Clergy Ratings Hit 32-Year Low

According to a December 11, 2009 story in USA Today a Gallup Poll shows that Americans’ views of the “honesty and ethics” of clergy have hit a 32-year low, with just half rating their moral caliber as high or very high….” We were at 56% last year and we’re at 50% this year. Our ratings are down among “among Catholics and Protestants, as well as among regular and occasional churchgoers.” We’re doing a little better, however, with those who have the least contact with us: pagans!

The story offers some possible explanations including the most obvious causes (clergy sex scandals) but part of the answer may be embedded toward the end of the story. “The most highly regarded profession was nursing, with 83% judging nurses’ honesty and ethics as high or very high.”

I have a theory. For most Americans pastors are simply service providers. They probably have much more contact with nurses, especially as the population ages, than they do with pastors. The nurses with whom they have contact do their jobs. They are faithful to their vocations and thus their credibility ratings are high. Pastors can take a lesson from the nursing profession.

herThere’s only one service to which God has called Christian pastors: ministry of the Word (both preached and made visible in the sacraments). Progressively over the last century it’s become increasingly difficult to find ministers who are willing to do that. There are reasons for that decline. Since the middle of the 19th century the higher critical enterprise has vitiated the confidence of biblical scholars in the historical reliability of Scripture. That doubt has trickled down to pastors. As a consequence it became, through the early part of the 20th century, increasingly difficult to find pastors who really believed the faith any more.

During the same period (e.g., 1850-1950) the radical egalitarian impulse of American religion enervated the vitality of American Christianity. That I’m commenting on this poll is all the evidence you need. Since when did faithful pastors care what their popularity or reliability ratings were? Jeremiah was so faithful he was lowered into a well (Jer 38). I guess most pastors are more worried about their cost-of-living adjustment than being put into a well. The democratizing impulse in American religion (see Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity) has marginalized the significance of the pastoral office. In many cases we’ve been complicit with the re-ordering of the preaching office into that of a therapeist, cheer-leader, or CEO.

Maybe the people are on to something? If most pastors were doing their jobs, proclaiming the law and the gospel clearly, distinctly, and unequivocally how would people be able to doubt our ethics? On what basis? They might doubt the story and they might doubt our sanity for persisting with an apparently impossible account of things (God the Son became incarnate of a virgin, obeyed the law for his elect, was crucified for it, and rose the third day) but they couldn’t doubt our honesty or sincerity and yet a considerable number of people do. Why? Perhaps it is because we too often give them reason to doubt us?

As Mike Horton rightly says, we’ve been given a script. We have a limited but significant part to play in the story of redemption: we are heralds. Our job is to announce the truth. Our job is not to organize buildings, bodies, and budgets. Our job is not to accumulate power in this world. Our job is not to manipulate people or build empires. Our job is not even to make people feel better. We’re not CEOs. Of the three biblical offices, ours most closely resembles the office of prophet. The deacons inherited the priestly office of receiving offerings. The elders inherited the kingly office of ruling the covenant community. Our job is to serve the Word by announcing it, by teaching it, by explaining it. The other biblical metaphor is “shepherd” (pastor)—not “rancher”.  We’re to announce the bad news, the good news, and look after the spiritual well-being of the flock entrusted to us by the chief shepherd (1 Pet 5:4). That’s it.

There are probably many reasons why the credibility ratings of American clergy are down and it’s probably true that some (perhaps most) are unfair and beyond our control but we can control one thing: we can tell the truth. We can speak to those things we know: the saving act of God in Christ. It will also help our credibility if we refrain from speaking to things about which we don’t know. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen pastors give medical or financial advice. Really? When did you get your MD? When did you get that MBA before or after your MDiv?

Unfortunately, one suspects that too many American pastors no longer really believe the truth. To those of you in the “clergy business” who don’t believe the Christian faith any more: Get out! Go sell cars or computers or TVs or whatever but stop posing as a minister of the Word. To: those congregations, and especially to those elder boards, sessions, and consistories who know (wink, wink) that their minister doesn’t believe the faith any more: you’re culpable too.

I’m not suggesting that God can only use regenerate pastors or that that validity of ministry is contingent upon the spiritual condition of the pastor. That was the Donatist error. At the same time I’m not suggesting that we should be indifferent to the spiritual condition of pastors. We should avoid both enthusiasm and deism. It’s possible for ministers who don’t believe the truth nevertheless to tell it but people can spot a phony. They know when you’re lying, when you don’t really believe the Christian story any longer.

