A study published by Mark Ward Sr., a University of Houston-Victoria associate professor of communication, won two awards for Article of the Year at the annual conventions of two national communication associations.

Ward’s winning publication, “Sermons as Social Interaction: Pulpit Speech, Power and Gender,” was named the year’s outstanding scholarly article by the Religious Communication Association and the Spiritual Communication Division of the National Communication Association at the associations’ joint virtual conference in November. The study was published in 2019 by the journal Women & Language.

“Leaders in any organization use communication to encourage members to identify with the organization’s values,” Ward said. “This process is called organizational identification and hasn’t been studied in religious organizations.”

Nearly two-thirds of Americans are members of a religious congregation, which makes congregations the nation’s most common form of association, he said. Researchers have shown how organizations can mirror implicit power structures, such as sexism and racism, that exist in society at large.

“However, a trend in the field is to see organizations themselves as places where these power structures not only are mirrored but also are created,” Ward said. “An example is the ‘glass ceiling’ that keeps women out of corporate leadership positions.”

Ward’s study looked at sermons as communication that encourages congregation members to identify with values espoused by leaders. What he found is that the language of sermons in many Christian churches took for granted the assumption that men and women are different in nature and have different roles.

“For example, sermons referred to men as ‘men’ but to women as ‘ladies.’ Pulpit jokes assumed that men like sports and women like shopping,” Ward said. “Values such as ‘victory’ over sin and ‘winning’ souls were illustrated by analogies to implicitly male activities such as athletics and military service.”

The language of sermons also occurred in a context where gender differences were acted out in church life, Ward said. When church potlucks were announced from the pulpit, the “ladies” were asked to bring the food and the men to move the heavy tables. Men led corporate prayers and singing, while women served on the social committee and nursery, decorated the church for holidays, and made meals for families in need.

“The purpose of my study wasn’t to criticize any religious doctrines but to show how people act within the meanings that their language creates,” Ward said. “Language becomes so natural to us that we don’t think about our underlying assumptions. Studies like mine can help any organization – religious or secular – recognize the hidden impacts of their language and make any changes that might better align with their goals.”

Ward has been recognized nationally with previous awards from both associations and other scholarly organizations. In November, he received the annual Digital Religion Research Award from the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies for his research on the economics of streaming religious media.

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