02 Church Leadership

Church Leadership


Pastors are called by God to lead a local church to be Christ’s body and continue his mission of redemption and reconciliation. And most keep at it because no other career or vocation could come close to the fulfillment they experience by answering their call to ministry.

Part II explores pastors’ thoughts on leading a church. How well are they equipped for ministry? With whom do they lead—and how is it working? What is it like to lead a church? How do they interact with people inside and outside the church? In what ways is pastoring different for women? How are pastors engaging with the next generation of church leaders? How important are denominations and other area congregations to their church’s ministry? What part of their job do they enjoy most and what frustrates them most about church ministry? And how well do their day-to-day tasks fit with their calling and gifts?

By and large, pastors report greater satisfaction than frustration, and a sense that their pastoral duties are well-matched to their skills and sense of call—but the handful who paint a less rosy picture of their ministry experience are not sure where to go from here. Perhaps by better understanding their experiences, the Church can help.

Church leaders are educated and (usually) well-prepared.
Three-quarters have pursued higher education—most commonly a bachelor’s degree or M. Div.—and feel it was good training. Seminary, however, gets mixed reviews.

Pastors are out in front, but not alone.
60% of leaders are primarily responsible for their church’s vision and direction, but 80% work with a board of elders or similar team—and most are “hugely supportive” of the pastor.

The neglect of prayer within leader teams is a red flag.
Troublingly, just one-third of pastors engage in “frequent prayer together” with their elders.

In-person communication with congregants is valued and valuable.
Even in a digital age, church members most often offer feedback face to face, whether in public or private. On the whole, pastors say these discussions are encouraging and helpful.

Ministry opportunities for women are increasing, but challenging.
Women now represent 9% of senior pastors—triple the percentage of 25 years ago—but they frequently lead smaller churches and feel greater scrutiny.

Pastors love being in the pulpit.
When listing their strengths, pastors name preaching, Bible knowledge and practical theology. Teaching is not only the center of Sunday morning, but also their favorite task.

People problems are the chief source of frustration.
Leaders identify churchgoers’ lack of commitment and spiritual maturity as their top frustrations, surpassing even administrative burdens and church politics.

Denominations are important, but not typically influential.
Half of church leaders say their affiliation is very strong, but just one-quarter says their denomination has a lot of influence on their ministry activities.

Pastors worry about finding future leaders.
Most would encourage a young person to pursue ministry as a career, but 7 out of 10 think it’s becoming more difficult to identify promising pastoral candidates.

Low-risk leaders feel their primary tasks “fit” their calling.
Most pastors at low risk of burnout and spiritual problems say their day-to-day tasks are a good match with their calling and giftedness.


11. Preparation

Training Pastors

How well are pastors equipped for their ministry?

One set of goals for The State of Pastors was to understand how people who receive a call to ministry go on to prepare for their vocation. This includes documenting education levels among pastors and assessing the degree to which they believe their education has effectively equipped them for ministry. As a category of workers, pastors are well-educated—but the range of educational attainment runs the gamut.

For a majority of pastors, formal education is a key component of ministry preparation. Three-quarters of pastors in the study attended a Bible college (22%) or a college or university (51%), and seven in 10 earned at least a baccalaureate degree (70%). A majority also went on to graduate education of some kind, whether a Master of Divinity (49%) or some other master’s-level program (31%), and one in five received a doctorate (21%), most often a Doctor of Ministry (14%).

Most pastors attended an educational institution affiliated with their denomination (69%). Having done so is more common among pastors under 50 years of age than those 50 and older, and more common among white pastors than leaders of color. Although pastors of churches with more than 1,000 weekend attenders are a small subgroup, it’s interesting to note they are less likely than the norm to have attended a denomination-affiliated college or university (49% vs. 69%).

Many educational institutions are actively involved in placing graduates in church ministry positions, and two out of three pastors who attended such a school say their alma mater was at least somewhat helpful in this regard (65%). However, only 35 percent gave their school the highest marks in this regard, suggesting room for growth in placement programs for those who have earned a degree.

Advanced education appears to be more important in mainline denominations than in non-mainline churches; one reason is that it’s more common for mainline denominations to require a seminary degree

before one may be considered for ordination. Mainline pastors are more likely than their non-mainline peers to have attended a college or university (67% vs. 46%) versus a Bible college (4% vs. 28%), and to have attended seminary (62% vs. 40%). They are also more apt to have earned a Master of Divinity (83% vs. 37%) or a Doctor of Ministry (22% vs. 11%).

