03 The Pastor’s Role

The Pastor's Role


A Pep Talk for the Spiritual Leaders
of Anti-Poverty Work

How do pastors currently perceive and steward their decisive influence on the subject of poverty—a life-saving responsibility?

In some ways, the trust that the American public places in pastors’ opinions of poverty presents an increasingly rare public platform for ministers: Barna research in partnership with Pepperdine University underscores a sort of “cultural credibility crisis” for pastors, showing that just one in five U.S. adults sees Christian clergy as very influential in their community (19%) or as an esteemed voice on important issues of our day (21%).52 Yet pastors have incredible potential to lead the charge and position the U.S. Church as a powerful force in anti-poverty endeavors—whether they like it or not.

If you ask most pastors, ending global poverty is a nice idea—and out of reach. Half, on average, believe that one person could make a difference in solving poverty for one child. Though a similar proportion also finds the goal of ending poverty in 25 years “inspirational,” they are less likely than practicing Christians to find it “believable” or “doable” as well. It’s possible that some church leaders, correctly sensing their commission to confront poverty, feel pressured and ill-equipped to do so.

Gauging Social Influence

Pastors offer a modest assessment of their own potential impact on many social concerns. The cause for which pastors are most likely to assume the highest degree of influence is child evangelism (37% “major”). This makes sense, given that it certainly plays to most pastors’ strengths of teaching and discipleship, but pastors also indicate elsewhere in the survey that they feel their personal involvement is important in multiple causes related to vulnerable children (34% child evangelism, 31% child trafficking, 27% orphan care, 25% child poverty).

A majority says they could have at least “some,” if not a “major” influence on local poverty (83%), disaster response (76%), caring for orphans (72%) education for disadvantaged children (66%), child poverty (64%), clean water (61%), building churches abroad (60%), special needs (60%) or child trafficking (54%).

Less often, pastors feel comfortable exercising influence on issues of policy, which could be linked to party-line pressures, religious liberty concerns or simply a lack of interest. Three in 10 senior pastors (30%) feel that they have no influence on political activism anyway. Half (50%) don’t feel they have any contribution to make on the highly partisan topic of global warming, and 31 percent say they have no influence on environmental issues in general.

Pastors do sometimes use their position beyond the pulpit to convince others to take action or to think differently about poverty. In the past three months, more than half of the senior pastors in this study (52%) say they spoke with their children, grandchildren or other youths they know well about poverty. Forty-three percent of senior pastors tried to persuade someone to give time or resources to help the poor. Three in 10 (30%) have posted about poverty on social media. For each of these actions, the likelihood that a pastor will speak up increases if they have a high level of concern about poverty, view poverty as their / the Church’s responsibility or see ending global poverty as a pragmatic outcome.

Pastors Advocate for
Spiritual Solutions

A plurality of pastors says the primary responsibility for global poverty falls on humanitarian and non-profit organizations (30%), but they own that churches aren’t far behind, placing them as the second-most responsible (26%). Given this close ranking, many pastors may be inclined to see the value in partnering their church with organizations on the ground. Another one in five (19%) says the government of an impoverished nation needs to lead in caring for its own poor.

Pastors see domestic poverty, however, as firmly within the American Church’s purview. Perhaps because of the local context and emphasis of most pastoral functions, as well as ministers’ awareness


Barna’s The State of Pastors report, produced in partnership with Pepperdine University, shows that twothirds of pastors (66%) most enjoy the task of teaching and preaching. Begin to see the topic of caring for the poor as an important aspect of your sermons, rather than a “side issue” relegated only to other departments, special services or announcements.

of and connection to the needs of their immediate rather than international community, fully one-third of pastors (34%) says places of worship bear primary responsibility for the poor in the U.S.

Though pastors more confidently take ownership of local poverty, an equal percentage of pastors in 2008 and 2017 (88% and 86%, respectively) says it’s important for Christians in their churches to spend resources on poverty in other countries “given all of the challenges facing the world and this country.” When asked how important it is to give to alleviate global poverty, pastors task the Christian community: One in four (24%) believes it’s absolutely critical for U.S. churches to offer monetary support. By a few percentage points on average, they assign more importance to the role of U.S. churches collectively than to individual Christians in financially fighting poverty (19%). Unsurprisingly, pastors who feel churches should primarily take on overseas poverty expect more of both (33% churches, 25% individual Christians) than other pastors do.

Considering the nature of their work and calling, pastors place a unique spiritual emphasis on the poverty fight. Just over a third (34%) sees cultivating spiritual well-being as the most effective way to lift people out of poverty, ahead of education (24%) and political change (20%). If a pastor believes churches ultimately answer for global poverty, they are even more likely to look for a spiritual solution to poverty (52%).

