03 Cultural Leadership

Cultural Leadership


Part I looked at how pastors relate to themselves, to God and to the people closest to them. Part II examined the dynamics of leadership in congregational life. Part III now turns to the wider context in which pastors lead: the complex, accelerated culture where churches are called to be God’s people. Historically, pastors have been among the most influential leaders in the nation’s life. Is that still true today? What is changing about a pastor’s role in cultural leadership?

How effective are churches at evangelism and discipleship? How are pastors perceived by the average American? Do people think church leaders are good for their community and reliable guides for life? What are the qualities of a good pastor? How does a non-ministry career compare with a pastoral calling? How do pastors view their church’s role in racial justice? Are they concerned about religious freedom? What would people like to learn from pastors? What is the toughest part of pastoring in today’s culture?

Throughout Part III we explore various facets of cultural complexity that make leading a church challenging in new ways, and examine how pastors can develop resilience in the face of so much change.

21. Outreach

Outcomes of Outreach

How often, and how well, are churches engaging in service and evangelism to their communities?

How effective are churches at evangelism and discipleship?

For many churches, particularly those who consider themselves evangelical, outreach is central to the idea of “cultural leadership.” After all, making disciples was the risen Christ’s Great Commission to his followers—a commission that, if wholly fulfilled, would undeniably transform culture. So how do pastors think their churches are doing when it comes to outreach and growing disciples?

Most are apt to think their church is more effective at discipleship than at evangelism and outreach. Nearly nine out of 10 rate their church’s discipleship or spiritual formation efforts as “very” (14%) or “somewhat effective” (73%), compared to two-thirds who say so about their church “reaching out to unchurched people” (13% very, 50% somewhat effective).

Note that, on both counts, the percentage that rates their congregation as very effective is comparatively small. However, black pastors tend to rate their congregations better than the national norm on outreach (25%). And one in five pastors of growing churches say their congregation is very effective at both outreach (21%) and discipleship (22%), compared to just 4 percent of pastors who helm churches with declining attendance.

When it comes to the effectiveness of their discipleship ministry, leaders of large churches are in the same statistical ballpark as those who lead small and midsize congregations, but are far more likely to say they are very effective at outreach to the unchurched (20% large vs. 14% small, 9% midsize).

There is also a fairly stark split between mainline and non-mainline churches when it comes to outreach effectiveness. Less than half of mainline pastors say their church is effective at reaching out to unchurched people (9% very, 37% somewhat), compared to seven in 10 non-mainline leaders (15% very, 55% somewhat).

Number & Purpose of Service Projects

Most congregations do a handful of service projects each year that are designed to serve people outside of their church body; the average (median) number of projects completed in the last 12 months is five. There is, of course, a wide range of variation: 3 percent of pastors say their church did more than 50 service initiatives in the past year, while 5 percent report no such events.

Not surprisingly, church size and budget are factors here. One in nine churches with fewer than 100 adult attenders, and 17 percent of churches with an annual budget of less than $100,000, did not complete any service projects in the last 12 months. On the other hand, large churches and congregations with a budget of $1 million or more completed an average of eight and 10 events last year, respectively, and none of them report having done none at all.

Regardless of church size, there is broad consensus that the main goals of community service are “loving / serving others as Jesus taught,” “being the hands and feet of Jesus” and “outreach / evangelism to the people we serve.” The last of these is more of a priority among non-mainline pastors than mainline, but “embodying the kingdom of God” is a greater concern for mainline pastors than non-mainline.

There are also a few notable differences between younger and older pastors. Leaders under 50 are more prone to prioritize outreach and evangelism and blessing their neighborhood, while leaders 50 and older are especially keen to help their congregation act as “the hands and feet of Jesus.”

Q&A with Sharon Hoover

Director of missions at Centreville Presbyterian Church in Centreville, Virginia

Sharon R. Hoover is director of missions at Centreville Presbyterian Church in Centreville, Virginia, where she develops partnerships and equips the congregation to connect with mission partners. In her 20 years on church staffs, she has traveled extensively to lead teams alongside domestic and global partners. Sharon writes and speaks on missions, discipleship and living a faith-filled life in the world God loves. Her current project is a book to guide people in their search for effective missional engagement. Sharon lives in the Washington, DC, area with her husband and occasionally visiting college children.

22. Impressions

Pop-Culture Pastors

Christian ministers have been portrayed in the media as heroes, villains and everything in between. How similar are those portrayals to Americans’ personal experience with pastors?

How are pastors perceived by the average American?

When researchers decided to put together a “pastors in pop culture” series of questions for U.S. adults, the task’s unexpected difficulty was a reminder of our culture’s ever-increasing complexity. Fragmentation is just one aspect of this complexity. There are no longer TV shows that “everybody” watches or movies that “everyone” has seen. Because media content today is niche-driven, micro-targeted and on-demand, Barna had to reach “into the vault,” so to speak, to find pop-culture pastors with whom a majority of Americans might be familiar.

Whether someone has a passing familiarity with The Simpsons’ Reverend Tim Lovejoy is not particularly significant. What is significant is the extent to which pastors (real ones) have dropped off the radar as a cultural force. The problem is not that the average American has an overwhelmingly negative perception of Christian ministers; it’s that the average American doesn’t think about them at all.

Just one-quarter of all U.S. adults says their overall opinion of pastors in general is “very positive” (24%). On the other hand, roughly the same proportion holds a negative opinion (9% very, 19% somewhat). But the largest single share is the 48 percent of Americans whose opinion is “somewhat positive.” Most don’t actively hate pastors, not at all. They just don’t especially care.

The news is somewhat better when it comes to pastors whom people know personally, rather than “pastors” as a general idea. More than half of U.S. adults say they personally are “very” (32%) or “somewhat familiar” (26%) with a Christian minister, and nearly two-thirds of these respondents say their opinion of the pastor they know is “very positive” (64%).

As one might expect, these positive views are not evenly distributed across the population, but all groups report higher opinions of a pastor personally known to them than of “pastors, priests or other church leaders” as a general category. This broad finding may indicate negative overtones at work broadly within society that influence people’s views of Christianity, perhaps even without their awareness. For example, 26 percent of the religiously unaffiliated (sometimes called “nones”) say they personally know a Christian minister, and one-quarter of those who do have a very positive opinion of him or her (23%)—yet only 2 percent say they have a positive opinion of pastors overall. Similarly, among unchurched adults who personally know a pastor (34%), one-third says they have a very high opinion of the pastor whom they know (38%) but only one in 11 has a high opinion more generally (9%).