Pastors offer mixed reviews when it comes to how well seminary prepares people to be effective church leaders: Only 9 percent of pastors give top marks, saying seminary does “very well”; half say it does “somewhat well.” Two in five pastors believe seminary does “not too well” (34%) or “not at all well” (8%) at preparing people for effective church leadership.

Whether a pastor attends seminary seems to bias him or her toward or against its practical value. That is, pastors who attended seminary are twice as likely as those who did not attend to say such institutions are doing very well at preparing people to effectively lead churches today. And those who did not attend are twice as likely as those who did to say seminaries are doing not at all well when it comes to preparing pastors for ministry.

Preparation Gaps

Researchers asked all pastors—seminarians and non-seminarians—to identify areas of ministry for which they wish they’d been better prepared. “Counseling / people problems to solve,” the “administrative burden” and “handling conflict” come in at a statistical tie. These are followed by “balancing ministry and administration,” “delegating / training people” and “challenges in leadership,” also in a virtual tie. Clearly, many pastors feel they were not adequately prepared for leading people, dealing with conflict and the administrative tasks that are part and parcel of pastoring in the 21st century.

Additional areas of inadequate preparation are shown in the chart. Keep in mind that, given the total size of today’s church-leader population, even small percentages reflect potentially substantial gaps in the preparation pastors are receiving.

Church size plays a role in what sort of preparation a pastor wishes they had received. For their part, pastors of large churches (250-plus weekend attenders) are much more likely than their colleagues who lead small (less than 100) and midsize congregations (100 to 250) to say they wish they’d been better prepared to delegate and train people. (Given that they’re dealing with larger staffs and a bigger pool of potential ministry volunteers, this difference makes sense.) It’s a similar story with handling conflict: One-third who lead large churches say they would like to have had better preparation in this regard, compared to one in four small and midsize church leaders.

Not surprisingly, pastors who rate high on the burnout risk metric also wish they’d been better prepared for handling conflict (50%) and for “church politics” (34%)—so it’s not a surprise that fewer than half of these leader rate their overall ministry preparation training as excellent (15%) or at least good (29%), compared to seven in 10 among all pastors (24% excellent, 48% good).

The data confirm that education matters to pastors. Equally apparent is that most church leaders feel unprepared to minister as effectively in a changing context as they would like. In order to meet the needs of leaders in today’s complex times, our institutions—Bible colleges and seminaries, denominations and licensing organizations—must continue to reevaluate and rethink ministry preparation models and pastoral pedagogy.

12. Governance

With whom do pastors lead their church—
and is it working?

Researchers also delved into an area of leadership that can make or break a congregation: governance. Most pastors say they are primarily responsible for setting the vision and direction of the church (60%) or are part of a team that develops the vision and direction together (35%). Regardless, most senior leaders do not lead alone. A majority reports to a board of elders or similar group of laypeople (such as deacons, etc., 80%); this is slightly more true in mainline churches, where nearly nine out of 10 pastors work with a board (88%), compared to three-quarters of non-mainline pastors (77%). It’s also more common for mainline pastors to be part of a visioning-directing team rather than solely responsible; the opposite is true for non-mainline leaders.

Most pastors express positive perceptions of the elders-pastor relationship, although there is range of attitudes they hold toward this governing body. At the most positive end of the scale, a majority of pastors says their board is “hugely supportive” of them as a pastor (67%), describes the relationship as generating “healthy accountability” (60%) and indicates they have “clear and shared vision and values” (57%). However, there are signs of possible weakness between pastors and elders. Pastors less commonly categorize the relationship as “a powerful partnership” (44%) or say they engage in “frequent prayer together” (34%).

Positive pastor-elders relationships are most often found in large congregations. In fact, pastors of 250 or more adults are twice as likely as leaders in smaller churches to say their relationship with elders is a powerful partnership (64% vs. 34%). By its nature, survey research does not reveal causation but only helps us uncover correlations. Yet the correlation here may suggest smaller churches stay small in part because laypeople lack a strong sense of partnership with the senior pastor. Reinforcing this possibility, those who lead growing churches are also more likely than leaders of shrinking congregations to feel their pastor-elders relationship is a powerful partnership (52% vs. 36%). Church expansion may depend at least in part on the support a pastor receives from the elders, the clarity of their shared vision and values and the power of their partnership to lead the church’s mission.