The point here is not to improve clergy ratings in the next Gallup Poll. The point is faithfulness. When a man is ordained to pastoral ministry, he is under a vocation to do one fairly simple thing: preach the Word when it’s popular and when it’s unpopular (2 Tim 4:2). That’s it really. If we did that we probably wouldn’t have to wonder about credibility ratings.


Thanks to WSC Library Director, John Bales for pointing me to this story.

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  1. Scott,

    I sent your post on the Gallup Poll to a co-worker. She replied that her pastor is married to a nurse. I told her he’s probably OK then. :-)) I had to paste your post into an e-mail because the bank we work for (in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan) blocks all excellent web content via their web proxy. What is the world coming to when a west Michigan company’s employees can’t get easy access to The Heidelblog?

    • That’s hilarious! The HB blocked for content–and not even in China.

      In case it helps, you can also subscribe by email but maybe the web Nazis at work filter that too.

  2. Scott,
    What’s even funnier is that The White Horse Inn and The Riddleblog are accessible at work, so you must be Truly Reformed! I smell a conspiracy here. :-)) Tell Kim and the guys to get with the program.

    • This site likely blocked simply because it has “wordpress” in the URL. Most office filters block categories of sites, in addition to specific sites. In this instance, management probably decided that they wanted to filter out “blogs.” The company is likely using very basic software that blocks URLs with “wordpress,” “blogspot,” “typepad,” or other blog hosting names in them.

      Riddleblog doesn’t get filtered out because he uses SquareSpace to host the site. It’s newer and far less popular than WordPress, so a lot of older filtering software doesn’t know to filter blogs with “squarespace” in their URLs. The WHI Blog is privately hosted, so it doesn’t have a “giveaway” that it’s a blog in its URL.

      These filters are super easy to get around, and you should know how to get around them because it’s the same way that kids get around filters on home computers.

      Here’s a link to a WSJ article titled “Ten Things Your IT Department Won’t Tell You.” Number Three will show you how to beat the filter.

  3. I agree that many pastors and elder boards should re-discover the central role of preaching, but even if they did public opinion of clergy would be no higher. The reason the general public holds clergy in low esteem is that the general public holds Christianity in low esteem, in my experience. The Catholic priest scandals serve only to reinforce an anti-Christian bias as most people couldn’t tell you the difference between a priest and a pastor. I operate in the courts, and time and again judges and juries report they don’t believe pastors or priests have credibility as witnesses. Probe why, and up bubbles all the old bromides revealing a contempt for religion generally, hatred of insitutional religion, contempt for the idea that Jesus is the only way, the Crusades, the view of Christians as haters, etc. I’m convinced that even if every pastor were an OPC pastor who preached Law and Gospel every Sunday, held to the two kingdoms and eschewed politics, pastors would be hated no less. It’s Christ they hate.

    • I guess there’s some of that but that strikes me as a too easy explanation. For one thing, it lets ministers off the hook. They can simply blame “anti-Christian bias” and carry on. What changed in the last 32 years? I doubt there’s a single explanation that sweeps it all up but we pastors need to be sure that we’re doing what we’re called to do.

    • Not to pile on here, CVD, but in addition to being perhaps overly-simple it also seems not a little cynical. Hating Christ may explain why some don’t show up each Sabbath for Word and sacrament. But that it explains a challenged credibility in the common sector seems to overlook more complicated factors.

      Plus, this sort of explanation is the one typically used by those who still want cultural power, and as they see it slipping away in the post-Christian era lash out. More often than not what I think is meant by “they hate Jesus” is “they disagree with me as to how the world should be ordered and I’m very frustrated about that.”

  4. The “Catholic priest scandals”, “the Crusades”, etc. are just excuses that people want to hate use. Why they want to hate and hate Christ is what seems answerable in exegetical theology, I imagine.

  5. Actually to those of us who’ve read Dr. Mendelsohn’s Confessions of a Medical Heretic it’s not surprising nurses have a higher rating than pastors. Many, many Americans think of medicine as their savior and would follow the priest in the white coat’s orders, even unto death. Yet listen to your pastor exhort you with the word? No way.

  6. I believe old Thomas More said that in his Utopia priests were very pious there, and for that reason, were few in number. Ouch. Not much has changed regarding how people view ministers….

  7. I’m not sure I understand the survey results when it comes to the nursing profession. My sister retired from a long career in nearly every facet of nursing after enduring over 40 years of it. According to her experience (and my own experience, having a nonagenarian mother in and out of hospitals over the past five years) the Florence Nightengale days are long over. At least half the nurses’ time nowadays seems to be spent doing paper-work (on portable laptops), they are in and out of patients’ room on a whim, and when it’s time to punch the time clock, don’t stand in their way – no matter how critical the procedure. I’m not saying that all nurses are like that, but organized labor seems to have done a number on the profession. And it’s particularly true of the younger ones.