On the other hand, practicing Christians—who say their faith is very important in their life and have attended a worship service within the past month—view pastors more warmly, both in general (52%) and specific to the pastor whom they know best (87%).

Of the people who personally know a Christian minister—57 percent of all U.S. adults—four out of five are acquainted with him or her because of current (45%) or past (32%) church involvement. The remaining one in five knows a pastor because they are a relative, a neighbor or a fellow member of a community group or a local nonprofit, or because they share some other social connection.

Since Millennials, the youngest generation of adults, are least likely to attend church, it is no surprise they’re more apt to know a pastor through past church involvement rather than current attendance. Three out of five Elders, on the other hand, are acquainted with a pastor because of current churchgoing, and just one in six because of past attendance.

The generational trends reflected here are indicative of a broader shift when it comes to church involvement. The unchurched made up 30 percent of the U.S. adult population in the 1990s; 33 percent in the 2000s; and 43 percent by 2014. The “unchurched” category includes those who are “de-churched” (33% actively attended at some point but no longer do so) and those who are “purely unchurched” (10% have no previous exposure to church involvement).24

Further From the Cultural Center

The national drop off in churchgoing (and in Bible engagement, explored in a later chapter) has contributed to a groundswell of cultural sentiment that Christians are irrelevant and extreme. Barna has found that, for many Americans, the definition of religious extremism extends beyond religiously motivated violence. Three out of five U.S. adults believe it is “religiously extreme” to try to convert someone to your faith (60%); eight out of 10 “nones” say evangelism—one of the central actions of Christian conviction—is extremist (83%). A majority of adults says believing same-sex relationships are morally wrong is extremist (52%). Two out of five say it’s extreme to quit a good-paying job to pursue mission work in another country (42%). And, while not majority opinions, millions of people agree that donating regularly to religious causes, reading the Bible silently in public and even volunteering are religiously extreme.25

Beyond specific religious activities and attitudes, the perception of Christians’ extremism is becoming entrenched among the nation’s non-Christians. Forty-five percent of “nones” agree with the statement “Christianity is extremist.” Almost half.

Compounding the impact of these unfriendly views is the fact that practicing Christians make up a shrinking slice of the overall population. In 2001, 43 percent of all U.S. adults qualified as practicing Christians. As of late 2016, just 31 percent met the criteria. And among Millennials the proportion is even smaller: Just one in five is a practicing Christian (21%).

In a separate study of U.S. clergy sponsored by Maclellan Foundation, Barna found that Protestant pastors are aware of the cultural trends away from the “Christian default” of the past. Just one in five believes “a Christian nation” is an accurate description of the U.S. today (20%), while substantial majorities say “a religiously plural nation” (87%), “a nation in transition spiritually” (87%), “a secular nation” (76%) and “a post-Christian nation” (67%) are accurate. Eighty-five percent say they are concerned that “Christians remaining faithful and effective as a minority within the U.S.” will affect their ability to minister effectively in the coming decade.

These are just a handful of the trends Barna has been tracking nationally in an effort to understand the Christian community’s changing role in and relationship to the dominant culture. They show the Church is being moved to the margins. Pastors—and faithful, practicing lay Christians—are being squeezed from the cultural center.*

*For an in-depth look at these trends, check out Good Faith by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons.

23. Influence

Do people think pastors are good for their community?

Pastors sense that the weight of their words reaches beyond their pulpit and into the lives of their congregants—and also, at least to some extent, into the public square. But how do people perceive the benefits (or drawbacks) of their influence? And what do pastors think about their standing in the community?

Public Perceptions

Just one in five U.S. adults believes Christian ministers are “very influential” in their community (19%). One-quarter says pastors’ influence is minimal (24% not very + not at all influential), while a lukewarm plurality says they are “somewhat influential” (40%). Not surprisingly, church leaders’ more captive audiences—such as practicing Christians (44%), evangelicals (42%) and weekly churchgoers (37%)—are more apt to esteem them as very influential.

Those of no faith—a group that includes atheists, agnostics and “nones”—are most likely to believe pastors hold negligible local influence (44%), but the findings suggest this view may have more to do with indifference than disdain: One-third of the religiously unaffiliated admits they are simply “not sure” whether clergy play an influential role in their community (33%)—twice the national average (17%).

It’s one thing to ask if church leaders wield great influence; Barna also wanted to know, is their influence good? Do Christian ministers have a positive or negative reputation in their cities and neighborhoods?

Four in 10 U.S. adults assert the presence of pastors is “a significant benefit” to their community (40%) and one in four says it’s “a small benefit” (26%)—combined, that’s two-thirds of the overall population who believe pastors benefit their neighborhood. In a sign of stiffer headwinds in the decades to come, however, Millennials are less inclined than older Americans to say pastors are a significant benefit (29%), especially when compared to Elders, who tend to be quite convinced of the significant benefits pastors bring to their city or town (60%).

A small minority of U.S. adults feels that ministers pose a disadvantage to their community (5%). As one might predict, this view is concentrated among adults with no religious faith (12% small + significant disadvantage) or who identify with a religion other than Christianity (9%). Again, however, a majority of both groups is more likely to feel neutral on the question than to be actively negative: One-third of those with no faith and one-quarter of adherents to another faith judge pastors to be “neither a benefit nor a disadvantage,” and one in four among both groups is just not sure.

Pastors’ Perceptions

The public’s neutral or noncommittal responses concerning ministers’ influence are reflected in pastors’ perceptions of their place within community life. When asked how satisfied they are with the respect pastors are afforded by their surrounding community, about one in five says it’s “excellent” (22%). Just about half say it is “good” (48%) and another one in five rates community respect for clergy as “average” (21%). These somewhat bland responses corroborate the general population’s indifference.

Black pastors are more likely than white leaders to be satisfied with the respect they receive from their community (41% vs. 21%). This lends support to Terry Linhart’s contention that historically black churches often excel at esteeming and honoring their pastors, which can help those church leaders sustain their confidence in their call to ministry. (See pp. 89 for Linhart’s Q&A with Barna.)

