In early February I attended a fascinating meeting of advisors to Duke Divinity School’s Pulpit and Pew Project to review some early and provocative research emerging from this massive project. In particular, we focused on the early findings of a new survey of American clergy. Project director Jackson W. Carroll’s preliminary report from this survey, called “America’s Pastoral Leaders,” is a short document that is but an appetizer for what is to follow.1
Although this survey is not the largest ever conducted, it is the most comprehensive, sampling ministers from more than 80 denominations and religious traditions. The survey proportionally weighted the numbers of clergy serving in small, medium, and large churches, as well as megachurches. They represented the regional mix of American congregations.
It will take years to analyze all the data, but even these preliminary findings merit attention. Here is a sampler of some of the surprising discoveries:
• American clergy report themselves to be surprisingly happy in their work. At the same time, they report significant concerns about denominational support, salary and benefits, opportunities for continuing education, their own spiritual lives, and their overall effectiveness.
• Carroll’s findings about clergy happiness go against the grain of many contemporary portraits of clergy malaise: 74 percent of the carefully selected respondents said that they were “very satisfied” in their current positions. More than two-thirds felt “loved and cared for.” They reported only moderate levels of stress.
I know that many readers will find these results astonishing. Some will wonder about the adequacy of the survey itself. Others will read these statements as signs of denial about just how bad things are. More, I hope, will want to see what more detailed analysis will bring. But for now we must take seriously that despite significant challenges, a strong majority of American clergy find themselves leading a good life.
Some findings fine-tune conventional wisdom, and others challenge it. The survey reveals that 71 percent of those interviewed held another occupation before entering the ministry. To those who have sensed that the day was coming when second-career clergy would become the majority, these data indicate that the era has clearly arrived. Eighty percent of clergywomen are second career.
Significant differences are seen in academic preparation for ministry between Catholics and mainline Protestants on the one hand (69 percent of the former and 68 percent of the latter have master or bachelor of divinity degrees), and conservative Protestants and historic black Protestants on the other (32 and 42 percent have these degrees, respectively).
The survey also probes the daily reality of clergy. Mainline and conservative Protestants report workweeks that average 51 hours. Roman Catholic priests and pastors of historic black churches report a workweek of roughly 10 hours longer. The majority of these clergy experience congregational conflict, and 21 percent consider the conflict significant or major.
The report shows us what congregations fight about. The issue most fought over is the renovation or new construction of church buildings. Conflicts over leadership, staff, worship, and finance come next on the list. Homosexuality, which consumes much energy and attention at the national denominational level, was reported as a cause of conflict in less than 1 percent of responses.
Another piece of conventional wisdom challenged has to do with clergy friendships. Once, many clergy believed that they should not become friends with parishioners. Here, we read that 60 percent value friendships with congregation members very highly.
Realities about clergy compensation come into view as well. The median compensation package for all Protestant clergy (including housing allowance or parsonage) is $35,852; for those who are full-time clergy, it is $40,000. Average total income for American clergy families comes to $52,200. Within those aver ages one finds considerable difference when congregational size is considered.
The data contain contradictions as well. The vast majority of clergy assess their health to be good, very good, or excellent. Yet data from a body-mass index indicate that 78 percent of males and 52 percent of females are either overweight or obese.
I cannot imagine anyone reading this first sampler of data without finding something provocative to argue about. Great! We have been operating with clichés and conventional wisdom about ministry for far too long. Carroll and his team have a lot of explaining to do as they roll out their reports. We will agree and disagree with their findings. But as we debate them, we will come closer to a fresh reading of our situation. Stay tuned.
1. The Alban Institute has been invited to help Duke Divinity School publish many of the Pulpit and Pew Project’s most significant findings. Congregations and our web site will report on some of the study results.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including the new Alban Institute Special Report on Leadership.