Perhaps one of the most significant red flags revealed by the findings is how infrequently pastors and elders pray together. In research Barna conducted in Scotland, researchers discovered that growing churches pray missionally and make prayer a mission. One way growing Scottish churches differentiate themselves from flat or declining congregations is by praying “specifically for the challenges of living faithfully in a post-Christian culture.”19 This finding requires an obvious follow-up question: How can pastors strengthen the practice of spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, in the teams with whom they lead?

The research also uncovered significant correlations between a positive pastor-elders relationship and both longer ministry tenure and higher levels of ministry satisfaction. Pastors who are satisfied with their current church ministry tend to report a more positive relationship with their governing board than those who are less satisfied. Conversely, discontented leaders are more apt than the norm to describe the relationship in negative terms. There are “unclear areas of decision-making authority” (42% vs. 18% all pastors). They often have “power struggles” (39% vs. 12%). They “feel underappreciated by the board” (36% vs. 11%). One in five would go so far as to say the pastor-elders dynamic is “one of the worst parts of ministry” (19% vs. 4%).

A parallel trend is at work among pastors who are at high risk of burnout, suggesting a connection not only between a healthy leadership team and a growing church, but also between a healthy leadership team and a healthy pastor.

Again, it is not possible to pinpoint the direction of causation— that is, whether the negative relationship contributes to the pastor’s risk of burnout or the pastor’s stress-related problems contribute to a strained pastor-elders dynamic. But either way, there is a strong correlation between high risk of burnout and relational challenges within the church’s leadership.

All these data indicate that a strong, mutually supportive relationship between a pastor and the governing team is integral to church health and to the pastor’s health. Relational harmony in this area lowers a leader’s risk of burning out and lengthens his or her tenure in ministry.

13. Leading

What is it like to pastor a church?

Shepherding a church is its own unique experience, in many ways unlike any other job or career. But there are elements of pastoring that resemble other vocations—sometimes for the better, but occasionally for the worse.

Barna asked pastors to think about the tasks and demands of church ministry and then choose which of two job functions most resembles their personal experience of being a pastor. So, for example, pastors could choose between entrepreneur and manager or between referee and doctor. These were set up as forced-choice questions—respondents had to pick one or the other—to help researchers get a clear sense of what pastors are feeling and experiencing in ministry.

Pastors’ level of satisfaction with their current church, as well as where they land on the Barna risk metrics, appear to impact their choices. As a rule, pastors who are less satisfied in their current position are more prone to feel like a manager, counselor, referee and administrator, and less like an entrepreneur, coach, doctor and leader. Similar percentages are found among pastors who are high on the metric of burnout risk.

Note the consistency on one side of the ledger: Lower ministry satisfaction is correlated to job functions that react or respond. On the other hand, pastors who select more assertive terms tend to report a more satisfying experience in ministry. Of course, choosing more passive self-descriptors does not automatically set up a pastor for diminished satisfaction! Many pastors are effective managers, counselors and administrators and are quite satisfied with their ministry experiences. Yet many leaders who lack intention and empowerment, or who feel subject to the whims of their congregations, show signs of depleted resilience.

Here’s another way to look at it: Pastors who are discontent in their current position seem to spend much of their energy on logistics and operations (manager-administrator) and on helping people work out their relational issues (counselor-referee). This theory is bolstered when we consider the top frustrations of low-satisfaction leaders: “Implementing change in the church” (27%) and “church politics” (38%) are among the top five tasks that cause these pastors frustration—yet these irritations are barely on the radar of very satisfied pastors.

In what ways can your ministry efforts focus on innovation and visioning (entrepreneur-leader) and on equipping people to be spiritually active and healthy (coach-doctor)? If your role involves managing, refereeing and so on, or if you lead people on your team who serve in these capacities, how can you sustain ministry resilience over the long haul?

Q&A with Svetlana Papazov

Wife, mother, church planter, entrepreneur, educator and executive coach

Dr. Svetlana Papazov is a wife, mother, church planter, entrepreneur, educator and executive coach. Pulling from her diverse experience in small business, academia and ministry, she launched Real Life Church, a marketplace church that integrates faith and entrepreneurship. Svetlana is also founder and CEO of Real Life Center for Entrepreneurial and Leadership Excellence in Richmond, Virginia. Her passion is whole-life discipleship, and she deeply cares about the holistic development of communities to shape world influencers and work toward culture transformation.

