preached the Word (Oxford University Press, 2018), a study of women’s ordination in contemporary American congregations.
Using data and personal narrative interviews, they tackle several important issues, including congregational support for women’s ordination; the most common reasons for and against women’s ordination; the effect of female clergy on young women and girls; how women clergy affect levels of congregational attendance and engagement among members; and the persistent gender gap in America’s clergy.
Throughout this book, Knoll and Bolin discuss how the gender gap in the wider economic, social and political spheres will likely continue so long as women are underrepresented in America’s pulpits.
“Our research showed that attitudes toward women’s ordination are strongly related to the wider societal relationship between religion, culture and politics,” Knoll says.
“In America today, religious traditionalism and political conservatism go hand in hand, as do religious modernism and political liberalism. Previous research has shown that a religious community’s policy toward gender and leadership serves as an effective ‘signaling’ device as to whether it is on the traditionalist or modernist side of that spectrum. For women’s ordination to become more widespread in America’s congregations, this relationship will likely need to relax somewhat so that ‘traditional’ religious communities don’t see women’s ordination as inconsistent with their cultural and political identity.”
In line with the Centre Commitment, guaranteeing that students will study abroad, have an internship or research opportunity, and graduate in four years if they meet regular academic and social expectations, Knoll asked students to apply to collaborate with him on this project, and Bolin was a perfect fit.
“I applied, and because Dr. Knoll knew I was already interested in the topic because of an earlier research paper, I was accepted,” Bolin says. “I was thankful for the opportunity to conduct funded undergraduate research during the summer—it was one of many opportunities at Centre that prepared me to continue my education in graduate school.”
“Cammie Jo had written a very strong research paper on politics and gender attitudes in one of my courses in the politics program,” Knoll continues. “Based on her skills and interests, I invited her to work with me to analyze survey data on attitudes toward women’s ordination that I had collected the previous year. Throughout the course of the summer, it was evident that there were more questions that we could tackle on this topic, so we made a plan to collect more data and to do a full-length book project.”
One of the many things uncovered by Knoll’s and Bolin’s research is the disparity between parishioners’ attitudes supporting the ordination of women and actually pursuing qualified women to fill pastoral positions.
“From the perspective of American worshipers, our research showed that support for women’s ordination is high in the abstract but low in practice,” Knoll says. “Even though nearly three-quarters of Americans who attend religious services say that they support women serving as the principal leader of their congregations, only nine percent say that they would prefer that their current pastor or priest be a woman, compared to 42 percent who say a man and 48 percent who say that it doesn’t matter. When more than nine in ten worshipers would prefer a man as their leader or don’t have a preference either way, there is little incentive for congregation hiring committees to push for a woman pastor or priest.”
Both Knoll and Bolin have found if worshippers believe that gender equity in their congregations’ leadership is important, it requires letting hiring committees know.
“I was raised in a religious tradition that provides many valuable and empowering opportunities to women but that restricts its priesthood and congregational leadership only to men,” Knoll says. “Over the last several years there have been many conversations on the topic of gender and leadership in religious communities, and I realized that these conversations often include arguments and assertions that were not supported with firm empirical evidence. Social scientists are able to make a unique contribution to these conversations by testing these various arguments and assertions to see if they hold up under the lens of rigorous empirical analysis.”
“Like Ben, I also grew up in a denomination that bars women from ordination and serving as pastors or deacons,” Bolin says. “Despite my congregation’s stance on women’s formal role in the church, my family raised me to believe women can—and should—be given the same leadership opportunities as men.”
Bolin, who is currently in a Ph.D. program at Georgetown University, values the academic opportunities of this work.
“Through this project, I was able to apply research skills I learned at Centre to a topic of personal interest. This project showed me how fun, albeit frustrating at times, research can be and helped me solidify my post-Centre plans to continue my political science education in graduate school. While I am still in the course-work stage of my program at Georgetown, I am interested in pursuing a similar research project for my dissertation. I haven’t solidified my topic at this time, but I am interested in the role model effects of women in leadership positions—both political and religious.
“This research experience is a perfect example of Centre’s commitment to undergraduate research and Centre professors’ dedication to creating a rich learning environment for their students,” Bolin continues. “I am grateful for all of the opportunities I had at Centre, and I strive to model my future teaching and mentoring approaches on Dr. Knoll’s example.”
“One key thing to emphasize is that this research was literally made possible by the Centre community,” Knoll stresses. “The survey data was funded by Centre pedagogy and research grants and collected by hundreds of Centre students doing thousands of collective hours of telephone polling over the course of three semesters throughout 2015 and 2016 as parts of course projects. The dozens of in-person interviews and some of the background research was done by seven students enrolled in an upper-level advanced research course in the politics program.
“Cammie Jo and I were able to write the book using a combination of college-supported research leaves and collaborative-directed research courses. This book is the result of the strong commitment of Centre to undergraduate research opportunities, both in and outside of the classroom.”
by Cindy Long
January 22, 2019