From the ongoing pandemic to ceaseless political tension—and everything in between—the past year and a half has been challenging for most Americans. Throughout this time, many pastors have sought to be a peaceful presence for both their congregations and their larger local communities. Have they succeeded?
Today’s article looks at recent Barna data, collected in late spring of 2021, exploring how U.S. adults generally think about Christian pastors in the present moment, with specific emphasis on the opinions of Christians—both practicing* and non-practicing—and non-Christians.
For extra analysis on generations and ethnicities, be sure to check out the extended article on Barna Access.
*Editor’s note: When looking at practicing Christians in the present moment, it’s important to note that we’re examining a group of people who are maintaining regular church attendance. We can’t account for the ways pandemic-era precautions might have affected attendance among other committed but, by our definition, non-practicing Christians.
62% of Americans Say They Deeply Trust Pastors in Their Community
According to recent Barna data, about half of Americans (47%) say they personally know a pastor. Keep in mind, this means the remaining percentage of Americans (53%) hold perceptions of pastors that are offered more objectively, rather than from a personal relationship.
When Barna asked U.S. adults about their trust of local pastors, roughly three in five Americans (62%) note they deeply trust these church leaders. Looking specifically at faith engagement, 89 percent of practicing Christians—that is, self-identified Christians who have also attended a worship service within the past month and strongly agree their faith is very important to their life—agree at least somewhat that they deeply trust the pastors in their community.
As Christian engagement decreases, so does trust in local pastors, though non-practicing Christians—self-identified Christians who do not qualify as practicing—still largely agree they deeply trust a pastor personally (74%). Those of other faiths, however, are split down the middle, and among those of no faith, trust for local pastors decreases to three in 10 (31%).
65% of Americans Say Pastors in Their Community Are Strong Leaders in Regard to COVID
Trust aside, have pastors led well through the challenges of the past year? Barna asked U.S. adults whether Christian church leaders in their community have been strong leaders throughout the uncertainty of COVID-19, and the majority (65%) agree at least somewhat local pastors have done well. While the remainder of U.S. adults disagree this is true, just one in 10 (10%) disagrees strongly.
Understandably, practicing Christians offer local pastors a higher rate of approval when it comes to their leadership during COVID-19 (55% strongly agree, 33% somewhat agree). The percentages dip significantly, however, when looking at non-practicing Christians, as well as those who hold other—or no—religious beliefs.
Just one in five non-practicing Christians (20%) and those of other faiths (19%) strongly agrees that pastors in their community have been strong leaders during the pandemic. That number decreases drastically among those with no faith (8%).
Another point of tension that divided both the nation and congregations during 2020 was the topic of racial justice. Overall, when asked if local pastors have been strong leaders when it comes to racial justice, three in five U.S. adults (62%) agree. Analyzing along faith practice, however, tells a different tale.
While nearly half of practicing Christians (49%) strongly agree that pastors in their community are strong leaders in regard to racial justice, that number drops over 30 points among non-practicing Christians (just 17% strongly agree) and those of other faiths (18%). Among those with no faith, only one in 10 (10%) agree strongly that local pastors have led well in this area.
Many Non-Christians Doubt Local Pastors Are Aware of Community Needs
When it comes to their neighborhoods, do U.S. adults perceive local pastors as people who are out of touch with community needs? Data show, that Americans tend to disagree with this statement—three in five (59%) disagree at least somewhat, to be exact.
Unsurprisingly, practicing Christians are the most likely to believe that local pastors are aware of their community’s needs, with 73 percent affirming this. Non-practicing Christians are not far behind, with over three in five (63%) saying the same. When it comes to non-Christians, however, the data shift significantly. Among those with other religious beliefs, about two in five (44%) say pastors in their community are out of touch with local needs. That percentage rises to over half (55%) among those of no faith.
Continuing on the topic of local pastors and the level of care shown for their community, Barna asked respondents to share their thoughts on the following statement: “Christian pastors are only focused on growing their own churches and not on community transformation.”
U.S. adults are largely split when responding to this statement—54 percent agree at least somewhat, while the remainder disagree. Practicing Christians are most likely to counter this statement, with seven in 10 (70%) disagreeing at least somewhat. Meanwhile, similar to U.S. adults, non-practicing Christians are more split on this topic.
For those further removed from the Christian faith, agreement with this statement tends to come more easily.
Barna analysts suggest that faith practice tends to be a driving force for how U.S. adults perceive local pastors. Those with more engagement in the Christian faith tend to hold pastors and their impact on the community in a higher regard than those with less faith practice, as well as those who claim another religion or who identify as having no faith.
Despite U.S. adults' wide spectrum of religious identity and faith engagement, pastors tend to receive high marks for their leadership over the past year and a half, and at least passing marks in most other areas. These data should serve as a call to action for church leaders who are currently thinking through how to best reach their local communities, as well as an encouragement to those who are already doing so.
- Read the extended article on Barna Access to explore more data—including analysis on generations and ethnicities—about Americans’ perceptions of pastors.
- Read What’s on the Minds of America’s Pastors, an article written in early 2020 which explores pastors’ top concerns for both their country and their communities.
- Check out Barna’s The State of Pastors report (2017), available for purchase in the Barna store or online via Barna Access.
- Learn from data in The Credibility Crisis of Today’s Pastors about how Americans have historically perceived pastors and pastors’ credibility.
- Read this article, written in 2019, to explore whether Christians perceive their pastors as friends.
About the Research
Barna Cities data: The data shown above is based on a representative sample of 2,007 interviews with U.S. adults, ages 18 or older. The interviews were conducted online from April 23 to May 5, 2021. The margin of error is +/- 2 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence interval.
U.S. adults are U.S. adults ages 18 or older.
Practicing Christians are self-identified Christians who have attended a worship service within the past month and strongly agree their faith is very important to their life.
Non-practicing Christians are self-identified Christians who do not qualify as practicing Christians.
Other faith are U.S. adults who self-identify as a religious faith other that Christianity (includes Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist and others).
No faith are U.S. adults who self-identify as atheist, agnostic or not religious.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2021