14. Communication

How do pastors interact with people in their church?

Churchgoers offer feedback to pastors about their ministry or leadership in a variety of ways. Most commonly, according to pastors, congregants give input face to face in private (64%), face to face in public (e.g., after church, 49%) or via email message (44%). Pastors in every age, denomination, ethnic and gender category put these three communication methods in their top three.

There are significant differences, however, when it comes to church size—in particular, leaders of small churches appear to be more accessible than pastors of large churches for personal interactions with their congregants. Pastors of congregations with attendance of 250 or more are twice as likely as small-church leaders of fewer than 100 to say they get an email message, and less likely to report meeting face to face or receiving a personal phone call.

As one might expect, younger pastors are more apt than their elders to get congregants’ input through text messages and social media, while phone calls remain a popular mode of communication among older leaders. Female pastors are also more likely than men to receive emails with input from churchgoers, though the reasons for this difference are unclear.

But what about the content of the feedback pastors receive? Is it mostly helpful, encouraging and gracious—or more unhelpful, hurtful and critical?

Input For Pastors

On the whole, pastors tend to find the communications they receive from congregants to be encouraging, helpful and affirming. Pastors are split, however, on whether their congregants’ communications are generally knowledgeable or uninformed. Overall, women and younger pastors perceive church members’ comments about their leadership or ministry as less positive compared to men and older ministers. This is particularly true when it comes to evaluating whether input is gracious or critical, affirming or judging, and helpful or unhelpful. Women are more likely than men to say congregants’ comments are judging, critical or unhelpful; the same is true for pastors under 50 compared to those 50 and older.

Similar trends can be seen among pastors of small, midsize and large churches. Generally speaking, pastors of churches of less than 100 in attendance perceive their members’ input as less positive compared to leaders of larger churches.

It’s possible (and even likely) that there are multiple, discrete factors at work here. By virtue of their less frequent personal interactions with their congregants, pastors of larger churches may be insulated somewhat from unhelpful, critical or judgmental encounters. A pastor of a small congregation—who is also more likely to be young, a woman or both—does not have that luxury. It’s also possible that members of smaller churches have become accustomed to airing their grievances.

In addition, as we will see in the following chapter, female pastors feel greater pressure than their male colleagues when it comes to people’s expectations. Some of this pressure to “do everything” or attain “perfection” may be felt through members’ communications; alternately, the existential pressure women pastors experience (see “Women” beginning on p. 82) may predispose them to perceive members’ communications as more negative.

Younger pastors’ more negative perceptions may be due in part to their preferred modes of communication: Text-based messaging is notorious for being difficult to parse and interpret, especially with regard to the sender’s intention and emotional state. It may also be that younger pastors haven’t yet developed the “thick skin” that some leaders argue is essential for leaders who want to be in long-term church ministry.21

Q&A with Bobby Gruenewald

Pastor, Innovation Leader at Life.Church

Bobby Gruenewald serves as Pastor, Innovation Leader at Life.Church and is the founder of the YouVersion Bible app, which has been installed on 250 million devices. As one of the leading voices in the Church on innovation and the use of technology, Bobby has been featured in The New York Times, TechCrunch, CNN and more. Prior to joining the Life.Church team in 2001, he started and sold two technology companies and served in advisory capacities for various startups and venture capital funds. He and his wife, Melissa, live in Edmond, Oklahoma, with their four children.

15. Women

In what ways is pastoring different for women?

In 2016 Hillary Clinton was the first woman to receive a major party’s nomination for president of the United States, emblematic of immense social changes for women during the past 50 years. According to Barna’s tracking data, a related trend is the slow but steady rise of women clergy in the Protestant community.

One out every 11 Protestant senior pastors is a woman (9%)— triple the percentage of 25 years ago. Most, but by no means all, lead mainline congregations; 44 percent of non-mainline pastors say their denomination, church network or congregation ordains women for pastoral leadership, compared to virtually all mainline pastors (99%).

That does not mean, however, that women with leadership gifts and a ministry calling have no place to serve in non-mainline churches. Barna offered pastors a list of ministry roles that someone might have in a church and asked whether, in their congregation, a woman is permitted to hold that position. Most church leadership positions are, in fact, available to female leaders—but a majority of non-mainline churches opens their most senior positions only to men. About one-third of non-mainline pastors say women may serve as senior pastors or executive pastors or as teaching / preaching pastors in their congregation.

