Betty Wells' sense of humor and love of people cause those around her to say she has a sweet spirit. As associate pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Coushatta, La., Wells uses that self-proclaimed "gift from God" to minister to others. Coming out of a nearby Wal-Mart several weeks ago, Wells was able to share that gift to help a familiar face.
"I'm like you now, Sister Betty," her friend tells her. "I lost my husband, too."
Having lost her husband more than 10 years before, Wells knows the anguish such a crisis brings. She embraces the forlorn woman and with a calm assurance and a bit of attitude, letting her know there is hope.
"Guess what? You can make it," Wells reassures. "You are going to make it."
While Wells' almost 20-year ministry is somewhat unorthodox for a conservative church in the American landscape, the prominence of women in U.S. religious life is as strong as it's ever been. According to data gathered in 2009 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 86 percent of women are affiliated with a religion, compared to 79 percent of men. Also, 44 percent of women say they attend religious services weekly, 10 percentage points higher than the number for American males.
Adair Lummis has studied the sociology of religion for more than 30 years at the Hartford Seminary and says the reasons for the discrepancy among sexes is still under review.
"Some have suggested women are more caring, more concerned with helping other people and their nurturing instincts lead them to want to raise their children in faith," Lummis says. "Some say that's caused by something biological within women to be more involved in faith. It's still being debated."
Women in America have always had a prominent role in churches, according to Elaine McDuff of Truman State University. There are a variety of reasons for this, including the traditional female roles as homemakers and child-raisers. For whatever reason, the activitiy of women in the church has been solidified for some time.
However, McDuff suggests the decline in men's church activity may be due to the national culture moving away from organized religion as a whole.
"Having a position in the church doesn't have the same status that it might have had a few generation ago," McDuff says. "That would be true not only for men in serving a church as a pastor or going into the clergy, but also just being involved in the church in any role. It's not providing the same kind of social status because of the secularization of the wider culture. In the past, to be a business leader you had to play a role in a church and that has really broken down."
Despite the decline in social status among clergy in America, women still face challenges leading in the religious arena. Although some mainline churches like the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have been ordaining women to the ministry for more than 50 years, rates of women in the ministry are leveling off. And a 2006 study of clergy in the Episcopal church shows male clergy receive $60,773 on average compared to just $45,656 for women.
McDuff says the discrepancy comes in the difficulty for women clergy to find good work.
"Its still more difficult for women to become employed, especially in the bigger churches, the ones that pay a little better," McDuff says. "Women are more likely to be hired in small, rural churches, churches that really can only pay for a part-time minister, that kind of thing. They end up taking the jobs men turn down."
Some have argued churches have a reluctance towards putting women in leadership roles in the church because they are concerned putting women at the pulpit leads men to further disaffiliate with the church. However Paula Nesbitt, a visiting associate Sociology professor at UC Berkeley, says the data doesn't show this to be the case.
"The belief that women entering the clergy was causing men to disaffiliate with religion is just masking the changes in the occupation that were already underway," Nesbitt says. "A majority of men coming back from war during the 1960s and 1970s were already not returning to church and numbers in seminaries were down before the feminization of the clergy."
Regardless of the impact of female clergy on male church population, Lummis points out women clergy have an ability to attract those who may not usually be affiliated with religion. Social minorities like the gay and lesbian community, non-traditional families and ethnic populations discriminated against are some who are attracted to women's congregations because they feel they are more open to others.
"Part of it is sociological," Lummis says. "Until fairly recently, even though women made up most of the congregation on Sunday morning, they were never the leaders. So being discriminated against helps them understand and be more sensitive."
Former Miss California Nicole Lamarche is one of those who proclaims herself as "radically inclusive." Having been an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ since 2007, Lamarche has been under fire by those outside her congregation for supporting controversial causes like marriage equality. In 2009 she spoke out publicly against Carrie Prejean's comments on gay marriage during the Miss USA pageant and was featured on Larry King Live to discuss the topic.
"Anytime you are prophetic or speaking in the way of preaching, it's not always popular," Lamarche says. "You're destined to tick people off. Jesus did that all the time, and I see that as part of my ministry. I am on the edge and challenge people to be more faithful and compassionate with each day."
According to a 2009 Gallup poll on political ideology, women are more likely than men to consider themselves moderate or liberal. While 44 percent of men said they were politically conservative, only 37 percent of women shared the sentiment.
Despite the political ideology, however, McDuff says women clergy as a whole do not have a visible liberalizing effect on their congregations.
"There really isn't much evidence showing a theologically and socializing liberalization of congregations led by women pastors," McDuff says. "The only effect can be seen in the openness of the congregation to accept a woman as a religious leader."
That openness is something that is still sought after among the more conservative churches in America. When Wells entered the ministry in 1993, she and her husband lost friends as part of the backlash. While visiting certain churches, she wasn't able to speak at the pulpit. And once she had to change her robes in the back of a church and hang her coat on a nail because it was frowned upon to use the head pastor's office.
But Wells says those things are behind her and as she's gotten older, she's learned how to shrug off such experiences. She says since her call, she's seen more women receive calls to serve in the ministry. And as she reflects on her experience outside the neighborhood Wal-Mart, she points out the importance of women's compassion in the Lord's service.
"Women will open up more, they will go after things with an attitude, whereas men are sometimes more macho and not supposed to cry," Wells says. "Women will cry with you, hug you, and love on you."