Congregants and clergy agree that confidence in the wisdom of U.S. Protestants pastors is low, according to a Barna Group report published Feb. 16.

When presented with the question, “Would you consider a pastor to be a trustworthy source of wisdom?” only 23% of U.S. adults said “Yes, definitely.” By comparison, 34% said, “Yes, somewhat,” 9% “not really,” 10% “definitely not” and 24% “not sure.”

Only 4% of non-Christians expressed high confidence in the wisdom of Christian pastors, while 18% said “Yes, somewhat,” 18% “not really,” 29% “definitely not” and 31% “not sure.”

Nearly one-third (31%) of Christian respondents said, “Yes, definitely,” compared to 40% who said, “Yes, somewhat,” 5% “not really,” 3% “definitely not,” and 21% “not sure.”

Protestant pastors expressed confidence in having the trust of their congregations, with 67% saying, “Yes, very much so” and 33% “Yes, somewhat,” when asked, “Would you say your congregants consider you to be a trustworthy source of wisdom?”

However, only 21% said, “Yes, very much so,” when asked if they felt “the community / neighborhood where [their] church is located considers [them] to be a trustworthy source of wisdom.” By comparison, 62% said, “Yes, somewhat” and 17% “no.”

Pastors didn’t express a great deal of confidence in their ability to be a reliable source of wisdom for either living out one’s convictions or addressing matters of politics and justice.

Only 14% of Protestant pastors said pastors are “very reliable” in providing “information and counsel for how people can live out their convictions privately and publicly.”

Even fewer (3%) said pastors are “very reliable” as “sources of information and counsel for how Christians should inform our political and justice systems.”

Only 36% of U.S. adults, 44% of Christians, 11% of non-Christians and 25% of pastors, said, “very reliable,” when asked to rate Protestant clergy “as a source of information and counsel for how the church can help people live according to God’s will.”

Similarly, only 26% of all adults, 32% of Christians, 7% of non-Christians and 11% of pastors said, “very reliable,” in response to a question about clergy being reliable “as a source of information and counsel for how relationships work and how to make them better.”

The data indicates that the U.S. sees Protestant pastors as “peripheral and ornamental. Quaint, but not entirely necessary. Kind, but not wholly credible,” said Glenn Packiam, a senior fellow at Barna, about the report data.

“The path to regaining credibility begins with taking responsibility. We must face the reality that we have contributed to the crisis of credibility,” he said. “The crisis of credibility is a symptom. The misuse of authority is the root cause.”

The full report is available here. The margin of error for the survey of U.S. adults is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points and for the pastor survey it is plus or minus 4.8 percentage points.

Good Faith Media reached out to several people who work with congregations and clergy. Here is what they had to say:

David Emmanuel Goatley headshot“The Barna Report on ‘the credibility crisis America’s pastors are facing,’ and data from Glenn Packiam’s research and book, indicates that pastors do not have a particularly high standing outside their congregations and not a necessarily strong standing within the churches they serve,” said David Emmanuel Goatley, who directs the Office of Black Church Studies and teaches theology and Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School, and is the host of the Pilgrimages of Striving and Thriving podcast.

“Two important factors likely contribute to these findings. First, the data is from September and October 2020 – within two months of an intensely toxic presidential election, less than six months after Minnesota law enforcement officers murdered George Floyd that was viewed by millions of people and sparked demands for police accountability, and under one year after the appearance of COVID-19 with politicized and inept governmental (non)response leading to unprecedented disease, death and disruption. It is difficult to imagine surveys during this time yielding positive opinions about anything,” he said.

“Second, Packiam is firmly situated within American conservative evangelicalism with a majority of its constituency demonstrating subservience to a political figure rather than faithfulness to Christ Jesus and whose largest denomination has shown a resurgence in racial animosity and been proven to have a history of shielding perpetrators of sexual violence,” Goatley said. “It would be difficult to imagine how people within or outside the church would have high regard for clergy in light of the lack of integrity and animosity so publicly displayed.”

Mark Tidsworth headshot“This report from Barna is unsurprisingly consistent with our experience with clergy and congregations,” said Mark Tidsworth, founder and team leader at Pinnacle Leadership Associates based in Chapin, South Carolina. “We’ve been witnesses to the deformation and deconstruction of the traditional paradigm of church in America in recent years, with the pandemic accelerating this process. Clearly, Christianity is growing more counter-cultural as we speak, drifting toward minority status in our larger culture.”

“This article identifies the misuse of clergy authority as the primary driver of declining clergy credibility. My view is that the primary story is the church itself moving away from America’s cultural center, with the shifting role of clergy in society as a sub-plot of the larger narrative,”  Tidsworth said. “I’m very curious how the American Christianity will adjust as it’s dethroned from golden child religious status to one faith tradition among many.”

Elizabeth Denham Thompson headshot“I see a couple of things at play in these statistics. First, as younger generation(s) have increasingly become part of the ‘nones,’ it is less likely that they will actually know a particular pastor well or, more importantly, be known and cared for personally by even one pastor, much less several,” said Elizabeth Denham Thompson, an ordained minister, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and ACPE Psychotherapist who is owner of Eremos Consulting Group in Colorado. “So, unfortunately, asking about one’s trust in and level of reliability of ‘clergy’ will tend to be a gauge of trust in general popularized stereotypes of Christian clergy, especially those highlighted in secular media as divisive and pushing harmful political stances.”

“Second, many pastors are themselves members of the younger generation(s) that tends to distrust authority figures and institutions, even though serving a call to such an institution,” she said. “This can be especially true for pastors leading the vast number of churches that seem ‘stuck’ in the past. So, although saddened by it, I am not surprised when good clergy question their own efficacy, value and wisdom in leading and ministering to their congregations, and who question their relevancy in transforming the larger community.”

Matt Cook headshot“There’s nothing pleasant about those numbers but also nothing particularly surprising,” said Matt Cook, assistant director at the Center for Healthy Churches based in Clemmons, North Carolina. “We’re in a profound cultural shift toward secularization in American culture. In the 19th and 20th centuries, ministers and congregations could count on their centrality to culture. Now, in most areas of the country, that’s not true. Then, in addition to secularization, you must add the fragmentation of culture. People don’t agree about what’s true or important. That obviously impacts how ministers are perceived any time we try to speak/teach/lead with any kind of authority.”

“I don’t have some simple solution to that problem, but my hunch is that the way ministers respond must begin within their own congregations,” Cook said. “We’re not only coming to a place where the church has less of a claim on the culture but also, perhaps, where the culture might need to have less claim on the church. I’m not talking about isolationism, just an awareness that size and significance should have less of an impact on how they shape congregational life.”

“We likely need to focus more on the internal coherence of our identity that displays itself in sacrificial service in the world, rather than external respectability that comes from meeting the needs of consumers or impressing with our share of the religious marketplace,” he said.

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