Women often pastor smaller churches than their male colleagues; median attendance at churches pastored by women is 75 people at a weekend service compared to 110 at churches led by men. Additionally, women pastors tend to earn less than men. (The attendance gap likely accounts for some measure of the pay gap, since pastors of smaller congregations tend to be paid less than leaders of larger churches.)

A smaller church means a smaller staff, and three-quarters of female senior pastors either work alone (38%) or with just one other paid ministry staff member (36%). By comparison, nearly half of male senior pastors lead a staff of three or more (48%)—and these larger staffs often include women. While it’s most common for women to be senior leaders in small churches, larger congregations have, by virtue of their more extensive resources, more paid ministry opportunities for women. Just 17 percent of churches with attendance of more than 250 have an all-male ministry staff, compared to 38 percent of churches with less than 250.

Better Off, Worse Off

Beyond matters of demographics and availability of positions, there are some differences in the ways women experience their ministry roles compared to men. Female ministers are less optimistic than their male colleagues when it comes to how they compare with other pastors on matters of work-life balance and their salary-benefits package, but on par with men when it comes to their satisfaction with family support, friendships, job fulfillment and mental / emotional health.

Women are somewhat less likely than men to say they are “better off”compared to other pastors when it comes to their salary and benefits. But much greater is the disparity between women and men on the question of work-life balance. A plurality of men (42%) says they are better off than other U.S. pastors in this regard, but only one-quarter of women pastors believes the same (24%). In this feeling, female pastors are in sync with their peers in the wider workforce; U.S. women overall tend to be less satisfied than men with the balance they manage between career and home life.22

Female pastors are more likely than male church leaders to wish they’d been better prepared for people’s expectation that they “must do everything” and to say they were not prepared for people to “expect perfection.” However, there is no statistical daylight between male and female pastors when it comes to vocational satisfaction; nearly all pastors, regardless of gender, say they are at least somewhat satisfied in their pastoral vocation— and most are very satisfied.

16. Mentoring

How are pastors engaging with the next
generation of church leaders?

Many young Americans expect more than just a paycheck from their career. In particular, Millennials (born between 1984 and 2002) express a desire to make an impact on the world. But with declining church attendance and broader secularizing trends in the U.S., young people are looking less often to vocational ministry as a way to fulfill those desires. For The State of Pastors, Barna asked current church leaders about their experience with identifying, recruiting and training young Christians to take up vocational church ministry.

The first step toward mentoring future leaders is finding them, and two out of three current pastors believe identifying suitable candidates is becoming more difficult (69%). About one-quarter agrees strongly that “it’s becoming harder to find mature young Christians who want to be pastors” (24%), while a larger contingent agrees somewhat (45%). Pastors of large churches seem to have less of a problem identifying potential leaders (38% disagree with the statement) compared with pastors of small congregations (28%), perhaps because the pool of potential leaders is larger.

The rise in popularity of entrepreneurship among younger generations, and its low barrier to entry, may be contributing factors to the shrinking numbers of young ministry candidates. Social enterprises and tech startups promise talented young Americans exciting and fulfilling work, luring them away from more traditional vocational paths. Seven in 10 pastors feel the weight of this new reality: While only 18 percent strongly agree that “a lot of young leaders seem to think other kinds of work are more important than vocational ministry,” more than half agree somewhat (52%). Black pastors, in particular, express strong agreement that young leaders tend to esteem other careers over church ministry.

That lack of esteem must bother some pastors, especially since most find their ministry vocation so fulfilling. Nine out of 10 say that, based on their own experiences, they would “encourage a young person who is considering a career as a pastor to pursue it” (63% definitely, 29% probably). Those who would probably or definitely not offer such a recommendation tend to be leaders of churches declining in attendance, pastors of color, and less satisfied with their vocation or current church ministry.

Developing suitable young candidates for vocational ministry requires a concerted effort on the part of current pastors and churchgoers, and a majority of pastors believes their church is doing what it takes (69%). Roughly one in five strongly agrees that their church “puts a significant priority on training and developing the next generation of church leaders” (22%), while almost half agree somewhat (47%). This focus appears to be a hallmark of growing congregations: Three-quarters of these pastors agree they prioritize developing young leaders, compared to just over half of those who lead churches with declining attendance.

