For a while now, Barna has been reporting on the credibility crisis America’s pastors are facing. Overall, U.S. adults are unsure whether pastors in their local community can be trusted, are in touch with their community’s needs and are reliable sources of wisdom and leadership.
Amid lukewarm feelings about their credibility, pastors may wonder how they can regain the trust of their communities in the current climate. Below, we’ll share data from The Resilient Pastor—a newly released book from pastor, author and Barna senior fellow Dr. Glenn Packiam—to explore current perspectives on the credibility of America’s pastors as well as insights from Packiam on pastoral trustworthiness and reliability.
Just Half of Americans See Pastors as a Trustworthy Source of Wisdom
Recent Barna data collected amid the pandemic show that just 57 percent of all U.S. adults agree at least somewhat that a pastor is a trustworthy source of wisdom. Christians, naturally, are far more likely to agree (31% definitely, 40% somewhat), while non-Christians tend to disagree (18% not really, 29% definitely not).
Still, many Americans—including one in five Christians—admit feeling unsure whether pastors are trustworthy (24% all adults, 21% Christians, 31% non-Christians).
Pastors themselves echo what the general population reports, including the sense of a gap in trust outside the Church. While four in five pastors (82%) agree their local community "somewhat" views them as a trustworthy source of wisdom, just one in five (21%) states this is very much the case. On the flip side, all pastors say their congregants consider them to be a trustworthy source of wisdom, 67 percent of whom strongly affirm this.
Pastors Are Unsure of Their Own Reliability
Also in question is pastors’ reliability as a source of information in the Church or the broader community.
Data show that today’s pastors themselves perceive limits to the influence of the pastorate in the public square. Though many feel they offer reliable counsel as to how people can live out their convictions privately and publicly (14% very, 56% somewhat), significantly fewer feel they can confidently speak into how Christians should inform America’s political and justice systems (3% very, 29% somewhat).
Accordingly, on more spiritual or relational matters, there is a stronger belief in pastors' reliability. U.S. adults, Christians especially, give pastors and priests high marks—higher even than pastors give themselves. There is an undercurrent of uncertainty about the reliability of pastors' guidance, and this is keenly felt by those in the pulpit.
In light of this data, Dr. Packiam notes, “Pastors, for the most part, are peripheral and ornamental. Quaint, but not entirely necessary. Kind, but not wholly credible.”
How can pastors restore their credibility as leaders and sources of wisdom and counsel in their community? Dr. Packiam shares some insights in The Resilient Pastor.
“The path to regaining credibility begins with taking responsibility. We must face the reality that we have contributed to the crisis of credibility,” observes Dr. Packiam. “Yes, there are cultural headwinds that have changed the social standing or cultural power of a pastor. But we have made a mess of things too. From small country churches to uber-megachurches, many pastors have been found to be bullies and hypocrites, alcohol abusers and womanizers. The crisis of credibility is a symptom. The misuse of authority is the root cause.”
Dr. Packiam encourages, “We can all take a hard look at ourselves and ask the Lord what measure of responsibility we must take for the loss of credibility of pastors. Have we stewarded power well?
“If the mishandling of power has led to the loss of credibility, returning to the source and shape of a pastor’s authority is the way back home,” he continues. “I don’t mean that we can find a way to return to a central place in our communities. But we can once again become trustworthy people when we rediscover the source and the shape of pastoral authority.”
Dr. Packiam concludes, “Credibility is the result of the good and right stewardship of power. When you understand the purpose of your power and the limits of your authority and act accordingly with humility, you earn trust and gain credibility.”
Additional research and resources:
- Interested in more from Dr. Packiam? Check out his guest column about The Mission of the Church.
- Learn more about the challenges facing today’s pastors, and how to navigate these cultural shifts well in Dr. Packiam’s new book, The Resilient Pastor.
- Tune in to The Resilient Pastor podcast every other week to hear Glenn and a guest pastor discuss the challenges and opportunities of church leadership in a rapidly changing world.
- Read these past Barna articles and studies to explore data and trends on the credibility and trustworthiness of America’s pastors.
About the Research
Pastors: Barna conducted 408 online interviews with Protestant senior pastors from September 16 to October 8, 2020. Sample error plus or minus 4.8 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.
U.S. adults: Barna conducted an online survey of 1,520 U.S. adults ages 18+ from October 9 to 20, 2020. Sample error plus or minus 2.3 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.
Barna Research 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, 2022