As we saw in Part I, pastors who earn less than $40,000 a year have a counterintuitive tendency to report higher levels of satisfaction on many measures—and they are no different on the question of respect they receive from their surrounding community. The lowest-paid pastors are twice as likely as those who earn between $40,000 and $60,000 annually to rate their satisfaction as “excellent” (31% vs. 16%), and 11 points more likely to do so than those who earn more than $60,000 (20%).

As expected, pastors who are very satisfied with their vocation or ministry in their current church are far more likely than those who are less satisfied to report high levels of respect from their community.

In the Maclellan study of U.S. clergy mentioned previously, Barna found that, even in their own congregations, pastors feel their influence is limited. Only one-third says they have “a lot” of influence on how members of their church think about current issues in society (33%); most say they have “some” (60%). This limited influence may be to the good, since only about one in three church leaders says they are “very prepared” to teach their congregation how to engage in constructive conversations with people who disagree with them on sensitive social issues (37%).26

Dallas Willard wrote, “The task of Christian pastors and leaders is to present Christ’s answers to the basic questions of life and to bring those answers forward as knowledge—primarily to those who are seeking and are open to following him, but also to all who happen to hear.”27 It appears that many pastors do not feel equal to this task. What must be done to equip and encourage them?

24. Wisdom

Who Trusts Pastors Most—and Least?

Faith practice, political ideology and stage of life affect how people esteem the wisdom of pastors and priests. But factors like education, income, gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status generally have less sway on Americans’ perception of pastoral insight.

Do people believe pastors are reliable guides for life?

Despite how influential they feel (or do not feel), pastors play a unique role in the lives of their congregants. Their sermons and personal counsel inform decisions and attitudes about everything from God’s forgiveness to the Bible, from family relationships to politics. And their influence shows: The majority of practicing Christians says pastors are a “very credible” source of wisdom “when it comes to the most important issues of our day” (51%).

But what about the broader population? Does the average American appreciate the wisdom Christian ministers bring to the public square? One in five U.S. adults believes that pastors are a very credible source of insight on today’s issues (21%). One in four thinks pastors are “not very” (14%) or “not at all credible” (11%), and 15 percent are “not sure.” But the plurality of Americans once again occupies a kind of noncommittal, mushy middle: Two in five say pastors are a “somewhat credible” source of wisdom (39%).

Pastors’ perceived wisdom rises and falls according to topic. More to the point, people seem to trust pastors when it comes to overtly “spiritual” topics, but are less confident in their counsel on more everyday, “close-to-the-ground” issues. For instance, one-third of all adults consider Christian ministers very reliable sources of information and counsel when it comes to “how the church can help people live according to God’s will” (36%) and “God’s will for human beings and the world” (35%). Fewer believe pastors are very reliable, however, when it comes to “how relationships work and how to make them better” (26%) and “how people can live out their convictions privately and publicly” (23%).

People are most skeptical about pastors’ insights when it comes to “how Christianity should inform our political and justice systems.” Just one out of eight adults believes pastoral wisdom on this topic is very reliable (17%), half the number of those who say pastors are not very (20%) or not at all reliable (19%). And even though practicing Christians are among the most convinced of pastors’ wisdom on applying faith to the political realm, fewer than half say ministers are very reliable in this regard (40%). This complements the results of Barna election polling among U.S. voters, which found that pastors rank quite low on a list of voter influences, below religious beliefs (which top the list), family members, news media and friends.28

Loss of Authority

In the Maclellan study of U.S. clergy, pastors were asked if it is harder, easier or about the same today as five years ago to speak out on moral and social issues. A plurality of Protestant leaders says it’s about the same (48%), but nearly as many say speaking out is harder (44%). Reasons they offer for believing it’s more difficult include the growing sentiment that Christians are intolerant, the complex relational and political issues surrounding homosexuality and traditional sexual ethics, and the loss of the Bible as a cultural source of moral authority.

These feelings are certainly supported by the data. For example, through ongoing research for American Bible Society, Barna has tracked a decrease from generation to generation of people who trust the authority of the Scriptures because “the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life.” Among Elders in the U.S., eight out of 10 believe the Bible is authoritative (79%), and the ratio of those who are engaged with the Bible (26%) to those who are skeptical (13%) is 2:1.* Among Millennials, fewer than six in 10 believe the Bible is authoritative (56%), and the ratio of Bible engagement (12%) to skepticism (26%) is 1:2. Non-Christian Millennials are also much more likely than Elders to say the Bible is “just a story” (50%), “mythology” (38%) or “a fairy tale” (30%). 29

*For Bible engagement definitions, see Appendix B. Definitions.

Skepticism of the Bible’s authority is one aspect of Millennials’ mistrust of institutions more generally. In research for the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE), Barna interviewed Christian educators who see this institutional alienation in their students. One professor said, “They have moved from a truth culture, whereby the facts of the matter were the primary consideration in adult conversation, to a therapy culture, whereby their first question is how it makes them or others feel.” Such a “post-truth” culture inevitably makes communicating God’s truth a challenging endeavor. What adaptive tools do pastors need to accomplish their mission within a culture of complexity? And where can they find those tools?

25. Traits

What are the qualities of a good pastor?

With varying degrees of authority, pastors act as role models not only for their congregation, but also for the community where they live and minister. But what are the essential virtues of an effective church leader?

From a list of available options, a plurality of both U.S. adults and pastors choose “love for people, desire to help people” as one of the top two qualities of an effective church leader. However, the general public holds this virtue in higher regard than pastors: About half of all Americans prioritize this trait, compared to three in 10 pastors. Significant minorities in each group say “love of God / Jesus” is one of the top two traits a church leader needs to be effective. Thus, the twin virtues of loving God and loving others—the two greatest commandments—are elevated by both pastors and the American public as essential pastoral qualities. Beyond these two attributes, however, the groups begin to differ significantly.

To researchers’ surprise, a slight majority of pastors opted to ignore the list of 11 options and selected “other” as one of their two possible choices (54%), which likely indicates that individual pastors have uniquely specific ideas about what virtues make for effective church leadership. Given an opportunity to write in, pastors offer a wide variety of traits they believe are essential for their work. The most common themes that emerge from their answers include humility, consistent spiritual disciplines (especially prayer), patience, compassion, flexibility, integrity, a clear ministry calling, and good communication and listening skills.

