Study Compares Attitudes Toward Women's Ordination and Toward Women in Leadership

Loma Linda doctoral graduate Heather Knutson surveyed church members on how they feel about the ordination of women and found a correlation with how they feel about women in leadership roles in healthcare institutions. She would like to broaden the survey and collect data from church members around the world.

Question: You completed your dissertation and graduated with a doctorate in Health Policy and Leadership from the Loma Linda University School of Public Health last June. Your dissertation compared attitudes toward the ordination of women in a pastoral role and the correlation with women in leadership positions in Adventist healthcare facilities. Can you tell us about your research?

Answer: I wasn’t the student who knew from the beginning what I wanted to research. I took my time deciding and I think I made my professors a little nervous. Someone at work recommended that I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and and an idea began to form.

The dissertation process can be challenging and my committee, particularly Zane Yi, PhD from the School of Religion, helped me narrow down the topic. At the time I began work on my dissertation, there was no research asking church members for their views on ordination. There has been so much media attention around the gender pay gap and how women are viewed in the workplace that I wanted to formally collect data on attitudes towards ordination, as well as Adventist attitudes towards women in leadership.

I did a lengthy literature review, which looked at whether or not there was existing research about women’s ordination and leadership in Adventism. I found an excellent article that Jared Wright wrote in 2016 for Spectrum describing the lack of women in leadership roles within our church, and several articles on the history of the discussion on women’s ordination within Adventism, but there were no studies on the subject.

I then looked at the existing research on women’s ordination in other denominations. There is a fair amount for the Catholic Church as well as the Lutheran Church. Essentially, within the Catholic Church, members are increasingly supportive of the concept and within the Lutheran Church, the more educated the member, the more likely they are to support the ordination of women.

I also looked at the facts and figures for women in leadership roles within healthcare, as this was a health policy degree.

Everywhere I looked, women were underrepresented. Europe has begun to place mandates on diversity within the workplace but the US is very reluctant to follow suit.

Your survey sample was quite small, I believe — just one church congregation in southern California. What did you find in this survey? Were there any surprising findings?

Yes, the sample size was relatively small as this was a pilot study and the main focus was to find out whether or not the survey we created was valid and reliable.

I am grateful to the church for allowing me access to their congregation. They did so without question and have been very interested in learning the results.

The respondents were 51.1% female and 48.9% male. Most respondents were above the age of 45 and most earned 60% or more of their household income.

We found that the majority (85.93%) were supportive of the ordination of women. This was surprising to me. I know the church I used to obtain my sample was in southern California and southern Californian Adventist churches tend to be viewed a bit differently than, say, a church in Michigan, but I was surprised to see the number was so high.

Do you think the survey results might be different with a larger sample and broader demographic, since it seems southern Californians come down pretty strongly on the pro-women's ordination side?

The results might be different. They might not. But I am not tired of this topic. Far from it. And so, wherever I go, I like to ask what folks’ thoughts on ordination are. I’ve had these conversations across the United States, as well as in Canada. Although I am finding folks who are very much against the ordination of women, the majority are not opposed to it.

I appreciate the people who are against women’s ordination because they provide me with an opportunity to understand and to ask questions in different ways. Most people would never think about how their views in one area can affect their views in another. When I mention that their view on ordination just might color how they feel about gender in leadership roles, there is often a moment of self-reflection visible before I get a response. That moment is what I want, because it forces a person to think about the issue in a different way. Yes, southern California is very much known for being pro-ordination. But there are folks here who are not, and very vocal about it. Just like there are people who are very pro-ordination outside southern California.

I would love to capture all of it someday. I’d like to spend some time in South America and Africa and Australia gathering data. I think we need this data, as our Seventh-day Adventist leaders aren’t looking in the places they should be looking. There have not been objective studies. (While some might accuse me of not being objective, although I have never hidden my stance on women’s ordination, I do think it is important for everyone to have their say.)

Is there a chance the study could be conducted on a larger scale?

Yes. In the pilot study, we discovered that parts of the survey worked and others didn’t. I want to go back and streamline the survey and bring it to a wider group.

We chose an online survey as our method of data collection and that proved to be incredibly convenient. It is short-sighted to only survey church members in North America and like I mentioned before, I’d like to sample churches in places like South America and Africa.

How are the results of your research helpful? Are they useful to the boards and hiring managers of Adventist healthcare organizations? Or to Adventist church leadership?