This faith-based strategy could be a way for pastors to leverage what they do best in working against poverty, but it may also stem from pastors’ familiarity with scriptural remarks about the poor and a strong sense that Christianity both meets our spiritual needs and in turn requires Christians to meet other needs. Pastors may also see the essence of poverty itself as spiritual—the fallout of a “fallen world” and its oppression and greed—thus requiring a response from the righteous. About two-thirds of pastors (65%) agree strongly that helping the poor will draw Christians to a closer understanding of Jesus, and that the Bible teaches that Christians should help children living in poverty (63%). For the latter conviction, the percentage climbs to 69 percent among pastors whose churches donate to anti-poverty efforts.

However, pastors today are generally less likely to emphasize the connection between Christian faith and helping the poor than they were in 2008. In 2008, three of four pastors (75%) strongly agreed that the Bible mandates helping poor children, 8 percentage points more than pastors in 2017. Similarly, there has been an 18-percentage-point drop, from 83 percent, among pastors who strongly affirm that anti-poverty work deepens Christians’ relationship to Christ.

Pastors, like congregants, are generally less adamant about the stronger statement that “if Christians are not helping the poor and vulnerable, then they are not true Christians.” Elder pastors are particularly lenient on this point; more than half (55%) strongly disagree that caring for the poor should be a benchmark of sincere faith (vs. 16% of pastors on average). Female pastors (44%), leaders who are extremely concerned about the poor (36%) and pastors who speak often on poverty (30%) are among those who strongly believe the integrity of one’s faith hinges on their generosity toward those in need. Being able to meet this standard could be incentive to accept it; pastors whose churches already give to address poverty are twice as likely as non-donors to fully agree (22% vs. 9%).

Reports of Anti-Poverty Efforts

Consistent with pastors’ general belief that churches should be the overseers of anti-poverty work, many of them report this as a concentration in their ministries.

Four of five pastors (84%) say their churches give money specifically to address poverty—a healthy majority, though still a 7-percentage-point drop from nine years ago. Of churches that give toward poverty, one in four (24%) designates half or more of those funds for global poverty. This type of financial generosity is the rule among pastors who are personally worried about the world’s poor (94%). Two-thirds of pastors (66%) have also encouraged individuals to give of their own money to combat global poverty. From the pew’s perspective, according to a separate study of generosity with Thrivent Financial, more than half of Christian churchgoers (53%) say their churches provide attendees the opportunity to give to organizations.53 Generally, however, church attendees seem to be less aware of the many chances for engagement that pastors report providing.

Among churches investing in anti-poverty endeavors, the actual amount given annually covers a broad range; on the higher end, 37 percent gave $7,500 or more, while more than a third gave less than $2,500 (36%). Another quarter (26%) falls somewhere in the middle. Logically, larger churches have a little extra room to be generous: Among pastors with congregations of 250 or more people, more than two-thirds (68%) report their giving exceeded $7,500, compared to almost a fifth in small churches (18% of congregations with fewer than 100 people) who report this level of financial commitment.

Pastors point to an array of creative or interactive ways their churches have helped present the cause of poverty to congregants and community. About a third of churches has hosted an event to bring awareness to global poverty (33%), invited a speaker to talk to the congregation about poverty (35%) or held a fundraising campaign for global poverty (37%). More than half of pastors (53%) say their church has planned or hosted a missions trip.

Pastors also seem to understand that it’s important to link arms with existing efforts and experts: A majority of ministries (79%) partners with some kind of non-profit that fights poverty.

A church’s size inevitably makes a difference in what a ministry can provide, as most activities and efforts require intentional allocation of ministry resources, volunteers, administration and / or money. Pastors of churches of over 250 people tend to have more margin for labor-intensive anti-poverty activities, like hosting a missions trip (86%). Congregations of between 100 and 250 people are still twice as likely to have planned or hosted a missions trip compared to churches of fewer than 100 people (66% and 33%, respectively).

There is some correlation between pastors using their voices and churches using their funds to address poverty, suggesting pastors set the tone for their church’s involvement. Consider that roughly half of all U.S. pastors (55%) report preaching on poverty, yet, in churches with a budget exceeding $7,500 for combating poverty, 79 percent of senior pastors have spoken about a Christian approach to poverty. Thirty-nine percent indicate this happens three or more times a year. Churches with a lower budget for addressing poverty ($2,500 or less) are far less likely to hear about a Christian charge to care for the poor; about half of those pastors (52%) report teaching or preaching about poverty. It’s unclear whether a pastor might be compelled to publicly affirm the investments of their church, or whether a church’s funds might follow the passions of its leadership, only that influence and finances tend to synchronize.

Evaluations of Church Involvement

When reporting on their church’s involvement with various social issues, pastors’ responses mostly reflect their own priorities or the causes in which they assume a certain amount of impact. Local poverty (33% “very involved”) and child evangelism (29% “very involved”) again feature prominently. More than half of pastors say that their churches are at least somewhat involved in disaster response and child poverty (both 53%). Orphan care, church-building, education, global poverty and special needs are other common church initiatives. Three-quarters of pastors say their churches aren’t too concerned with environmental work (72%) or global warming (81%), some of the same politicized issues frequently avoided by pastors and Christians in Barna’s survey.

