One of the most significant demographic forces to shape American society in the past 50 years has been the massive movement of women into the work force. Now there are signs that half-century trend may be reversing. While this is not a return to the nostalgic days of the forties and early fifties when families looked like the mythical Cleavers, the resulting impact of women's return home on our culture—and on the church in particular—could be significant.

Karol Emmerich, 45, was listed by "Working Woman" magazine as one of 73 female executives "ready to run corporate America." As vice president, treasurer, and chief accounting officer of the Dayton Hudson Corporation, she became the highest-level woman in the $18 billion retailing company. Then, in May 1993, she resigned to pursue community-service projects and offer her expertise to Christian organizations.

Said Emmerich, "I recognize that career advancement is not going to fill all the needs in my life." She says she is after a "more balanced life" where she can focus on "nurturing relationships—with God, my family, old and new friends."

For every Karol Emmerich leaving the heights of corporate success there are thousands of women abandoning the workplace for different reasons. A top reason for many is the realization that, financially, it just may not be worth it to work. The cost of childcare, meals, clothes, taxes, transportation, and other expenses may equal or exceed the paycheck. When a woman realizes she is working for nothing, she often decides to quit.


While this trend—which shows a relatively small percentage of women are currently returning home—is still in its early stages, it is nevertheless well enough established to have provoked considerable interest. Richard Hokenson, chief economist for Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Securities in New York, has carefully studied the trend and its economic impact. His original study was released in October 1993. The economic impact of the trend is potentially so great that it was republished in U.S. Economic Outlook on March 4, 1994, and then featured by Barron's (the Dow Jones business and financial newspaper) on March 21, 1994.

At the heart of Hokenson's research are statistics from the U .S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicating that women of childbearing age have been leaving their jobs and returning home in significant numbers. The biggest change is among young women ages 20 to 24, whose participation in the labor force peaked several years ago and is now declining. There is, however, a decline, plateau, or lower rate of increase in every age category. Economists see the beginning of a trend that may reshape the U.S. economy and alter American lifestyles. Hokenson claims this represents a "demographic sea change." According to Barron's, "the two-paycheck family is on the decline; the traditional one-paycheck family is now the fastest-growing household unit."

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There are multiple explanations for the change:

Lower mortgage interest rates. Currently lower rates have enabled many couples to refinance their homes and make house payments from a single paycheck.

Quality of life. Many are realizing that time at home and time for raising children are higher priorities than outside employment.

Child-care. High-quality care is difficult to secure and to keep. "On average, 80 percent of a working mother's paycheck goes to support her children, with child-care the major cost," says Hokenson.

Home schooling. As parents grow increasingly discouraged with public education yet cannot afford private schools, more mothers may be staying home to teach their children.

This is not the first time such a change has occurred. At the turn of the century, women entered the mostly male work force and virtually took over such professions as secretary and elementary teacher. Later, during World War II, women took manufacturing jobs while men were away at war. Then the large increases in numbers of females in the work force were followed by large retreats as the women returned home.

It should be noted, however, that a so-called baby boomlet (over 4 million births annually) has exceeded the U.S. Census Bureau's already high estimates for population growth. In time, this trend is likely to subside, and it could cause female employment once again to rebound.

The economists analyzing the current trend are primarily concerned about the effects on business, and they believe the impact could be far-reaching.

* Households will switch from having "more money than time" to having "more time than money."

* When there are employee shortages, fewer women will be available to hire for jobs that women have traditionally held. The unemployment rate could decline for many years.

* Economic growth overall will be less as families "downsize" their purchasing.

* Sales of clothing for working women will decrease significantly.

Business writers explain this as an "about-face in consumerism" and a "lifestyle change." In fact, a growing number of families are weary of the pressure and stress of both husband and wife working and are ready to seize the opportunity to live at a standard they can afford with a single paycheck.

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What effect will this have on the church? If this is indeed the beginning of a "demographic sea change," churches will feel the impact of the departure of women from the work force as much as they were affected by the increase in the number of working women over the past 40 years. By 1990, 75 percent of American women ages 25 to 44 were employed. Think about what this meant for churches:

Church ministries were short of volunteers. Previously, churches relied heavily on women to teach Sunday school, staff vacation Bible schools, provide social services, and do the majority of volunteer services. But as women went to work, while at the same time retaining most of their household responsibilities, their availability to volunteer decreased. This required many churches to hire employees to do work that previously was done for free.

Attendance at Sunday evening services declined. Once, Sunday evening church services and midweek prayer meetings were a major staple of evangelical churches across America. As family schedules became busier, and as parents wanted to stay home more evenings with their children, evening church attendance dropped.

Church giving increased. For some two-paycheck families, especially those committed to tithing, a 10 percent contribution could be based on a larger figure. At the same time, churches had to raise more money to hire more staff. When this was combined with economic prosperity, inflation, and church growth in the 1970s and 1980s, church budgets rose at unprecedented rates. (It must be acknowledged, however, that increased income has not always produced increased giving. While some churches grew very large, percapita giving actually declined.)

Expectations increased. Working mothers wanted the best for their children in child-care, preschool, and elementary education; they also expected the best in the church nursery and in Sunday school. As women assumed increased responsibilities in their roles on the job, they expected increased roles and influence in the church. They became sensitized to gender issues and language, and that new sensitivity accompanied them to church on Sunday. Large numbers of women entered seminaries and expressed a sense of call to pastoral ministry.