I am so glad that you have asked these questions! The negative attitudes towards women in leadership roles are not unique to the Adventist Church. The secular world actually has the most research in this area. I’m going to get a little off-topic to answer your questions but bear with me for a bit.

Attitudes towards women in leadership can be very obvious or they can hide under the surface. Men and women are each responsible for holding women back. (Yes, women!) We socialize our girls differently than our boys. Even teachers treat the two differently as early as elementary school.

One of my favorite studies is referred to in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Heidi Roizen’s success story was given to two separate university classes by researchers Frank Flynn and Cameron Anderson in 2003. One class was told that Heidi was in fact Harold and the other was told that Heidi was Heidi. While each class rated Harold and Heidi as competent and respected them both, Heidi was described as selfish and not someone they would want to hire while Harold was seen as “the more appealing colleague” (Sandberg, 2013).

Gender stereotypes prevent women from pursuing careers in technical fields. Dasgupta (2015) found that female engineering students were more likely to be interested in pursuing a career in engineering if they were placed in a group of four that was at least 50% women. The surprising thing about her research was that each female student felt that it was her knowledge and level of participation in the group that shaped her interest. The students didn’t recognize that being in a group with at least 50% women had a positive impact.

When an organization is predominantly male, it makes for a sort of inhospitable environment for women, especially women who are trying to pursue roles in leadership. Historically, workplaces have been designed to work around the lives of men. Women have historically been the “trailing spouses” who go wherever their husbands go. Women have often taken the behind-the-scenes roles while men have taken the more visible “heroic” roles. The heroic roles get more recognition than the behind-the-scenes roles, and so because men are the ones who are more visible, they are seen as being more capable of leading.

Second, when women do not have access to female role models in leadership roles, they also lack access to female mentors.

Third, as each gender tends to gravitate towards members of the same gender, women may not have access to colleagues who are influential.

A fourth point to consider is that when women in leadership roles start to use traditional male characteristics in their leadership approach, they might be respected but not liked. If they use traditional female characteristics they might be liked but not respected. This, according to Ibbara et al (2013) is called a “double bind.”

So, yes, folks in administration, boards, churches need to know what women face as they are pursuing roles in leadership. They need to also recognize the research and use the research as they are hiring and as they are facilitating paths to leadership roles for women.

No profession has been successful at reaching gender diversity. Imagine if our denomination led the way! Women in our church are so valuable! We have wonderful healthcare systems, food production systems and a wonderful education system and it would serve us well to be aware of the issues.

Can your research be extrapolated to encompass non-Adventist institutions, or is it really only relevant to the Adventist world?

Most of my research for my literature review came from outside Adventism. While we are a unique culture, we are influenced by the society that surrounds us. We stand to learn from the secular world as much as they stand to learn from us. I do think also that this research is helpful for other denominations who may be having the same conversation about women’s ordination as we are, because the leadership portion adds another layer to the discussion.

Are you aware of other graduate research being done on similar topics, or about women's ordination?

I am not. John Gavin, William Ellis and Curtis VanderWaal presented their research last year at the Adventist Human Subject Research Association in Loma Linda and I had occasion to go and hear them speak. As part of their research they also asked the ordination question and found that 86.51% were in favor of women being ordained. This is quite similar to my results and is gratifying, as they had a much larger sample size than I did. I believe a summary of their research appeared in Spectrum.

Do you feel that attitudes toward women's ordination, and toward women in leadership positions, are changing among Adventists? Are women breaking through the glass ceiling? Do you see us still talking about this in 10 or 20 years' time?

Hmmm, yes, unfortunately, I do still see us talking about this for quite some time. No, we are not breaking through the glass ceiling. Almost everyone has heard the term “the glass ceiling” pertaining to women and the invisible barrier that prevents them from truly reaching the positions of power traditionally held by men. The literature even refers to a previous title: the cement ceiling. Both of these terms, the researchers Eagly and Carli (2007) state, are out of date. They feel that the term “glass ceiling” is too rigid. The latest term is what they refer to as the “labyrinth.” This term is used to describe how women supposedly move through a maze (sometimes up, sometimes across) in order to reach their goal. Mazes and labyrinths can be difficult to navigate and I think that is the point. For women, finding the way to positions of leadership is difficult.

