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Pastors’ views on social issues? Americans not interested

Clergy and faith leaders gather outside Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia in support of Richard Taylor and William Gatewood (at top of stairs in doorway) after their wedding. Photo courtesy of Mike DuBose/United Methodist News Service

(RNS) What do pastors think about social or political issues?

Americans don’t particularly want to know.

Only 8 percent of adults say they are interested in hearing pastors’ views on issues such as same-sex marriage, LGBT rights, abortion, guns, tax policy, climate change, drug policy or religious freedom, according to the Barna Group’s State of Pastors study, released Thursday (Jan. 26).

And that supports one of the study’s biggest findings, Barna President David Kinnaman said during a webcast about the study: “There is a huge amount of skepticism and indifference to today’s faith leaders.”

The State of Pastors – commissioned by Pepperdine University, an independent Christian university – surveyed more than 14,000 pastors from 40 Protestant denominations across the theological and political spectrum, both online and by phone, according to the full report. It also includes data from surveys of all U.S. adults and millennial adults, born between 1984 and 2002.

One in five Americans reported the pastors in their communities are “very influential,” according to the study by the Christian research firm. That same number said they believe pastors are “very credible when it comes to important issues of our day” — a number that drops when it comes to issues of faith and politics.

But while Americans may be skeptical and indifferent to pastors as a whole, most like the pastors they know. One-quarter have a “very positive” opinion of pastors (48 percent are more indifferent, expressing a “somewhat positive” opinion), but two-thirds who personally know a pastor have a very positive opinion of him or her, according to the study.

Two-thirds also believe pastors present at least some benefit to their communities.

And 48 percent said their personal experience of pastors was more favorable than the media’s portrayal of faith leaders: 33 percent likened the pastors they know to Eric Camden, the likable pastor-dad on the TV show “7th Heaven.” Fifteen percent compared their experience of pastors to Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church.

Other notable findings:

  • The average age of pastors has jumped 10 years over the past 25 years, from 44 to 54 years old. “This is a critical issue if we’re going to have the ranks of young leaders filling the pipeline of spiritual leadership today,” Kinnaman said.
  • The number of female pastors has tripled over the past 25 years. They now make up 9 percent of senior pastors, although many lead smaller churches and earn less pay than their male counterparts.
  • Nearly all pastors (98 percent of those in mainline Protestant denominations and 97 percent of pastors in nonmainline denominations) say the church plays an important role in racial reconciliation, but only 51 percent list it among their church’s top 10 priorities.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.


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  • Slightly off topic…why is ‘pastor’ used as the generic word for clergy in this article? The use of ‘pastor’ as the generic term for clergy is an Evangelical mannerism. Most mainline Protestants call their clergy ‘ministers’; Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Episcopalians call their clergy ‘priests’; Jews call their clergy ‘rabbis’.

    Not being gratuitously cranky here: the popular use of ‘pastor’ as the generic word for clergy here and elsewhere is symptomatic of the widespread and growing tendency to assume that when it comes to religion in the US Evangelicalism is the industry standard. And that, not the nomenclature as such, is what I find objectionable.

  • I said that what was objectionable wasn’t the nomenclature as such but what it’s symptomatic of, viz. the tendency to see Evangelicalism as paradigmatic, industry-standard religion. And that IS important.

  • If “one in five Americans” says, pastors, “are very credible when it comes to important issues of our day,” how can the number drop when it comes to the matter of “faith and politics?” Aren’t those things among the issues of our day? And vis a’ vis the garb worn by those in the photo; I don’t know about Halloween (the opinion of Springer), but I wish all members of the clergy would do away with their clerical vestments. In sum and in practice they are rarely more holy in their conduct than the balance of us. This is not meant as a slur on them, but a statement reflecting that they too are subject to human frailty, and all the dressing up in the world will not serve to provide an effective shield from that reality.

  • Choice of language is important. “Clergy” is a generic term; the other terms are only appropriate when they are used for clergy of a particular denomination or religion..

  • Pastors need to know that their congregations include women and people who are not resentful old white men. They need to know that people with alternate life styles may need them. They need to use Matthew 25:30 as a basis for community outreach. The world is waiting for Godly guidance.