Among the pastors who selected from the survey options, “zeal, passion, commitment” and “leadership, vision” are about equally popular—but the general public does not consider these traits as essential as “insight, wisdom, discernment.” U.S. adults are more apt than pastors to consider “Bible knowledge” and “cultural understanding” as top qualities of an effective church leader. Few in either group highly prioritize “theological knowledge.”

It’s interesting to consider these findings in light of the fact that just 9 percent of all pastors say seminaries are doing “very well” at preparing pastors to effectively lead churches today. Many theological institutions emphasize knowledge acquisition over interpersonal skill development, increasing leadership aptitude and spiritual maturity—yet pastors’ write-in answers on the top traits essential for effective church leadership make it clear that most believe character is more vital than intellect.

26. Vocation

How does a non-ministry career compare with a pastoral calling?

In Christian tradition, the words “vocation” and “calling” encompass much more than a career in full-time ministry; they apply to all types of work outside the walls of the church.30 But according to most U.S. adults—especially (and paradoxically) practicing Christians—pastors’ work is more important than their own career or vocation.

Half of all working Americans say church work is “much more” (28%) or “a little more” (22%) important than their career choice. One in five says a pastoral vocation is of equal importance with their career (20%), and one in six believes their own vocation is more important than a Christian minister’s (18%). Exceptionally inclined to believe their career is more important than pastoring are Millennials (31%) and those who are religiously unaffiliated (“nones,” 47%).

In contrast, three-quarters of practicing Christians say a pastor’s vocation is more important than their own (51% much more, 22% a little more). The root of this belief appears to be theological or philosophical, not practical. That is, the vast majority of practicing Christians would recommend their career / vocation to a young person who is considering it (40% definitely, 41% probably), so it seems likely their view of church work reflects reverence for ministry calling rather than rejection of their own vocational choices. Still, the data suggests the sacred-secular divide is alive and well among most practicing Christians today.

A majority of adults would encourage a young person to pursue a career in their field (29% definitely, 41% probably), but several factors, in addition to Christian practice, impact a person’s inclination to do so. Among these are ethnicity or race, educational attainment and—not surprisingly—annual income. U.S. adults who earn a salary of $100,000 or more or have completed at least some college are more likely than those who make less than $50,000 or went to high school only to say they would “definitely” recommend their career. Black and Hispanic Americans are also more apt than white adults to definitely recommend their vocation.

Pastors are twice as likely as U.S. adults to say they would “definitely” encourage someone who is considering a career as a pastor to pursue it (63%)—that is, to recommend their vocation to a young person. As in the general population, pastors of color are more inclined than white pastors to say they would definitely encourage a young person to consider a career in church ministry. But unlike the income and educational trends among U.S. adults, lower-paid leaders and those who did not attend seminary are just as inclined, statistically speaking, as their top-earning and more-educated colleagues to recommend their vocation.

For pastors, earning potential appears to have less of an effect than their church’s size and the trajectory of its growth. Leaders of large and / or growing congregations are more apt to say they’d definitely recommend their vocation, compared to leaders of small churches and those whose attendance has been flat over the past year.

A pastor’s satisfaction with their work, however, has an even greater impact on their willingness to recommend a pastoral vocation. A majority of less-satisfied leaders—larger than the majority among all U.S. adults—says they would, in fact, encourage a young person to pursue a ministry career. But they are less likely than the norm among pastors to say they would definitely do so, and nearly twice as likely to say they would not recommend a career in church ministry (15% vs. 8% among all pastors).

Significant for the future health of the U.S. church, most pastors—even those who are not very satisfied in their work— believe what they do is worth it and would encourage up-and-coming leaders to take a similar path. That’s good news! However, there seems to be growing ambivalence among the wider population about whether pastoral work is important—particularly among Millennials, a surprising number of whom say their own work is more important than church ministry. Barna has found in previous research that Millennials are keener than older generations to integrate their personal values into their career, and are more inclined toward risk and entrepreneurship—especially if their business idea can be connected to social good. These and other factors may contribute to the sense among today’s pastors, explored in “Mentoring” (see page 86), that identifying future church leaders is becoming a more complex task.

27. Reconciliation

How do pastors view their church’s role in racial justice?

Race is certainly one factor of cultural complexity that impacts both the life of the nation and the life of the Church. When it comes to race relations, most U.S. pastors agree with the wider population that there are real obstacles to surmount and considerable work ahead in order to accomplish true and lasting reconciliation. However, while the general public’s views on these matters tend to be divided along racial and generational lines, pastors’ views, for the most part, are not. For Protestant pastors in America, one’s theological tradition is a stronger consideration than one’s racial identity or shared peer assumptions. Mainline pastors under 50, for example, have more opinions on race issues in common with their older mainline colleagues than with their non-mainline age cohort, and the same is true for non-mainline leaders under 50: They are more similar to their older colleagues than to younger mainline pastors.

There is strong consensus among U.S. adults (84%) and pastors (86%) that “there is a lot of anger and hostility between different ethnic and racial groups in America today.” Pastors tend to agree regardless of their denominational affiliation; Americans overall agree without respect to their race or generation.

Moreover, two-thirds of pastors and U.S. adults agree that “people of color are often put at a disadvantage because of their race.” When these majorities are segmented into various population groups, however, agreement is not equally widespread. Race / ethnicity (77% all non-white vs. 62% white) and generation (73% Millennials vs. 62% Boomers, for example) are predictors of how likely an American is to agree—yet they are not robust predictors among U.S. pastors. Much more significant are denominational differences: Mainline Protestant leaders are far more apt than non-mainline pastors to agree there are social disadvantages for people of color in the United States.

The persistent mainline / non-mainline split on race has its roots in the Civil Rights movement. In his book Getting Religion, longtime religion editor for Newsweek Kenneth L. Woodward charts the movement of Northern mainline (mostly white) clergy toward alignment with Martin Luther King, Jr., which reached its apex at Selma. “After Selma,” Woodward writes, “veterans of the march would talk of their experience as life changing. It wasn’t just a memorable moment: it was also a moral credential. . . . Thereafter, where one stood on the issue of public agitation on behalf of civil rights became for activist clergy the measure of authentic faith.”31 In short, a commitment to racial justice is, for many mainline Protestants, a fundamental feature of Christian identity.

