Inside the Life of an American Pastor

Inside the Life of an American Pastor

A landmark new study by Barna Group, commissioned by Pepperdine University, offers a revealing look into the lives of America’s pastors. Drawn from interviews with more than 14,000 Protestant pastors from 40 denominations spanning the theological and political spectrum, The State of Pastors is both hopeful and troubling, with unexpected bright spots and worrisome levels of struggle for some clergy. The findings will be announced at a live event and webcast at Pepperdine University on Thursday, January 26, 2017, and will be available as a 175-page full-color book including full study data, analysis, and infographics.

The bad news for the church is the graying of America’s clergy: “As other careers woo Millennials and older generations struggle to hand the baton to younger pastors, the median age of pastors has risen from 44 to 54 over the last 25 years.” Protestant churches face a massive leadership shortage in the coming decades, similar to that seen in the Catholic Church. The situation appears bleak: 7 out of 10 pastors report that it’s becoming more difficult to identify promising pastoral candidates.

The good news—one of the report’s major findings—is that contrary to conventional wisdom, most pastors are faring well: 91% report a good overall quality of life and 88% describe their spiritual well-being as excellent or good. Still, a troubling number of pastors are at risk of burnout (1 in 3), and nearly half face relational risks in their marriages, families, and friendships.

The State of Pastors is a comprehensive assessment of the mental, physical, financial, emotional, and spiritual well-being of today’s pastors. It’s divided into three sections: Self-leadership, which explores pastors’ understanding of their interior lives and feelings about their closest relationships; Congregational leadership, which probes their everyday experience in ministry; and Cultural leadership, which considers the influence and engagement of pastors beyond their congregation. Some significant findings include:

• Pastors are not immune to mental health struggles: Almost half have faced depression, while one in five pastors has struggled with an addiction—most commonly, to porn.

• Women now represent 9% of senior pastors—triple the percentage of 25 years agobut they frequently lead smaller churches and feel greater scrutiny. Women pastors are more likely than men to say they feel lonely or isolated from others.

• Nearly all pastors say churches play an important role in racial reconciliation—but only half say it is among their church’s priorities. Feelings about racial issues diverge according to denominational lines: 9 out of 10 mainline ministers agree that “law enforcement and the judicial system treat people of color and white people differently,” but fewer than 6 in 10 non-mainline pastors concur—still a majority, but a significantly smaller one.

• Americans don’t want to hear from pastors on social or political issues: Only 8 percent of adults are interested in hearing pastoral teaching on issues such as same-sex marriage/LGBT rights, abortion, gun rights, tax policy, climate change, drug policy, or religious freedom. Pastors’ influence in broader culture has diminished in general; most U.S. adults express ambivalence about pastors: “Most don’t actively hate pastors, they just don’t especially care.” Pastors perceive the culture’s growing indifference; only 22% say respect for clergymembers by their community is excellent; 7 in 10 say it’s merely good or average.

• Pastors experience doubt: 1 out of every 4 pastors has experienced a period during their ministry when they significantly doubted their faith.

• Pastors report greater marital and parental satisfaction than the general population, though half say their current church tenure has been hard on their family.

• Pastors don’t do as well with friendships. They are more likely than the general population to feel isolated and lonely. Gen-X pastors in particular seem to have a harder time making friends and feeling connected—they’re more similar to people their age (30s-40s) in the general population than to their ministry colleagues.

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