Yes, I do think attitudes are changing. Millenials don’t see things the way the old guard sees them. In general, Millenials have been raised in two-parent income families where both parents took responsibility for the care and raising of their children. Because of their parents’ example, Millenials differ from all other generations in that they do not see male and female roles in the workplace. They see gender neutrality as the norm (Winogard and Hais, 2013). This is great news for the future of ordaining women and women in leadership but we still need the discussion to continue with the older generations.

I think it’s wonderful that most of my respondents were above the age of 45 but the researchers whose articles I read would probably say that we need more men to recognize the problems and to create opportunities where non currently exists.

How did you get interested in this topic? Why did you choose to research in this area?

I had read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and I was reading the magazine Fast Company routinely. Fast Company writes about innovators and creative chaos, and an article by a musician ended up being part of the inspiration I needed. I was in year three or four and generally by then you are supposed to have solidified your topic. The first meetings with my dissertation committee were entirely overwhelming, as my first inclination was to create some sort of handbook that Adventist healthcare leaders could use to help them understand the issues women face as they pursue leadership roles. Then we started talking about the ordination of women and Zane Yi suggested I not do a manual but study the a correlation between women’s ordination and women in leadership.

I was raised in Northern Ontario in a family where traditional roles were mostly upheld. Having said that, my mum worked outside the home. She did it all. She danced circles around my dad, who was utterly clueless. But she knew her place and never tried to push the boundaries of that place.

These issues pertaining to women’s ordination and women in leadership have become ethical issues for me. I have two daughters and I am not willing to limit their possibilities because our church says they can’t fill certain roles due to their gender. I’m also not willing to have them believe that their gender dictates what profession they can pursue or how far they can go in an organization. We have these wonderful discussions around the dinner table about the research I have done. I try my best to ask the questions rather than lead the discussion in a slanted way. Then my husband will throw some old-school thought out there and then will sit back with a smirk because there is an absolute backlash from both of them. They are thinking for themselves and it’s humbling and inspirational.

What are you working on now? What do you do in your day job?

I am taking a year off to recover from my doctorate, enjoy my family, and figure out what “normal” means again. Both my husband and I completed doctorates within one year of each other. I’ve also submitted a publishable paper, which was one of the chapters in my dissertation. I would like to pick up where I left off with a full study and a revised survey. We’ll call that my five-year plan.

I have two masters degrees: one in speech-language pathology and the other in audiology. I had originally pursued the doctorate as a way of joining the two related fields together in a more concrete way but I’ve ended up with an entirely new field.

Right now I am using all three degrees within a school district. My research, the leadership part of my degree as well as the health policy part has changed the way I interact with colleagues and students; the way I supervise and the way I interact with parents.

Photo courtesy of Heather Knutson

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Tiny sample not representative of the population you want to generalise about. One church in southern California - the research is not generalisable to the church at large. These are the research basics everyone is taught. Why then do people perform studies on such a small, unrepresentative sample? Is it because they think they’ll get the result they want to see in that sample?


How big was the sample you used in your research to reach your conclusions?


I would be quite interested if this survey were conducted on a much larger scale, covering territories throughout the North American Division as a starter. One congregation’s views might be interesting, but many more of our people should have the chance to answer these questions.


I though you knew better than that George. I’m critically appraising the study, not doing my own research. Don’t you know that the study sample should be representative of the population you are trying to describe? You have selection bias here. And the sample is so small you can’t stratify it to check for confounding.


Agree, in secular circles they would laugh at such an alleged “study” and would hesitate strongly to call it a survey even. In truth, it was a one congregation survey if everything even then was above board and no bias in the questions. (Boy have I seen some biased questionnaires with the questions loaded to give the desired results.)

As Kevin said, a large survey might be of interest, but then again, a “thus saith the Lord” is far better, or in this case because there is no thus saith the Lord for, we should leave off the insurrection surrounding this issue and devote ourselves to the commission of these last days to save souls. Time is short.

An unwarranted and invalid conclusion, Pagophilus.
Please note what the researcher stated (vis a vis what you read into the research): "… this was a pilot study and the main focus was to find out whether or not the survey was valid and reliable.“
It might be instructive to learn what the terms “pilot study”, “validity”, and reliability” mean.


Kevin, a more important factor than having a larger scale is the realization of the upcoming generation of Millenials who were raised in a two family income household. Either the church will die with all church leaders all males or church leaders will be chosen by their qualifications and effectiveness.