These differences can also be seen on other statements related to race in America. Nine out of 10 mainline ministers agree that “law enforcement and the judicial system treat people of color and white people differently,” but fewer than six in 10 non-mainline pastors concur—still a majority, but a significantly smaller one. And two-thirds of mainline leaders believe “the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is an appropriate response to the problem of police violence against black citizens,” compared to just one in five non-mainline leaders.

Pastors and the general public are aligned overall on their assessment of race relations, but Christian ministers are harsher than U.S. adults when it comes to the church’s role in perpetuating racism. Roughly one-third of Americans agrees that “Christian churches are part of the problem when it comes to racism,” a smaller percentage than among pastors. Mainline leaders are especially critical of U.S. churches in this regard, but close to half of non-mainline church leaders also agree—still more than among the general population.

However disapproving pastors may be about the church’s past contributions to racism, they are also quite hopeful about the impact churches can make on the future—and U.S. adults share that hope. Virtually all pastors, both mainline and non-mainline, agree that “Christian churches play an important role in racial reconciliation.” Three-quarters of all Americans, both black and white, also believe local congregations can and should play a part in reconciliation.

What churches are making an effort to do so? Half of all pastors say “racial justice and reconciliation is among my church’s top 10 priorities” (51%). On this statement, mainline and non-mainline pastors are equally likely to agree, but there is a difference between white pastors (50% agree) and pastors of color (61%). Barna asked all pastors who agree with the statement where racial justice ranks on a list of their church’s top 10 priorities, and found that leaders of color (70%) are more likely than white pastors (50%) to rank it among their congregation’s top five concerns.

Q&A with David Bailey

Founder and Executive Director of Arrabon

David M. Bailey is the founder and executive director of Arrabon, a ministry that equips churches and organizations to engage in the ministry of reconciliation with cultural intelligence. He is an active speaker, consultant and strategist for many national organizations on cultural intelligence and culture-making. David was named by Christianity Today as one of “The 20 Most Creative Christians We Know” and is the executive producer of the Urban Doxology Project. His greatest honor in life is to be married to his wonderful and beautiful wife, Joy.

28. Freedom

How concerned are pastors about religious liberty?

The past several years are notable for the number of events that raise questions about religious freedom in the United States. These include, among many others, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges requiring all 50 states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; the jailing of Rowan County, Kentucky, Clerk Kim Davis for refusing to do so; continuing adjudication of the Obamacare requirement that employers, including faith-based organizations, provide birth control to their employees; the activist clashes over passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act; and the U.S. Department of Education’s directive that all public schools must allow students to use facilities that correspond to their gender identity, rather than to their birth sex.

These and other issues are heightening the sense among many Americans—including pastors—that religious liberty may be under threat. In the nationwide study of U.S. clergy conducted in partnership with Maclellan Foundation, Barna found that non-mainline Protestant pastors tend to express more concern than mainline ministers. But a majority of both groups says they are at least somewhat concerned “that religious freedom will become more restricted in the next five years in the U.S.”

The specifics of church leaders’ concerns for the future vary, and not all are directly related to religious freedom. With differing levels of intensity, pastors agree it’s likely in the next 10 years that society will become less moral; that Christians will have less influence in society; that freedoms other than religious liberty will be put at risk; and that citizens’ ability to freely practice their faith will be diminished.

When asked to assess the current state of religious freedom in the U.S., non-mainline leaders are much more likely to express pessimism—85 percent overall say it is becoming less valued— than mainline pastors (54%). Yet, a majority among mainline leaders also believes First-Amendment freedoms are becoming less valued by the broader culture.

A majority of pastors believes the potential impact of declining freedom will have a negative impact on their faith community. And even more than their white counterparts, black pastors say such declines would have a very negative impact (48%). Yet according to a significant minority of pastors, the outcome for Christians won’t necessarily be negative. In fact, three in 10 pastors say the impact on the Christian community will be somewhat or even very positive (31%). This minority may see in these challenges an opportunity for the U.S. church to refocus on its mission.

Complete research findings on the ministry issues surrounding religious freedom, along with Barna insights and analysis, will appear in the forthcoming report Faith Leaders on Religious Liberty (Barna Group, 2017). Key findings include:

1. Religious freedom is widely defined as freedom to practice religion without interference from the government.
2. Clergy of all traditions agree that the U.S. is a religiously plural nation and a nation in transition spiritually.
3. Many faith leaders struggle to embrace a form of religious liberty that goes beyond mere self-interest. This is true for all groups in the study; each tends to concern itself with its own interests.
4. Many clergy are finding it increasingly difficult to talk about sensitive cultural topics. Their hesitation is largely due to concerns about how people in the pews will react to such discussions.
5. Clergy often have a one-size-fits-all solution to addressing issues: sermons. This is not necessarily bad, but it does reflect a lack of other tools to disciple and guide congregants’ thinking.
6. Especially for non-mainline pastors, religious liberty and LGBT issues are inextricably linked. There is tremendous angst about how to move forward.
7. Mainline and non-Christian leaders hold many similar views on these matters, while non-mainline and Catholics pastors tend to share similar perspectives.
8. Most faith leaders believe their congregants want help addressing issues of religious liberty and complex questions that arise in a pluralistic culture—and they view their role as unique and important.

29. Opportunities

What do people want from pastors?

Given people’s inclination to trust the wisdom of pastors more on “spiritual” issues than on concerns that touch everyday life, it’s not a surprise that overtly Christian themes head the list of teaching topics people say would be most valuable to them. (Respondents could choose up to two options.) One in four says they are personally interested in “Christian morals / biblical values (for example, sexual ethics, caring for the poor, care for creation, honesty / integrity, sacrificial giving, serving others)” and one in five expresses interest in “the gospel (Jesus’ death and resurrection, how to follow Jesus, God’s redemption of the world)” or “how to read / interpret / understand the Bible.”