These development efforts take shape differently in different congregations. When researchers asked pastors to describe one or two specific things their church has done in the past year to identify and develop young leaders, nearly three in 10 said they had hired young staff and / or elected young members to leadership roles (28%), or offered training classes, camps or conferences (27%). One in six reports mentoring a young potential leader (19%), one in nine offered internships or “shadow” roles (11%) and one in 10 led small groups on discipleship and leadership (10%). Slightly rarer actions include giving encouragement and guidance to those who are considering leadership (9%) and putting resources into the youth ministry (7%). According to pastors in the survey:

Children and youth are included in nearly every aspect of our congregation before they even enter school. They serve on ministry teams and council, serve in worship, help plan outreach events, etc. This isn’t a token “Aw, look at the kids!” sort of thing; it’s part of the congregation’s DNA.

We delegate responsibilities to the younger emerging leaders and give them the freedom to fail—with full support.

We are a teaching congregation with a field education student from an area seminary. We also have a scholarship fund for training church leaders, which we have used to fund Bible courses and attendance at leadership training events.

We work with young men and women year-round, putting them in leadership positions. We do not treat them as “the future of the church”—they are an integral part of the church, just like those of us who are older.

Whatever shape it takes, it’s imperative for the next generation of pastors to be trained and developed—and most pastors believe the task is getting harder, even as they express deep commitment to getting it done right.

Q&A with Terry Linhart

Professor of Christian ministries at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana

Terry Linhart, PhD, is professor of Christian ministries at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. A speaker and consultant, he is also author of eight books, including The Self-Aware Leader. Terry is the founder of Arbor Research Group, a consulting firm that provides unique research and support to Christian organizations, churches and schools.

17. Partnerships

How important are denominations and other
area congregations to a church’s ministry?

Many individual churches function in a larger ecosystem of affiliation or relationships, and researchers wanted to assess the strength and extent of this web of connections. Eight out of 10 pastors say their church’s relationship with its denomination or church affiliation is either “very” (49%) or “somewhat strong” (31%). Perhaps counterintuitively, non-mainline leaders (53%) are more likely than mainline pastors (37%) to characterize the relationship as very strong. One might assume that a more ecclesiastical, rather than congregational, model of governance would naturally lead to a stronger relationship. But this finding suggests that shared theology may be a more powerful tie than institutional polity when it comes to individual churches and their parent denomination.

Small churches and midsize congregations also report stronger associations with their denomination compared to large churches. Additionally, pastors who earn less than $40,000 per year are more apt than those who earn $60,000 or more to describe their denominational relationship as very strong.

Interestingly, pastors who are very satisfied with their vocation or with their current church ministry tend to report a very strong relationship with their denomination compared to those who are less satisfied. The cause of these correlations is unclear, but it’s possible that satisfied, less-stressed leaders feel supported by the denominational apparatus, rather than micromanaged or stifled.

A strong relationship does not necessarily mean the denomination exerts great influence on a church’s day-to-day activities. In fact, non-mainline pastors (who are most likely to report very strong ties) are three times more likely than mainline leaders to describe the denomination’s daily influence as “none at all” (22% vs. 7% mainline).

Overall, just one-quarter of all pastors says their denomination has “a lot” of influence (23%) and one-third says “some” (34%). Pastors of color (48%) are far more likely than white ministers (20%) to say their denomination has a lot of sway over their day-to-day ministry activities and decisions—yet they are no more likely than whites to describe their denominational ties as very strong.

Local Partnerships

Ethnicity also seems to be a factor in a pastor’s inclination to partner with other area churches, even though they may belong to a different denomination. Black church leaders, in particular, report doing so more often than white pastors: Nearly half say they do so “several times a year” (48%), 20 points more than white leaders who say the same. And they are less likely to say they “never” partner with other local churches or that they do so less often than once a year.

There is some evidence that low engagement with other congregations in the local community correlates both to smaller church size and to declining attendance. One in five pastors of small churches (21%) and one in four pastors of churches with declining attendance (25%) say they never or only rarely partner with other congregations. By comparison, only about 10 percent of midsize church pastors and 15 percent of those who lead growing churches report similar levels of low engagement.