    Having said that, it really makes me wonder how ministers can rank even lower in the survey. One of the posters may have a valid point: since we’re so turned inward on ourselves in contemporary culture, and since the boomers are reaching the age where they are becoming captive to the medical profession, there is probably a tendency to hold health care professionals in greater esteem.

    But there has to be more to it than that. Perhaps John Koessler hit closer to home on his MBI Prime Time America broadcast back on April 27th:

  8. Oral Roberts recent passing prompted two very different responses from Jack Hayford and Al Mohler. Hayford called Roberts one of the great evangelists of the century and credits him with single handly ushering in the charismatic movement. Mohler , however, laments that Roberts was one of the key figures in promoting the prosperity gospel . Like Mohler ,I never once heard Roberts come close to preaching anything resembling the true Gospel. It was always about expecting a miracle and sowing a seed faith $ to Roberts ‘ministry’. The lasting impression the public has of Roberts is his claim to have had a vision of a 900 foot Jesus telling him that if he didn’t build the City of Faith Hospital ( that would find a cure for cancer) God was going to kill him.

  9. Trust is much easier to destroy than to create. Negative events have a greater impact on trust than positive events. (Those who study this call it the asymmetrical principal). Think of the amount of trust destroyed between spouses when a husband is caught lying to his wife. How many honest utterances must he make to regain that trust? More than one, to be sure. Since we are much more likely to hear negative events about pastors than to hear about positive events, pastors face an uphill battle when it comes to creating a perception of trust.

    Consider how we learn about pastors. (Like the poll, I’m considering pastors as a class, not as individuals). Though we may have a very trusting relationship with our pastor, that’s not our only source of data. We hear good and bad things about other pastors from friends and family. But we hear more bad things. If one out of twenty pastors is caught in an adulterous relationship in a town, the cheating pastor will be the one most discussed, even if the other nineteen are quietly and faithfully shepherding their flock each week.

    Add to that mass media’s fetish for wayward pastors and it’s clear why the clergy’s image is declining. Consider the damage done by Jeremiah Wright and Ted Haggard. It doesn’t make the evening news when a pastor braves a Minnesota snow storm to deliver Word and Sacrament to shut-in Christians. For pastors, trust can only be built on a person-to-person basis. But one misstep by a pastor in the public eye can shake the trust of millions.

    Unlike police officers and doctors whose whose heroic feats will probably always by the subject of movies and television shows, pastoral heroism isn’t made for television.

  10. An interesting, and sobering, thread! From time to time I teach a course entitled “Religion and Contemporary American Culture,” where we ponder such matters. It seems to me that the problem is broader and deeper than just the issue of clergy morality. Rather, it is a generalized lack of regard for ministers and a decline in prestige of the office of minister. When my father started in ministry in the 1940s it was not uncommon for country clubs to give the local Presbyterian minister a golf membership. They wanted him (and it was a “him” back then) to be seen on their links. By the 1960s that had changed dramatically.

    Let me offer five reasons that go a ways toward an explanation of this.

    1. Most people today reflexively assume the public/private split. Ministers are thought to deal with issues of private import (that is, matters of personal opinion and preference).

    2. The shift to the therapeutic has further undermined the traditional role of the pastor, especially as the psychologist and the psychiatrist (i.e., the new secular priesthood which mediates our internal reality to ourselves) appear to be better equipped to deal with such matters.

    3. There is a credibility gap on both the left and the right. People have now more or less caught on to the fact that liberals don’t really believe very much; at least they don’t believe the sort of things Christian ministers have historically affirmed. On the right, the clergy sex and money scandals, and the self-refuting prosperity gospel have done enormous damage. Of course, on the RCC side of the fence the damage from the clergy sexual abuse scandals resulting from the church’s “don’t ask/don’t tell” response to the post-Vatican II priest shortage will take many decades to overcome.

    4. The ministerial job description has changed dramatically over the last five decades, with greatly increased expectations. Once the minister was expected to preach well once or twice on Sunday, bury the dead, baptize the babies, and attend to the ongoing pastoral needs of the flock. Now the minister is expected to be a scintillating communicator, a sensitive counselor, a crackerjack administrator, to be on-call 24/7, and to anchor the church softball team. Nobody can do all that, let along do it well.

    5. This decline in prestige has led to less capable people going into the ministry. A PCUSA seminary prof recently complained to me about the emotional “roadkill” that often attends mainline seminaries–people who go to seminary for personal therapy reasons and then, of course, insist on going into the ministry. This sort of thing is also evident at at least some more conservative seminaries, though probably not to the same degree.

    In short, we live in interesting times.

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