As we saw in “Wisdom” (see pp. 122) a minority of Americans believes pastors are trustworthy guides not only on spiritual matters but also when it comes to human relationships. About one in five says they are hungry to learn more from pastors on “family issues (for example, marriage, parenting, caring for aging parents, divorce, family estrangement, reconciliation).” On the other hand, only 8 percent of adults are interested in hearing pastoral teaching on “social / political issues (for example, same-sex marriage / LGBT rights, abortion, gun rights, tax policy, climate change, drug policy, religious freedom),” which is commensurate with the much smaller percentage of Americans who say pastors are very reliable sources of insight on how faith should inform politics.

More practicing Christians and active churchgoers express a desire to learn about explicitly Christian topics compared to the national norm. For example, practicing Christians are more likely than average to say they’d like to receive pastoral teaching on the gospel, on “who Jesus was or is / who God is / what God is like (God’s character)” and on “spiritual disciplines (for example, prayer, meditation, Bible study, fasting, silence / solitude, serving, worship).” But in addition to the differences between active Christians and other faith groups, including those with no religious affiliation—who are, not surprisingly, less interested overall in hearing from pastors on any topic—there are also some notable differences among the generations.

As a case in point, Millennials are more likely than Boomers to say they would value teaching on “justice issues (for example, racism, gender inequality, capital punishment, immigration, income inequality, prison reform)” and less likely to express interest in a pastor’s teaching on the gospel or on “how to be a Christian in secular society / in America.” Unexpectedly, young adults also are more inclined to want teaching on “spiritual warfare (for example, demonic / Satanic influence, intercessory prayer, charismatic gifts such as speaking in tongues, healing, miracles, prophecy).” They are also most likely among all adults to say “none” of the possible topics would be valuable to them.

In the study on Christian higher education for ABHE mentioned previously, researchers asked U.S. adults what type of religious or faith-based education (if any) they would be most interested in. Only one in three Americans says they are not interested in theological education of any kind (37%); the majority expresses a desire for at least some level of religious enrichment. This is especially true among practicing Christians. And while most churches do not, on their own, have capacity to create degree programs for knowledge-hungry Christians, these findings demonstrate widespread religious interest among both believers and everyday Americans—and may indicate an opportunity for churches to partner with Bible colleges, Christian universities or even educators in the congregation to meet these needs.

Churches & Community Needs

As part of The State of Pastors study, Barna also asked U.S. adults what needs in their community might be met by local churches. People could select all the options they believe apply to their community—and some people selected nearly all of them! Many Boomers, especially, seem convinced that churches are well-placed and uniquely equipped to meet many of their community’s needs.

On the other hand, Millennials appear more skeptical about the role churches can or should play in their neighborhood; 16 percent say churches could provide “none of the above,” compared to 11 percent of older adults. It may be that most Millennials believe only a few of these needs are particularly pressing for their own community—or perhaps their skepticism of churches and religious organizations is simply a higher hurdle to clear. Lending weight to this suggestion is the notably small percentage of Millennials who say “teaching the Bible / teaching about Jesus” is a need churches could meet; just one in five young adults says so (20%), compared to half of all Boomers (51%)

Overall, Americans believe churches could “feed the needy,” provide “clothing for the needy,” offer “spiritual guidance” and be “a place where everyone is accepted.” Other needs include “activities for teens in the community,” “shelter for the homeless” and “counseling services.” But, as you can see on the following page, the generational spread on each of these is significant.

30. Challenges

What is the toughest part about pastoring in today’s culture?

Throughout The State of Pastors we’ve looked at aspects of their vocation that bring pastors joy, parts of their job for which they wish they’d been better prepared and the ministry tasks they find most frustrating. Zooming out from the specifics of their everyday responsibilities, what do church leaders say is their biggest challenge? What are the broader issues that sometimes make church leadership a test of trust and endurance? And how do leaders’ perceptions of their greatest pastoral challenges square with Barna’s findings on leading in complexity?

Using an open-ended, write-in question, Barna asked pastors, “What are the most challenging aspects of being a pastor in today’s culture?”

A few common themes emerge from their answers, but the clearest takeaway is that different pastors find very different things a challenge. In a statistical tie are “juggling the demands of the job,” “competing for people’s time,” “apathetic / uncommitted Christians” and “engaging younger generations,” closely followed by “being relevant without conforming” and “making disciples.” Pastors under 50, in particular, find that juggling job demands presents a challenge, and are somewhat more likely than older leaders to say apathetic Christians are the most challenging fact of their ministry. Pastors 50 and older, on the other hand, admit engaging younger generations is a challenge for them. In a similar vein, “keeping up with cultural changes” is uniquely challenging for leaders who have been in ministry for 30 years or longer.

There are a few small but significant differences between pastors of growing congregations and those with declining attendance. Leaders of shrinking churches tend to say “spectator/consumer culture within the church” is a particular challenge, while making disciples is a more urgent concern for pastors who lead growing churches.

Black senior pastors are more likely than their white colleagues to cite “recruiting volunteers / motivating people to serve” and “finances / budget” as challenges.

The wide array of answers suggests that the particularities of a pastor’s ministry—facts on the ground that are not easily reduced to statistics—are a greater factor than his or her demographics when it comes to the challenges a pastor faces. Yes, there are a handful of statistically significant commonalities between pastors of similar age, ethnicity, region, ministry tenure and so on. But more remarkable is the immense range of concerns, further evidence that “complexity” is an apt description of the cultural ecosystem where pastors are working to cultivate faith that reseeds and reproduces in each new generation.

There are good reasons pastors are feeling challenged: because there are real factors at work that make leading God’s people harder—or, at least, difficult in a different way. In the final section, Barna president David Kinnaman offers recommendations for how pastors can be resilient leaders in light of increasing complexity.

Q&A with Glenn Packiam

Associate senior pastors at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Glenn Packiam is one of the associate senior pastors at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the lead pastor of New Life Downtown, a congregation of New Life Church. He is author of Discover the Mystery of Faith, LUCKY, Secondhand Jesus and Butterfly in Brazil. He’s also the writer of beloved New Life worship songs like “Your Name” and “My Savior Lives.” Glenn holds a BA in Theological / Historical Studies, a Masters in Management and, after two years of graduate work at Fuller Theological Seminary, is pursuing doctoral research in theology at Durham University in the UK. Glenn, his wife, Holly, and their four children enjoy life in the shadow of the mighty Rocky Mountains.

