Sep 25, 2001

From the Archives

A Profile of Protestant Pastors in Anticipation of “Pastor Appreciation Month”

During the past several years, churches across the nation have embraced October as Pastor Appreciation Month. With more than 500,000 pastors serving in Christian churches in the United States, including some 300,000 Senior Pastors, newly-released survey data from the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California provides insight into the background of America’s Protestant clergy.

Pastors’ Self-Perceptions

The survey data reveal some surprises regarding the self-perceptions of pastors. For instance, more than four out of five Senior Pastors (83%) describe themselves as “evangelical.” Large majorities of clergy representing churches not generally thought of as evangelical embraced that label, such as seven out of ten who serve mainline churches, eight out of ten located in the Northeast, and eight out of ten who pastor churches that attract fewer than 100 adults.

Equally surprising is the fact that four out of five Protestant Senior Pastors (81%) say they are “theologically conservative.” This includes three out of five mainline pastors (60%) and three out of four in the Northeast (75%).

Although many of the nation’s best-known denominations are associated with Reformed or Calvinist theology, a slightly larger share of pastors claimed to be Wesleyan or Arminian in their theological views than Calvinist (37% versus 32%, respectively). Pastors serving churches in the western states were considerably more likely to associate with Wesleyan theology (44%) than with Calvinist theology (28%). Pastors who were not seminary graduates were also more likely to associate with a Wesleyan view (39%) than with a Calvinist perspective (29%). Pastors of non-denominational churches were twice as likely to embrace Calvinism as to endorse Wesleyanism (30% vs. 14%, respectively).

The survey discovered that one-third of the nation’s Protestant congregations are headed by pastors who claim to be seeker-driven. This is somewhat surprising given the lack of growth in church attendance during the past decade and in light of the fact that only 8% of all pastors claim to have the spiritual gift of evangelism.

The spiritual gifts claimed by Senior Pastors are also revealing. Two out of every three cite teaching or preaching as their gift. In fact, there is no other gift claimed by even half as many pastors. Some gifts that might be expected to be relatively common were not, such as leadership (12%), evangelism (8%) and encouragement (6%). Other gifts were more common than expected, including administration (16%) and prophecy (13%).

Background Attributes

Some pastoral attributes are obvious and have remained consistent over time: more than nine out of ten Senior Pastors are men, are married, and serve full-time. More than four out of five have a college degree and the median age of pastors is slightly under 50. In fact, pastors often do not mirror the attributes of their congregations: they are more likely than their congregants to be college educated, married, over the age of 40, live in a rural location, and to earn less than $40,000 annually, and they are less likely to have been divorced (13% have been divorced at least once).

However, the survey data did highlight some surprises. For instance, although most of the country’s Protestant churches have fewer than 100 adults in attendance on a typical weekend, eight out of ten churches that have congregations of fewer than 100 adults have a full-time, paid Senior Pastor. What makes this even more astounding is the median annual budget of those churches – barely $68,000 annually!

A sign of the changing times is the emergence of the Baby Boomers as the dominant force in the pastoral ranks. Once known as the generation that frequently and loudly criticized the local church for its irrelevance, Boomers now constitute roughly six out of every ten pastors – with a growing number of Boomers enrolled in seminary courses designed to prepare them for pastoral ministry in the future.

Even though pastors spend a substantial portion of their time fulfilling educational functions such as teaching, preaching, training and mentoring, an unexpectedly large percentage of them does not possess a seminary degree. Four out of ten Senior Pastors lack a seminary degree – including six out of ten among those who pastor non-denominational churches.

One of the most interesting comparisons is between male and female pastors. While women represent just 5% of all Protestant Senior Pastors, the survey data indicate a substantial dissimilarity in the backgrounds of these two groups. Female pastors are much more likely to be seminary-trained (86% have a seminary degree, compared to 60% of male pastors); are more than twice as likely to have been divorced (31%, compared to 12% among male pastors); have less experience in the pastorate (9 years in full-time paid ministry, compared to a median of 17 years among men); last less time in a given church than do men (three years per pastorate, compared to almost six years among men); are almost four times more likely to describe themselves as theologically liberal (39% vs. 11%, respectively); much less likely to embrace the label of “evangelical” (58%, vs. 85% among male pastors); and receive much lower compensation packages.

Challenges Include Juggling and Continuity

George Barna, president of the company that conducted the research, added perspective to the statistics. “To appreciate the contribution made by pastors you have to understand their world and the challenges they face. Our studies show that church-goers expect their pastor to juggle an average of 16 major tasks. That’s a recipe for failure – nobody can handle the wide range of responsibilities that people expect pastors to master. We find that effective pastors not only love the people to whom God allows them to minister, but also provide firm, visionary leadership and then delegate responsibilities and resources to trained believers. Ultimately, the only way a pastor can succeed in ministry is to create a team of gifted and compatible believers who work together in loving people and pursuing a commonly held vision. The pastor who strives to meet everyone’s demands and tries to keep everyone happy is guaranteed to fail.”

The researcher also noted that many pastors are not given an adequate opportunity to shine. “Our work has found that the typical pastor has his or her greatest ministry impact at a church in years five through fourteen of their pastorate. Unfortunately, we also know that the average pastor lasts only five years at a church – forfeiting the fruit of their investment in the church they’ve pastored. In our fast turnaround society where we demand overnight results and consider everyone expendable and everything disposable, we may be shortchanging pastors – and the congregations they oversee – by prematurely terminating their tenure.”

Barna noted that Pastor Appreciation Month has been hailed by many pastors as a welcome response to the continual pressure and limited gratitude they experience. “Most pastors work long hours, are constantly on-call, often sacrifice time with family to tend to congregational crises, carry long-term debt from the cost of seminary and receive below-average compensation in return for performing a difficult job. Trained in theology, they are expected to master leadership, politics, finance, management, psychology and conflict resolution. Pastoring must be a calling from God if one is to garner a sense of satisfaction and maintain unflagging commitment to that job. Fortunately, we have thousands of men and women who have responded to that call and serve God and His people with energy and grace. May they be encouraged by an outpouring of love and gratitude this October – and beyond!”

Survey Methodology

The data described above are from telephone interviews conducted from July 2000 through June 2001 among a nationwide random sample of 1,865 Senior Pastors of Protestant churches located within the 48 continental states. The sample was balanced nationally according to the incidence of denominational affiliation, with a random selection of churches chosen within each denomination. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of adults.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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