Think clinical trials, Phase I, II, III & IV. Small sample initially then gradually expanded. Aren’t you a pharmacist waiting for science to catch up with the Bible? You should be patient until then.


Very true, Jimmy. Imagine John the Baptist or Jeremiah conducting a survey as to how the people of God felt regarding the various issues of their day!

I remember former Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt years ago commenting on the first Bush administration, describing it as a “government of the polls, by the polls, and for the polls.” Whether or not that was a fair accusation may be arguable. But most assuredly God’s people should not fall victim to such an approach in seeking our way forward.

I’m not sure you understand the millennial generation as well as you might think, Elmer. In my interaction with the thousands of millennials who attend GYC every year, I have found very large numbers who are fully prepared to submit to the Biblical order of gender authority so far as spiritual leadership is concerned.

And there are plenty of men available to lead, so far as that generation is concerned.

But to return to the former point I was raising, a much larger sample is obviously needed in order for such a study to even be newsworthy. One congregation, irrespective of its leanings, is most assuredly not enough. And I suspect the subject of this interview agrees with this assessment, judging from her comments.

Kevin…perhaps this is where you started to go wrong:

“In my interaction with the thousands of millennials who attend GYC every year,”

Talk about a sub within a sub group! :slight_smile: Perhaps you should broaden your exposure to the greater SDA world…or even The World.


FYI. I’m still a practicing child & adolescent psychiatrist. I deal with this generation 24/7. If I don’t understand this generation, I would have been out of work a long time ago.
Perhaps you should come work with me.

FYI. It is not about the “men” but what is in the mind of the men. The “men” of this generation have been described as open-minded and supportive of equal rights. They won’t tolerate discrimination even under the cloak of religion.


Yes it is a small sample however as someone who hascompleted a PhD recently I would raise the following points

  1. A small sample can still provide valuable information and is valid research. This is essentially a case study of one congregation. I would almost guarantee that there was a lot of subtleties with the conclusion that are not represented in this article.
  2. It is generaly the responsibility of the reader to make a decision about the generalisation and application of the research findings in their setting, it is the responsibility of the author to provide enough details about the sample so that the reader can make that decision.
  3. The completion of a doctoral thesis is essentially an apprentaship for how to do research. You would not expect an apprentice cabinet maker to be producing perfect furniture as they are still learning. Similarly a doctoral thesis is unlikely to represent the best research out there. By the end they should now howto do good research and critically evaluate other research.

A “sub” it may be, but it’s a pretty big one!! No other gathering of Adventist youth and young adults is assembling thousands of young people every year who come at a difficult and expensive time for travel, most of them at their own expense.

And as far as my exposure to the larger world is concerned, perhaps you’ve forgotten that I spent seven years on the Upper East Side of Manhattan as a pastor-evangelist, in arguably one of the most secular communities in the world. I frequently mingled with my neighbors and others I would meet at restaurants, museums, and elsewhere. My explanation of the SDA worldview was one I found to be well-received among many with whom I interacted.

You keep forgetting that the ordination controversy is not about equal rights. It is about divinely-established roles of equal importance to God’s plan. The young that I know easily understand and recognize this reality. A father and a mother have equally imperative and essential roles in the home, but those roles are not the same.

C’mon. This is what I’d call a copout. To survey one congregation in a known area of bias (southern California) is taking it very easy. You know you’re biased from the start and no amount of accounting for it will account for it. Shouldn’t some effort have been put in to ensure a more representative sample (research basics 101)?

(Unless the biased sample is going to give you the result you want, and until someone deconstructs it or conducts a better study it will throw the uneducated and unthinking off for a while and make them think this somehow represents greater Adventism.)

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods.
1 Like

The most important trait of being a mother and father is when they can reverse roles, depending on the family needs, without claiming divine exception. This is why your understanding of family roles is inadequate and skewed by being a single man. Once you’re married, let’s revisit this topic.

The same should be for ordination.


My point is this…you have already agreed that it is a “sub” and it doesn’t matter about exactly how many nor how they get to the “assemblage”. But you are also overlooking the main issue here that your “thousands of young people” are most likely from the more/most conservative in Adventism. I am quite sure that you have done no studies that could conclude otherwise and are reporting anecdotally.

Glad to hear that you “mingle and mix” with some “out there”. :smiley: It doesn’t always come across that way…