Resilience in Complexity

by David Kinnaman

Culture is under constant reconstruction. The nine trends on the previous graphic are examples of powerful culture-building trends that are changing the way we live and lead. The team at Barna is committed to studying and assessing how these kinds of movements intersect to create complexity. Our objective is to help spiritual influencers understand the times and know what to do (see 1 Chron. 12:32), and we believe it’s impossible to understand our times without getting a handle on today’s trends.

Let’s think together about how three of the preceding trends—the institutional, moral and spiritual—affect ministry. For pastors, the disintermediation of institutions means the traditional role of churches as a source of spiritual authority is increasingly removed from the minds of today’s citizens. As society’s moral center shifts away from external sources toward self-fulfillment, pastors’ knowledge of the Scriptures and Christian orthodoxy appears irrelevant or even extreme. And the waning of nominal Christianity’s cultural power means that, in order to follow Christ, Christians must swim against the current rather than going with the flow. In other words, if living as Christians is increasingly countercultural, then pastoring those Christians is a hard swim upstream, too.

While pastors are as important as ever in Christ’s kingdom, in a society undergoing spiritual reconstruction they seem less significant. In the past, a career in ministry might have appealed to any leader who sought recognition and respect. Today, however, Christian ministers are as likely to be ignored and insulted as they are to be admired and revered. It’s not a job for the thin-skinned or the weak of heart.

It’s a job for the resilient.

After more than three decades studying churches in the U.S. and elsewhere, we at Barna believe the Christian community has, at times, focused too much on raising up strong, almost heroic leaders. But in their excellent book Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal (Ret.) and his coauthors contrast robust—another word for strong—with resilient. The pyramids at Giza are robust: big, impressive, immovable, unchangeable except by increments or an act of God. Yet given enough firepower, a single person could wipe them off the face of the earth. A forest, on the other hand, is resilient: at first glance, more vulnerable than the pyramids to a devastation-level event such as a wildfire or attack by an invasive parasite. But wait a decade or a century, and the forest is likely to have recovered—and the soil beneath the trees to be richer, as well.32

As church leaders in a time of unparalleled complexity, I believe we must seek to be more like forests and less like pyramids, able to adapt to or recover from whatever cultural wildfire or superbug comes along. In the introduction to this report, I touched on five traits of resilience uncovered by The State of Pastors research. A resilient leader:

  • Prioritizes their own spiritual, emotional and physical needs
  • Views challenges realistically
  • Learns from their mistakes
  • Considers alternate perspectives and new processes
  • Expects that God is at work even in adverse situations

How can we cultivate the inner resources and outward behaviors that bear the fruit of resilience? Here are a few ideas, along with some discussion questions to get you thinking and your team talking.

Self-Leadership: Being a Resilient Person

In many ways, pastors are already some of the most resilient humans on the planet. The State of Pastors shows that most church leaders are content in their home life, joyful in pursuit of God, managing their finances well, maintaining mental and emotional equilibrium, open to learning new things and confident as ever in their ministry calling. Pastors and those who support them, whether relationally or institutionally, should be encouraged that their work thus far is paying off, and renew their commitments to fortify these areas of strength.

Yet the research also raises some red flags. The number of pastors at some risk of burnout, relationship troubles or spiritual problems are cause for concern. Because their calling is so central to their identity, it can be tempting for pastors to rank the business of leading and serving ahead of soul care and intimate relationships—but doing the former well (leading, serving) depends on prioritizing the latter (soul care, relationships). As Pete Scazzero says in his Q&A with Barna, “Our first work as spiritual leaders is to live congruently . . . Our roles and our souls must remain connected; this is our primary work and the greatest gift we can give to others.”

In this age of distraction and celebrity, pastors and their networks of support must consider what it looks like to practice effective self-leadership. The “self ” in “self-leadership” should not imply that spiritual leaders are or should be on their own—far from it. It’s just shorthand for the inner experiences and closest relationships that make pastors who they are, the fundamental stuff of being human. Amply investing in these aspects of life is effective self-leadership.

  • Who is helping you keep tabs on your inner life, including your mental health and spiritual vitality? What do you need in order to grow in these areas?
  • How is your physical health? What is one way to take better care of the body that allows you to do all you do, including ministry?
  • Are you feeling anxiety related to money? How can you better steward your finances and practice generosity?
  • How are things going in your family, in your marriage? What is your next step to deepen or heal those relationships? Who can help?
  • Take stock of your friendships—how deep are they, really? What will you do to invest more of your true self into life-giving friendships?
  • Who speaks truth into your life and how regularly transparent are you with them? Is better accountability a matter of more frequent mentoring or a different mentor altogether, or both?
  • At the heart of personal resilience is intimacy with Jesus—in what ways are you practicing his presence and inviting him to transform your life?

Church Leadership: Creating a Resilient Team

Reviewing the findings from this part of the research, it strikes me that most of the problem areas of effective church leadership are best addressed by understanding the difference between technical solutions and adaptive leadership. (Ron Heifetz’s writing on adaptive leadership is must reading for church leaders.33) Technical solutions are well and good if returning to the status quo is the ultimate goal. A cast and sling, for example, are technical solutions designed to return a broken arm to its former condition. Upon completion of the healing process, everything is “as good as new.” A lot of churches try to solve problems using this mindset: How can we get back to where things used to be?

But an adaptive problem is a level up. Its very nature is complex. Amputation of a limb, for instance, requires adapting to a new reality; there’s no returning to the status quo. Adaptive leadership recognizes there is no going back to simpler times; complexity is now reality.

In churches, as in life, there are many technical glitches, but the most vexing problems are adaptive. Yet we often try to fix adaptive problems with technical solutions. Just as an example, we might think raising up church leaders among the next generation is merely a matter of finding that one “perfect” young leader—but ministry succession is not a technical problem.

One of the most significant features of an adaptive problem is that we must change in order to face the challenge effectively. Pouring into the lives of younger leaders changes a pastor. So does casting and living into an expansive vision of what pastoring is and can be. Expanding the leadership team to include gifted young people—and expanding our vision of ministry calling to include the networks where people live and work—will certainly require a senior leader to change.