What if the economists are right? Does this mean American churches will return to the 1950s in style? Certainly not; but there are some possibilities to consider:

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More volunteers. Churches may find they are able to recruit more volunteers from the ranks of formerly employed women who now have increased discretionary time, and they can expand ministries -especially during weekday business hours. But this will not happen automatically; women do not leave employment to become full-time, unpaid church staff.

Less money. Churches are already struggling with budget deficits. The reasons are many and may include the increased unemployment of recent years, deflation, the downsizing of companies, families who are focusing on debt reduction, a lower percentage of contributions coming from baby boomers than from their parents, increases in designated giving, and financial and employment fears of older parishioners who were once the church's strongest contributors.

The return home of working women could equal or exceed any of these factors. When a couple makes the major decision to switch from being a double- to a single paycheck household, the family budget must be rewritten. Be assured that the household committed to a lower standard of living -to one car instead of two, and to saving rather than spending—will not maintain or increase their giving to the church.

Pastors and boards must be careful not to interpret smaller offerings as declining commitment. Rather, it may be that Christian commitment is a determining factor in lifestyle changes that are producing 50 percent reductions in offerings.

Smaller church staffs. Protestant church staffs have grown enormously in the last half-century. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, even the largest churches often had only one full-time pastor. Multiple staff usually meant a secretary, custodian, and part-time music minister. When the baby boom and parachurch movement brought attention to youth ministry, youth pastors were added to thousands of church staffs. Since then, specialties have proliferated, and there are now pastors to singles, seniors, children, and more—even computer pastors and multi-media pastors.

One rationale attributes this increase to the needs of growing numbers of people and increasing specialized programs. Perhaps the real reasons are the explosion of graduates from Christian colleges and seminaries who needed jobs and the increased affluence of suburban churches that could afford to hire them.

Today, economic realities, declining enrollments in Bible colleges and seminaries, and a rising emphasis on lay ministry have turned the staffing trend downward. If church women leave their jobs and increase their volunteer hours, church staffs will shrink faster but not hurt ministry effectiveness. Lower offerings will mean less money for payroll, but women volunteers may bring high-level skills and experience from their previous employment into the church.

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Yet, the church must not neglect the large numbers of women who will remain in the work force. They will still need programs tailored to their needs and available time.

There is also a danger that churches will follow present practices and offer to pay those newly available women as part-time employees. While this will appear to be very attractive to both parties, it is potentially disastrous as income falls and the number of volunteers who are unpaid increases. How can the church pay some and not others for the same services?

Increased training. Women volunteers will need training and expect the church to provide it for the responsibilities they accept. Those who are available during daytime hours will wish to develop social contacts to make up for the social interaction they lost when they left their jobs. This opens enormous potential for weekday church activities, home Bible studies, and utilization of church buildings at normally low-demand times.

Changes in children's activities. Since the largest demographic segment of employed women to leave their jobs are those aged 20 to 35, there may be an inevitable series of changes in children's activities since these women are in their childbearing and -rearing years.

An increase in home schooling can be expected as dissatisfaction with the public schools increases and money for private education decreases. Churches with daycare programs and preschools should especially watch for demographic and lifestyle shifts. Churches in affluent communities can expect mothers at home to pay for their children to go to a nursery school.

Definitions of women's roles. American churches have moved in opposite directions during the women's movement of the past and current generation. Denominations that rarely or never had women clergy have mandated that women must be considered for every pastoral opening and that half of local churches' governing boards must be female. On the opposite side are churches with long histories of women teaching adult Sunday school classes and serving as directors of Christian education who now forbid women to teach or hold staff positions. The women's movement has had a great impact on churches—but the impact has not always been the same.

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Women who leave employment and increase their church involvement will bring with them their experiences and expectations. Those who have held broad leadership responsibilities and made major company decisions are not likely to accept exclusion from comparable roles in the church. On the other hand, some who have left their jobs with a strong conviction that they want to return to more traditional roles may be the most vocal adversaries to female leadership in churches. Opposition is not likely to be limited to those on a denominational level; in fact, the whole variety will be present in most local congregations, and churches will be forced to define the role of women in the church in clear and practical ways.


Demographically, the evangelical church does not necessarily reflect the secular workplace—and, in fact, its women may have already led the way away from outside work. Still, the implications of this apparent trend may reach into many other areas of society. What does it mean, for example, that there is already a large decline in female enrollment at America's top business schools while there has been a rapid increase in the percentage of women enrolled at seminaries? Might divorce rates decline as women leave employment? And if women are home more, will they have more children? As younger women leave the workplace, will older women return to take their jobs?

Barron's writer Maggie Mahar claims that "in just the past two years, a quiet counterrevolution has begun. It's a women's revolution. Yet it's gone unnoticed by both that genre of journalism called 'women's magazines' and the feminist press. It has been left to a man—and an economist at that -to sight a pendulum swing that seemed unthinkable just a short while ago: the exodus of women from the labor force."

If the trend continues, and the implications prove true, churches will be wise to take notice.


Leith Anderson is pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and author of "Dying for Change" and "A Church for the 21st Century" (Bethany House).

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