  • GEE, I guess those liberal pastors wasted lots of time trying to integrate the scriptures they chose to preach about with their social justice message! And those seminary professors wasted their time trying to inculcate the social gospel message with their students!

  • Pastors should teach their congregations HOW to think on social issues by questioning the morality surrounding an issue. This is opposed to WHAT to think. Avoiding controversy related to social issues robs the church and their ministers of their relevance and purpose. Our evangelical brethren opted to teach their congregants WHAT to think in this last election and look where that got us.

  • We have had “godly guidance”, and we ended up with a sociopathic liar for leader of the free world. Whenever someone suggests that I require godly guidance, my first response is “You first.”
    My second response is to reach around back and make sure my wallet and citizenship are intact.

  • Jews may not refer to their rabbis as pastors, but those rabbis probably took seminary classes in “clinical pastoral education,” learned about “pastoral authority,” etc. Of course the fact that pastor is used for those concepts is itself a function of Protestantism being seen as the industry standard.

  • What I’ve seen and experienced backs up the numbers in this article. Pastors are nice to have around on Sundays and a few specific occasions like baptizing, marrying and burying. The rest of the time they ought to stay out of the way while congregants live as they choose.

    I find this very alarming: “Fifteen percent compared their experience of pastors to Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church.” That’s terrible! 15%! I think few will disagree with me that Phelps was a terrible, hateful, hurtful person. A full FIFTEEN PERCENT of Americans have had a church and/or clergy experience similar to him! No wonder church numbers are declining. This is something that you on the right need to focus on and address.

  • Personally,I see the use of the word indicative of the mentality. People are sheep, and need a shepherd.

    Just remember what happens to most sheep, and I’m not referring to mutton.

  • Most of those 15% are here in the South preaching fire and brimstone. They have a fondness for the Old Testament. Mainly Baptists and Church of God around here. They use signs to put out some unbelievably hateful messages.

  • A strong and caring community outreach, and empathetic & heartfelt “Godly guidance”, is indeed possible when it comes to people of “alternate life styles” (as you phrased it).

    But many church leaders and church folks desperately need to see some genuine, living, right-now examples of such ministries. No joke.

    So here’s one living, caring, real-people-right-now example, just to give some thought:

  • I am in a Baptist Bible study and the minister running it is anything BUT hateful. I’m Jewish and not only tolerated but welcomed.

  • I guess that if you’re hateful and you think the projection you call God hates, you can use the word hate all you want.

  • See my response above. If you hate and you think God does, you can use the word freely and without dealing with the implications.

  • You cannot diagnose hate easily. It often appears as self- righteousness as in your case or is projected from one person onto another.

  • Projection is the thing. Unfortunately not easy to see when one is guilty of it.
    Christ never used the word hate,but he sure let hypocrites know how he felt about them.” You whitewashed tombs white outside and filled with rotting bones within”. Maybe he wasn’t just talking about white tombs?:-).

  • Well said. Interestingly, projection and displacement are very tenuous defenses. They are outgrown early to be replaced by repression. Most projection is on a pre-puberty or even pre-latency level. That means being fixated before four in extreme cases (paranoia, for example) or before 12 (evangelical Christian). They project their own self-rejection onto God. They project their rejection of others onto God. They have been brainwashed into it from childhood by their family and their pastors. They are PISSED but can’t acknowledge it so they say that I am and you are.

  • I’ve always been intrigued by the underlying personality factors in people choosing the rightwing path. Do you think it’s reasonable to think that much of it is fear based?
    I’m loath to dichotomize into good and evil but surely left wingers tend towards empathy and inclusivity?
    We all know good people in both camps so perhaps its only extremists of both stripes that cause the rest of us grief

  • I think people who see God as a benevolent being tend to hold with politics that are giving. That tends toward liberal politics. There’s no hard and fast rule here. People who have gentle but firm parents who don’the shut them down see God that way too and see others as cooperaters to befriend rather than sinners to avoid. There, too, exceptions abound. The key, of course is the way the child experiences its family. If defenses are needed early, primitive defenses are deployed. If the child feels safe, the more mature defenses take over when and where needed.

  • What a grown-up, lucid response.
    There are actually more men than women in that picture. But clearly, you are feeling threatened.

  • Not threatened at all. Women playing dress up as pastors is comical. Clearly the Bible means nothing to all the people in that photo.