Another one of those adaptations is learning to lead in the context of teams. More so than ever, churches need to embody a team of teams approach. George Barna’s work has long highlighted the need for different types of leaders to come alongside each other to build great organizations and healthy churches. His book A Fish Out of Water describes four distinct aspects of leadership: Directing Leaders, Strategic Leaders, Operational Leaders and Team-Building Leaders.34 Healthy organizations have all four, and since no one person can embody all these qualities, a team is the best option.

“Teams of teams” in your context might mean connecting young and old, paid ministry staff and lay leaders, singles and marrieds, and so on. For many churches it will mean creating more deeply spiritual partnerships—highly focused on prayer, for example—between pastors and elders. Taking nothing away from the importance of God’s intention for faithful individual leaders, churches need better approaches to solving problems, building disciples and serving our communities as teams, not as lone wolves. It’s Acts-like work: deploying groups of people into the world for the sake of Jesus.

Relatedly, one of the most glaring challenges facing the Church today is the aging of today’s pastors. This is an urgent, adaptive-level problem that will require us to change. Doubling down on a team approach to leadership will help us adapt to this looming potential crisis and help us engage young leaders who may be looking elsewhere for opportunities to make a kingdom impact.

Creating better teams is adaptive leadership, and it is an important key to effective church leadership in this era of complexity.

  • Is there an area where your mentoring of younger leaders has fallen short? What needs to change to fill the gap?
  • What is working well in your church that should be continued or could be enhanced? Who needs to be acknowledged or recognized for their contributions to what’s working?
  • How could the pastoral staff and elder team become better at problem-solving together, distinguishing between technical and adaptive problems?
  • What kinds of spiritual, relational or intellectual tools might be necessary to handle more complicated questions and problems?
  • Are leaders demonstrating both intellectual humility and courageous conviction? What must change to bring those into healthy tension?
  • In what ways have you missed the chance to bring spiritual practices to your team leader-ship—such as praying as a team of leaders?
  • Are you or your team more concerned with preserving your present reality and traditional approach than with adapting together to a complex future?
  • How can your team focus on Jesus as the object of your devotion and the purpose of all you do?

Cultural Leadership: Forming a Resilient Community

While their cultural influence may never reach that of a C. S. Lewis or a Reinhold Niebuhr, called and committed pastors remain absolutely indispensable. Thanks to the Internet, information is cheap but wisdom is at an all-time premium—and a society hurtling full-speed towards a cliff needs all the wisdom it can get, even if it mocks the worker in the orange vest waving SLOW and CAUTION signs. How can pastors to exercise effective cultural leadership?

First, teach your congregation how to engage in meaningful conversations—and model it, too. In order for the Church to be a resilient, effective minority in today’s society, we’re going to have to get past our conversational barriers. Barna has found that evangelicals are among the most conversationally challenged segments, meaning they feel least equipped to have a meaningful conversation with someone who believes differently from them.35 And as this report shows, pastors admit to feeling unprepared to teach people how to have those conversations.

The discomfort caused by complexity tempts many people to pick a hill, plant a flag and hurl down curses on anyone who doesn’t agree, just to feel a little less uncomfortable and a little more righteous. Social media makes this temptation almost irresistible. However, if changing minds and hearts—and allowing our hearts and minds to be transformed by Christ—is the ultimate goal, we must find another way. Meaningful conversations happen when we listen, understand, reflect and respond with kindness and conviction. It is nearly a lost art—and is at the heart of evangelism and discipleship—so if you and your congregation can revive the craft of meaningful conversation, people you don’t expect will want to listen and be heard.

Second, in an era of complexity, churches can become learning communities. What I mean by “learning” is resilient heart-mind-soul-and-strength formation that makes us new creations in Jesus. The typical churchgoer comes to church fewer weekends per year than in the past, and a few sermons a month are not sufficient to form people in the ways of Jesus—especially not in a culture that pummels people with warped ideas about life and how to live it. In many ways, learning—which includes both knowledge acquisition and practice-making-perfect—is the very essence of Christian discipleship: learning the ways of God; learning to live in light of Christ’s rule and reign; and learning to depend on and be guided by the Holy Spirit.

It is remarkable that, despite so much indifference to Christianity and the waning cultural influence of pastors, there is still a strong desire among most people to learn. In a complex, accelerated culture, people have many questions. How can your church become a learning community that helps people to develop cultural discernment? Pastors enjoy preaching, which is certainly one essential part of learning. But it’s not the only way people today should be formed. Preaching is not sufficient to bring about whole-life learning (heart, mind, soul and strength) in a society of distracted, self-centered people for whom the echoes of Christianity are muted. Don’t get me wrong: Preaching is important. But it’s less sufficient today to exclusively do the job of faith formation. (Refer to point number one on the importance of meaningful conversations!) Our faith speaks to the everyday issues of life: money, sexuality, relationships, work, race relations, entertainment and so on. And these are topics on which informed Christians—including pastors—can speak meaningfully into today’s cultural context.

Third, take the long view. It’s far too easy to get caught up in the headlines of the day and begin to believe today’s complex crisis is all there is. It’s not. The Holy Spirit has sustained the Church for a couple thousand years now and shows no sign of calling it a day. Let’s trust the Spirit’s sustaining power not to quit, and prepare for the future. What will the North American church need in 50 or 100 years? What institutions or practices should we create or revitalize in order to serve those sisters and brothers of the future? Pastors are ideally situated to plant the seeds, because the youngest members of your church are those sisters and brothers of the future—and you are forming them today to lead the Church and the world tomorrow.

  • When your church serves your community, how well are you listening? How can you make conversations more meaningful?
  • How can we tackle critically important issues—things like race, poverty, sexuality, work and so on—through our churches?
  • How can our churches develop rich countercultural patterns of belief and behavior that stand as a witness to society?
  • Does your church practice prayer in the pattern of Jeremiah 29, praying for the peace and prosperity of our post-Christian society?
  • What needs to change in your thinking about formation and pedagogy in order for whole-life learning to define your church community?
  • How can Jesus take center stage in all your church does as you seek to be a counterculture for the common good?

Taking the long view also means believing Jesus when he says the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church we inherited from the apostles. Now that’s resilience!

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Appendix A - Notes

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