As you might expect, it’s an incredibly unpopular idea among pastors, or any circle, for that matter, that a church should be less involved in global poverty (1%). Even so, it’s notable that a majority of pastors (56%) tends to think their churches should be more involved with helping the global poor. Younger pastors (68% of those under age 40) are the most likely to express this sentiment, which could be associated with the justice inclinations of their generation or the ambitious energy of being in the first part of one’s ministry tenure.

Pastors generally appear to feel less satisfied with—or perhaps, as leaders, just more analytical of—their church’s current anti-poverty efforts when compared to practicing Christians, a minority of whom (43%) feels their church should be more involved. Practicing Christians are more likely than pastors to say that their church has an “above average” sense of urgency about global poverty (30% vs. 21% of pastors), while pastors are more willing to deem it “below average” (21% vs. 5% of practicing Christians). There is an upward trend, however, among practicing Christians who say their church could do more in this respect, with a 6-percentage-point increase between 2011 and 2013, and another 7-percentage-point increase between 2013 and 2017.

Though pastors’ generally unfavorable assessments of their churches’ activity against poverty may feel discouraging (particularly in contrast to individual Christians’ more optimistic reviews), there’s more to this story—and it’s somewhat positive.

First of all, nobody would deny there is more work to be done to end poverty, and it seems pastors want the Church in the U.S. to be an increasingly productive if not leading member of that work.

Additionally, Barna finds that a pastor’s sense of his or her church’s involvement is likely formed in proportion to awareness of the issue of global poverty, rather than the church’s actual involvement. In other words, the church leaders who are most concerned about and / or doing the most to address poverty are often the same ones who hope their ministry might achieve more—a continuation of the idea that the more you care, the more you care (see infographic on page 54). Meanwhile, the pastors who appear less mindful of or familiar with global poverty work are those more likely to already feel content with their church’s level of involvement. This indicates yet again how an awareness of Christian compassion and responsibility for the world’s poor is rarely static or satiated, no matter the level of involvement or the advances made.

A Poverty Lesson Plan

It’s vital that church leaders not only experience a Christian compassion for the poor, wherever they live, but also have the tools to make informed, effective contributions in the fight against poverty. While just more than a third of pastors (36%) is “pretty” or “extremely” interested in learning more about topics that have to do with global poverty, their actions show that they are accumulating knowledge about poverty in many ways.

A majority of pastors (62%) has read a magazine article about poverty in the past three months. Significant minorities of pastors have also learned about poverty through online videos (39%), documentaries (39%), talks or lectures (34%) and books (23%) during that time.

Given the different ways that generations interact with various media and devices, a pastor’s age influences the ways he or she might receive information about poverty. Pastors who are older than 50 are highly likely to read magazine articles (69%), for example, while pastors under 40 gravitate toward online videos (51%).

There are most likely varying levels of intention and attention here—for example, the question specifies that the individual has merely watched “at least 15 minutes” of a documentary. There may be some overlap in the categories of online videos, documentaries and talks, and it’s unclear how many pastors are actively and consistently seeking out these poverty messages versus how many are stumbling upon them.

Regardless, a promising cycle of gaining and sharing information emerges among senior pastors: Pastors who report preaching about poverty at least three times in the past year have also spent that time gleaning insight about poverty from magazine articles (81%), videos (64%), documentaries (60%), talks (59%) and books (44%). They are often at least pretty interested in learning more about education (72%), economic development (57%) and global poverty in general (56%). On the other hand, pastors who do not speak on poverty are less likely to show enthusiasm about exploring these topics (35%, 29% and 20%, respectively).

Personal instruction and personal concern are also correlated. Of pastors who feel an extreme burden for global poverty, majorities have read an article (78%) or viewed a documentary film (55%) or video (51%) that touched on it. More than a third (36%) report learning about poverty in a book. The differences on these responses are stark, anywhere from 11-to 25-percentage-points higher than the average pastor.

When pastors do intentionally seek out information about poverty, they are usually thinking practically. More than two-thirds (68%) hope their search yields ideas to implement, while 41 percent would like a tangible resource they can put to use. Over half (56%) look for a biblical perspective or stories of how Christians and churches respond to social justice. A similar percentage (55%) looks for facts and statistics that might help their understanding of poverty.

This hunt for spiritual and tangible solutions is yet another statistical example of the great intensity with which American pastors approach international poverty—a seriousness that, when strengthened by reliable information, generous church members and smart partnerships, can be a guiding force in lifting people out of poverty.

How Our Church Takes Action on Poverty

Jessy Padilla Pastor of Iglesia Emanuel in Waukegan, Illinois

From A Pastor's Perspective

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