All in all, it appears that a relatively strong web of connections, both to the denominational network and to other local communities of faith, often correlates to church health and pastoral health—suggesting that pastors and network leaders should evaluate what’s working best on these fronts and consider how to fortify and extend these partnerships.

18. Satisfaction

What part of their job do pastors enjoy most?

Throughout The State of Pastors we refer to church leaders who are “very satisfied” (or not) with their vocation and who are “very satisfied” (or not) specifically with their ministry in their current church. But how many pastors fall into these categories?

Most pastors are, in fact, content. Seven in 10 U.S. Protestant pastors say they are very satisfied with their pastoral vocation (72%). One-quarter says they are “somewhat satisfied” (25%), and the remaining 3 percent admit they are “not too” or “not at all” satisfied.

When it comes to satisfaction with their current church ministry, the numbers paint a less rosy picture: Roughly half of all pastors are very satisfied (53%), two in five are somewhat satisfied (41%) and 7 percent are not too or not at all satisfied.

Barna analysts grouped together the pastors who are less than very satisfied into discrete population segments to see if these leaders have factors in common that are different from those who express the highest level of satisfaction. And, as we have already seen in this report, vocational satisfaction and satisfaction in one’s current church make an impact on many other measures of a pastor’s well-being. The inverse is also true: Low measures of well-being in various areas of life and ministry have an effect on a pastor’s levels of satisfaction.

Leaders who are 50 and older are more apt than younger pastors to say they are very satisfied, both with vocation and with their current church. Relatedly, pastors who have been in ministry for 30 years or longer tend to say they are very satisfied vocationally and in their current position, especially compared to leaders who have been in ministry between 15 and 29 years.

In “Risk” (see pp. 20), analysis suggests that some measure of pastors’ mental and emotional health is predicated on the growth or decline of their church’s attendance. Strengthening that contention is the relationship between a pastor’s satisfaction and the direction of their church’s attendance numbers: As a rule, those who lead growing churches are more satisfied and those who lead declining churches are less so.

What Pastors Like Best

When asked to choose just one pastoral task as their favorite from a list of ministry activities, two-thirds of senior church leaders say they most enjoy “preaching and teaching” (66%). Given that the sermon or message is the centerpiece of most Protestant worship services, this comes as no surprise.

There is a big drop-off from there. One in 10 says “developing other leaders” is their most enjoyable task (10%), and one in 12 prefers “discipling believers” (8%). “Evangelizing” (6%) and “pastoral care” (5%) bring the most joy to smaller proportions of pastors, and a mere 2 percent say they enjoy “organizing church events, meetings or ministries.”

Unexpectedly, church size seems to have an influence on what task a pastor most enjoys. Leaders of small churches of less than 100 weekend attenders are more likely than large-church pastors to choose discipling believers and evangelizing or sharing the gospel. Those who lead large churches with 250 or more members, by contrast, enjoy preaching and teaching even more than the average.

As we saw in “Communication” (pp. 76), leaders of small churches tend to be more personally accessible to their congregants than large-church pastors—and the findings here may indicate they prefer it that way. Discipleship, sharing the gospel and pastoral care are oftentimes best done one on one or in small, tight-knit groups. And many who lead small churches appear well-suited for these relational ministry activities.

19. Frustration

The Worst Part of My Job

What frustrates pastors most about ministry?

Even the most energizing, rewarding job has its downsides—and while pastors generally report higher levels of satisfaction than U.S. adults overall, the job of pastoring is no exception. Given an opportunity to identify the one or two biggest downsides of their job, the top five frustrations reported by pastors are:

1. Lack of commitment among laypeople (35%)
2. Low level of spiritual maturity among churchgoers (27%)
3. Financial and / or administrative duties (19%)
4. Church politics (18%)
5. Implementing change in the church (16%)

Lack of laity commitment also topped the list of frustrations in George Barna’s 1992 study of senior pastors, followed by financial and administrative duties and “how to do effective outreach.” 23

In 2017, lack of commitment and spiritual maturity are the top choices of nearly all segments, including pastors high on the burnout risk and relational risk metrics. However, for at-risk leaders, church politics and financial / administrative duties are particularly frustrating, especially when compared with those who rank low on the risk metrics. For example, pastors at high risk of burnout are three times more likely than those at low risk to say church politics is among their top frustrations.

