Recent data collected for Barna’s State of the Black Church project show that 69 percent of all Black adults in the U.S. view their pastor as the most important leader in their community. This number increases to 77 percent among Black Church churchgoers. Yet a pastoral crisis looms as more senior pastors become truly senior and many churches struggle to create effective leadership pipelines (especially for a younger generation drifting out of the Church).
Offering data from Barna’s upcoming Trends in the Black Church report, this article explores how today’s Black churches are laying groundwork for their futures, raising up a new generation to carry the mantle of Black Church leadership and preparing their present leadership for a smooth succession.
Few Black Church Pastors Admit a Willingness to Retire in the Near Future
One-third of Black Church churchgoers (32%) strongly agrees their church is doing a good job preparing for the pastor to step away or retire; if our exploration of this issue stops here, it appears that churches are preparing for transition decently well. However, pastors’ responses reveal more warning signs of the retirement preparation gap in the Black Church.
At the moment, only 11 percent of Black Church pastors say they plan to retire in the next 10 years. Retirement plans begin to surface—though still only for one-quarter—among pastors who have been in ministry for 20+ years (25% vs. 6% of pastors with shorter ministry tenures). Still, less than half of Black Church leaders over the age of 60 plan to retire in the next 10 years (44%). One in 10 of these elder leaders admits they don’t have a plan in place, and about one in three intends to continue to pastor.
When we split the data, comparing those who are under age 50 to those at least 50 years old, the percentage of pastors who say they plan to stay at their post or that they simply don’t know what the next decade holds is statistically the same across the two groups. It’s clear that pastors feel committed for the long haul: 78 percent say it’s time for a leader to step down and hand over responsibilities only when they are unable to perform their duties due to age, illness or passing. Young and old leaders alike share this opinion.
Overall, about four in 10 Black church pastors say their churches (43%) do not have a plan or process in place for a senior pastor succession (in this study, pastors had to identify as “senior pastors,” so we can assume they are referring to their own transition).
In the 53 percent of churches with some degree of a plan in place, only 13 percent of pastors say their church is “very” prepared for a leadership transition. Senior leaders with longer ministry tenures are no more likely to say their church is very prepared for this transition. Similarly, and worryingly, congregants who have been at their church longer (10 or more years) are less likely to agree strongly their church is doing a good job preparing for their pastor’s departure (28% vs. 39% of attendees who have been in a church less than 10 years). This is true despite pastors selecting multiple strategies for congregational involvement in transition plans, including open communication (29%), inviting the congregation or a committee to help select candidates (27%) and providing space to ask questions (27%).
Of those who have either a general or a specific plan in place, few (22%) have candidates presently identified for the role. Fourteen percent indicate the role will go to a relative of a current pastoral staff member. Pastors in suburban congregations are both more likely to say they will pass the pulpit to someone in the family (32% vs. 6% urban) and more likely to have a candidate presently identified (45%). In urban church environments, there is a notable dearth of candidates (7%).
Four in Five Black Churchgoers Say Their Church Offers Clear Training Pathways for Emerging Leaders
Though there are challenges in preparing current leaders to leave the pulpit, there is still enthusiasm and perceived opportunity for potential leaders.
Almost nine in 10 Black Church churchgoers (88%) say their church empowers young people to become leaders (51% agree strongly, 37% agree somewhat). A similar majority (81%) feels there is a clear training pathway at their place of worship (42% agree strongly, 39% agree somewhat)—notably higher confidence than when asked about their present leader’s future plans.
Larger (500 congregants or more) or younger (established within the last 25 years) church environments are more likely to be those with clear support and development of new or young leaders. Larger churches likely enjoy more resources (of staffing, money and expertise) to create such opportunities, while younger churches may in turn have younger congregants to develop and could be more forward-thinking in their approach.
Commitment to a church also correlates with seeing more opportunities for young people (58% of practicing Christian Black Church churchgoers vs. 39% of Black Church churchgoers who don’t regularly practice their faith), perhaps a byproduct of greater awareness or more church-based relationships and involvement among frequent attendees.
On this point, churchgoers’ positive perceptions track with pastors’. Three-quarters of leaders in Black churches (74%) strongly agree there are meaningful leadership roles available to laity, and more than half (54%) strongly agree their church empowers young people to become leaders. Additionally, percentages trend upward for pastors in larger churches.
Whatever bottlenecks occur in leadership pathways, the Black Church is seemingly energized around the next generation—but what does this leadership pathway actually look like for the young adults in the Church’s care? How will today’s pastors impart wisdom, prepare for their inevitable exit and partner with tomorrow’s leaders?
How will the Black Church’s history and legacy continue to shape its promising future?
Explore more data and Q&As from Trends in the Black Church:
- A Q&A About the Importance of Scripture
- More Faithful, But Not Immune to Decline
- Most Black Adults Say Religion & the Black Experience Go Hand in Hand
- For Black Americans, the Black Church Counters Feelings of Political Powerlessness
- A Q&A About Church Engagement & Politics
About the Research
Any effort to capture a political snapshot of the “Black Church” is complicated due to the theological and denominational diversity that characterizes Black churches in the U.S., not to mention the many other ways individual congregants may differ. There is not a “Black Church;” rather, there are Black churches. Furthermore, common categories (i.e., conservative, moderate, liberal) commonly used in polling may only offer limited insight into a wide array of ideologies (i.e., Black nationalism, Black feminism, liberal integrationism).
2020 data: Online survey of 1,083 U.S. Black adults, plus 822 Black Church churchgoers, conducted April 22–May 6, 2020. The sample error is plus or minus 2.3 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.
The pastor data includes 293 online surveys conducted among Black pastors who consider their church to be a Black church or a predominately Black church. A follow-up question was asked to ensure that at least half of the congregation was Black, although 93% of these pastors lead churches in which more than three-quarters of their congregants are Black. Pastors included in the survey who have another pastor over him / her must report to a pastor who is also Black. The research was conducted August 26-October 1, 2020. The sample error is plus or minus 5.6 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.
Black Church churchgoers are defined by the racial identity of the pastor and the majority of the congregation:
- Self-identifies as Black
- Self-identifies as “Christian”
- Over the past year, on average, attends a church worship service at least “once every six months”
- Considers their church “a Black church”
- Notes that their senior pastor is Black
- Notes that if that senior pastor has another pastor over him / her, that pastor is also Black
- Notes that their congregation is primarily Black
The study also provides opportunity to further segment and analyze this group by associations with historically Black denominations.
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