The State of Pastors

The State of Pastors

How today's faith leaders are navigating life and leadership in an age of complexity


by Dale Brown and Tod Brown, Research Sponsors

As the world grapples with lingering wars, poverty, injustice, racial tensions and political strife, the Church, the living Body of Christ in this world, matters as much today as ever. Yet troubling trends point to shifting attitudes, at least in the U.S., toward the perceived relevance and value of the Church.

It is no secret that the Church in America is struggling to find its footing in this new environment. We can see it in our empty pews as well as in the data. How should the Church respond? How can we speak into the challenges of this moment? How do we respond to claims, some of them valid, that the Church not only has few solutions to our problems, but that it is part of the problem?

Those who are called to lead our churches, whether they are known as pastors, ministers, elders, priests or shepherds, must chart a course through unknown waters. With confidence that the Church will never pass away, pastors can take action to reimagine the role of the Church in our troubled times and find a clear, strong voice to proclaim the hope found only in Christ.

Pastoring a flock of God’s people in such a complex season is not easy. The shifting environment places tremendous pressure on church leaders who are trying to make sense of our moment in history and interpret it through the lens of their Christian faith. Some will choose to respond by building a fortress around their church in attempt to preserve the truth of the gospel. Others will venture out into the wilderness of this world and try to spread the gospel’s truth. Either way, the path forward is difficult and will test church leaders in new ways.

As we considered how best to serve the Church in this era of complexity, we decided to start by focusing our energy and resources on the well-being and preparedness of today’s pastors.

That is why we offered our support to Barna Group and Pepperdine University in their endeavor to understand the current state of the pastor. We were interested to find out how prepared pastors are for their ministries. Did their seminary training anticipate this moment and prepare them for it? How are pastors coping with the stresses of their ministry? Do they perceive their calling in fresh ways or did they lose it long ago?

These and many other probing questions are raised in this study. The final result, presented in the following pages, produces a profile that is simultaneously hopeful and troubling. We were delighted to learn how many pastors still feel a strong sense of ministry calling, but dismayed to learn how many are struggling to lead their church and adequately support their families. Many are weighed down by depression and addiction and feel isolated from the very support systems they extend to the congregations they lead.

This study offers great insights into the hearts, minds and daily reality of those who lead our churches. In the end, we are encouraged by what we see in the findings. The pulpits of our churches are occupied by creative, passionate pastors who love God and desire to see the Church thrive in the days ahead. But behind the hopeful signs are hints of weariness. The margin for some of our pastors is paper-thin.

It is our hope that The State of Pastors will prompt elder boards, seminary professors, Christian college presidents and other leaders to examine the support systems that surround pastors and imagine ways to strengthen those who serve today— and more adequately prepare the generation of pastors who will serve tomorrow.


by David Kinnaman, President of Barna Group

I grew up in a pastor’s home. I can still remember going to church camps and prayer meetings and Sunday morning worship services. Ah, Sunday mornings. Those marathon Sunday mornings. I acquired most of my social skills in the foyer of my father’s church, greeting dozens of people every weekend, trying to match my dad’s (genuine) exuberance.

I remember my dad doing so many things right: how he prioritized his family; how he cultivated friendships and hobbies; how, first and foremost, he’s always loved Jesus.

I remember the challenges of living in a ministry family, too: not always having money to do things other families did; feeling like everyone was judging what I did and said (especially as a teenager, that sometimes made it tough to be 100-percent myself ).

And I remember how leading others and teaching them the ways of Jesus powered and depleted my father in equal measure. I came away from my childhood with a pretty accurate slogan for church ministry: Where you control nothing and are responsible for everything.

A Long Look at Spiritual Leadership

This project was birthed in part out of my personal experience growing up in a ministry family. Thus, The State of Pastors is dedicated to my dad, Gary Kinnaman, to my incredible mom, Marilyn, and to the pastor-parents of the other Barna PKs: Jonathan and Olive Chiu, Tim and Alicia Gilligan, MaryAnn and Jim Hawkins, and Chuck and Delores Hochmuth. It’s a personal labor of love for us.

Beyond family history, Barna brings a great deal of experience to this project: more than 30 years and hundreds of thousands of interviews. We know of no other firm that has conducted such a high volume of research among faith leaders in the U.S. This report alone draws on interviews we have conducted in recent years among more than 14,000 pastors.

Building on our personal motivations and our company history, a partnership with Pepperdine University and the Brown family catalyzed the 2017 State of Pastors project. They came to Barna with urgent questions about the condition of today’s clergy. How are they doing? What fortifies them in their work? Will a new generation of leaders find their way into ministry?

To find answers, Barna conducted a new series of national studies among Protestant senior pastors. The State of Pastors presents these new findings in light of and in comparison with data we’ve collected and analyzed over our more than three decades of public opinion research.

The new studies examine three dimensions of church leaders’ lives, which correspond to the structure of this report:

The Whole Through the Particulars

Here are some things to keep in mind as you read. Barna’s goal for “state of” research is to be as comprehensive as possible. That means, for one thing, capturing a random, representative sample of Protestant pastors across the nation.

This group represents approximately 320,000 church leaders. As you are probably aware, all Protestant pastors are not on the same page theologically or in religious practice ( just a little joke, folks). Because our studies include pastors from across the Protestant spectrum, you can bet you’ll find some views to disagree with in the following pages. We endeavor not to take sides on issues that divide various church traditions, and trust you can judge the relevance of the findings for yourself and for the people you lead.

We want to be as comprehensive as possible because each dimension of a pastor’s life informs and impacts the others. By looking at the particulars in each dimension—self-, congregational and cultural leadership—we believe an accurate picture of the whole (the “state of ”) can emerge. To shed light on some of those particulars, Barna invited outside voices to weigh in on the findings, and you’ll find their contributions throughout this report. It’s our hope that their perspectives can help you better understand the internal and circumstantial dynamics that are shaping pastors’ lives today.

Which relates to the final point I’d like you to consider: Think about your own context. Do you lead a church? Are you married to a pastor? Do you work within a denomination or organization that trains or supports church leaders? Whatever your role or relationship to pastors, our prayer is that the data you find here will bring clarity to your thinking about how pastors can lead more effectively in these complex times.

It is my belief, further confirmed by this project, that the Christian community in North America does not need stronger leaders; we need more resilient leaders. Resilient pastors develop the inner resources and supportive relationships that enable them to prioritize their own spiritual, emotional and physical needs; to view challenges realistically; to learn from their mistakes; to consider alternate perspectives and new processes; and to expect that God is at work even in adverse situations. We’ll dig deeper into resilience later in this report. For now, I invite you to discover The State of Pastors.

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