When it comes to job headaches, there are a handful of significant differences between leaders in churches of various sizes. Pastors of small congregations, for example, are burdened by administrative duties more frequently than leaders of midsize or large churches. At the other end of the spectrum, pastors of large churches are more apt than the norm to be irritated by “working with the denomination”—perhaps because their churches are too big to fly under the organizational radar.

The frustrations common among midsize church leaders seem to indicate a challenging “in-between” phase of leadership.

Implementing change in the church and church politics are bigger headaches for these leaders than for pastors of large congregations. They are also more prone to frustration over the low level of spiritual maturity in their congregation compared to both small-and large-church pastors.

Every pastor, regardless of church size or job satisfaction, has frustrations related to the daily reality of congregational life. And that’s okay. The trick is to acknowledge irritations without letting them fill one’s field of vision. When frustrations get too big or too close, they distort perception and make daily joys appear small and inconsequential—which is an apt description of burnout. How can pastors deal well with pastoral disappointments so they don’t lead to vocational weariness?

20. Fit

How well do pastors’ day-to-day tasks fit
with their calling and gifts?

Unless they are one of the few who preside over a large church with a pastoral staff that can specialize in various aspects of ministry and church administration, senior pastors are jacks-of-all-trades who wear a number of hats: preacher, teacher, theologian, evangelist, counselor, executive and PR spokesperson, to name just a few functions. But pastors are not superhuman, and each is better at some parts of the job than others.

Researchers asked pastors to rate how well they perform certain aspects of their demanding roles, and to assess how well their primary tasks fit into their sense of calling and giftedness. Most say they are well-suited to their role, and they overwhelmingly believe their greatest competence is as thought leaders, indicating strengths in preaching, Bible knowledge and theology.

Nearly all pastors believe their primary tasks—where they spend the greatest amount of their time and energy—fit their sense of calling and giftedness either “very well” (55%) or “somewhat well” (42%). Just 4 percent say their primary tasks do not fit them very well.

Those who have been in ministry for 30 years or longer are more confident of their fit than those who are newer to ministry. Similar patterns are found among pastors at various points on the burnout and spiritual risk metrics.

When it comes to specific tasks and skillsets, pastors overwhelmingly rate themselves better on “preaching and teaching” than any other part of the job. Nearly six in 10 rate themselves as excellent (57%) and about one-third as good (36%) on this aspect of their role. A close second is “knowledge of scripture” (48% excellent, 45% good), followed closely by “practical or applied theology” (42% excellent, 48% good). These skills fall under the broad umbrella of thought leadership, which dominates the self-reported ratings.

The next category of pastoral skills is organizational leadership, which includes “leading the organization,” “managing the church’s finances” and “managing the staff.” Three in 10 pastors rate themselves as excellent at leading the organization, with those who lead growing churches more likely to say so than those whose growth trajectory is declining or flat. Roughly the same proportion, three in 10, say they are excellent at managing their church’s finances (28%); pastors who manage an annual church budget of $1 million or more are especially inclined to rate themselves high on this aspect of the job (51%). Fewer pastors rate themselves as excellent when it comes to managing the staff (16%), and those who do tend to lead churches with 250 or more people in attendance (22%), which are more likely than small congregations to employ a large ministry staff.

When it comes to connecting with the church’s surrounding community, pastors who have led their church for 10 or more years are more apt, as one might expect, than those who are new to their community to rate themselves as excellent. As a corollary finding, pastors with a shorter church tenure rate themselves lower overall on “evangelizing people” than those who have pastored their current church for at least 10 years, perhaps because they are still in the process of forming relationships in their neighborhood.

The data show that most pastors believe they fit well in their role. It’s also clear they tend to see themselves primarily as thought leaders. There is certainly an upside to this focus, since the weekly sermon is often the only interaction congregants have with their senior pastor; it’s fitting, then, that pastors feel most confident in the task that touches, and hopefully persuades or encourages, the greatest number of people.

Yet, in another sense, the laser-like focus on preaching and teaching could be problematic, if there are not additional staff and volunteers to meet the church’s broader pastoral needs. A senior pastor does not have to be an excellent counselor in order to be a good pastor, but someone with this gift needs to come alongside him or her to offer congregants wise counsel and relational guidance. Thus, one important aspect of pastoral leadership is recognizing one’s weaknesses and empowering others to take up the ministry slack.

Are pastors up to the task? Part III widens the scope of assessment to include the general population’s perceptions of pastors and their ministries, and explores the complex, accelerated environment in which pastors must now lead.

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