Pastors may be employed in one of society’s most demanding professions and many churchgoers may place unrealistic expectations on their leaders. But today’s pastors are surprisingly similar to people from other walks of life – with doubts and insecurities of their own. Pastors brim with self-confidence in many areas of their ministry, but admit it is a challenge to maintain genuine connections with other people.
A new study conducted by The Barna Group among a nationwide sample of Protestant pastors shows seven intriguing insights about how pastors think of themselves and the churches they lead.
1. Like other adults, many pastors struggle with personal relationships. Being a spiritual leader of other people creates unusual relational dynamics and expectations. One of those areas is often a lost sense of connection with others: a majority of pastors (61%) admit that they “have few close friends.” Also, one-sixth of today’s pastors feel under-appreciated. Pastors also deal with family problems: one in every five contends that they are currently “dealing with a very difficult family situation.”
2. Most pastors are supremely confident in their abilities to teach, make disciples and lead. Pastors express the greatest degree of confidence in their capability as an “effective Bible teacher” (98% of pastors said this phrase accurately described them). More than nine out of every 10 pastors also feel that they are an “effective leader” and a similar proportion believe they are “driven by a clear sense of vision.” More than eight out of 10 claim to be an “effective disciple maker.” Another favorable perception maintained by pastors is that they are “deeply involved in the community” – a label embraced by seven out of 10 leaders.
3. Many pastors depict their personalities as shy and introverted. Despite the interpersonal demands of congregational ministry, one-quarter of the nation’s Senior Pastors describe themselves as introverts (24%). This is the same proportion as in the adult population (25%) and suggests that church work is not merely for those drawn to the limelight. Still, the research revealed that introverted leaders are more likely to feel under-appreciated in ministry and are more apt to feel relationally isolated. Those attending seminary, non-white pastors, mainline leaders, those in the Northeast, and leaders in their twenties and thirties were more likely than average to self-identify as introverted personality types.
4. Risk-taking drops off among pastors after 20-plus years in ministry. Taking appropriate and calculated risks is an important competency among leaders and most pastors consider themselves to be “risk-takers.” But the research shows that the risk-taking impulse declines significantly after someone has been a pastor for 20 or more years. Pastors who have stayed at the same church for more than 20 years are particularly risk averse.
5. Despite portrayals of pastors being single-minded in their focus on ministry, most pastors feel they lead a balanced life. Like many adults, pastors have difficulty putting good intentions into practice. But most pastors say they try hard to stay healthy and that they have a wide range of interests, even while dealing with an array of intense occupational pressures and expectations.
6. The age of the pastor often influences self-perceptions. It seems as if both generational distinctions and life experience affect how pastors think of themselves. For instance, Boomer leaders (those ages 41-59) were most likely to say they have few close friends, but they were the least likely to feel under-appreciated. Older pastors (ages 60+) were the most likely to feel inadequately recognized for their efforts. Introversion was most common among Buster pastors (ages 22-40), but young leaders were also the most likely to perceive themselves as risk-takers. True to their friendship-oriented generational identity, Buster pastors were also the least likely to feel relationally isolated.
7. The largest gaps in self-perceptions were found between black and white pastors. No differences were quite as vivid as those based upon pastoral ethnicity: out of 13 descriptions assessed in the research, significant differences were found among black and white pastors in reference to eight of them. Black pastors were more than three times more likely to describe their church as charismatic or Pentecostal and as theologically liberal. White leaders were less likely to describe themselves as effective disciple-makers, as risk-takers, or as being deeply involved in the community. Black pastors also had a different take on their interaction with others: they were more likely than white pastors to describe themselves as introverted and significantly more likely to feel under-appreciated.
Perspective on the Research
David Kinnaman, who directed the study of pastors’ self-perceptions, discussed some of the implications of the research. “It is tempting for some pastors to try to emulate the most captivating and high-profile pastors. But God uses all types of people to do His work, and this research underscores the diversity of personalities, perspectives and life circumstances among pastors these days.”
Kinnaman also challenged the objectivity of pastors’ perceptions by pointing out discrepancies between their self-views and other research conducted by the firm. “Most pastors say they are driven by a clear vision, but very few pastors are able to articulate a firm, compelling vision statement for their church. Many pastors talk about their church’s deep engagement in the community, but most church programs are focused on the congregation, not people outside the walls of the church. The vast majority of pastors describe their church as theologically conservative and effective at disciple-making, but a minority of churchgoers has developed a biblical worldview. There are other examples of the conflict between pastoral self-perceptions and the condition of their congregations, but the bottom line is that pastors need to find the tools and methods to evaluate themselves and their ministries as candidly and accurately as possible.” The director of the research division of The Barna Group also pointed out that such tools and methods “might include personality profiles, ministry assessments, professional coaching, organizational consultants, 360-degree feedback processes, and other diagnostics. This is imperative both for organizational health as well as for personal effectiveness. There is also a spiritual precedent: in Romans 12:3, Paul reminds people to ‘be honest in your evaluation of yourselves.’ Objective, frank feedback from others helps shape people and churches to be most effective for their role in the Body of Christ.”
“The study also underscores how difficult the role of pastoring is – and it should remind churchgoers to express gratitude to the men and women who serve. As simple as it sounds, keep in mind that pastors are normal people, too – with hopes, dreams, families, challenges, insecurities, and idiosyncrasies. The job of the churchgoer is not to sit-back and watch the super-saints serve everyone else. It is to step up and – arm-in-arm with pastors – do the work of enhancing people’s lives for God’s glory.”
The data in this report are based on a nationwide telephone survey conducted by The Barna Group among a nationally representative sample of 627 Senior Pastors of Protestant churches. The PastorPoll(SM) survey was conducted in November and December 2005. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of pastors is ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Church leaders in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of those congregations coincided with the geographic dispersion of such institutions across the U.S. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of congregations.
The Scripture quoted in the article is taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004; used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois. All rights reserved.
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) is a privately held, for-profit corporation that conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website www.barna.org
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