Eleven Reasons Pastors Are Trusted Less Today

A day does not pass that I do not hear from a hurting pastor. Serving in that role has to be one of the most challenging vocations today. Sure, there are some bad and immoral pastors. But the vast majority of our pastors serve their congregations in a way that honors God and makes a difference in the community.

But both anecdotally and by objective research, we learn that pastors are trusted less and held in lower esteem each year. A recent Pew Research poll found that the favorable view of clergy had declined to 37 percent of those surveyed.

Why are pastors no longer held in high esteem? What is behind the precipitous drop in favorable ratings almost every year? Allow me to offer eleven possible reasons. As you will see, they are not mutually exclusive.

  1. The moral failures of a minority of pastors receive widespread coverage. The media loves the sensational stories behind clergy failure. For sure, some stories such as sex abuse should be brought to the public eye. But many people now believe the bad behavior of a few is normative for all pastors.
  2. Our nation has marginalized the Christian faith. So it should not be unexpected that leaders in the Christian world are viewed more negatively.
  3. Pastoral tenure has dropped significantly over the past few decades. Tenure is up slightly the past few years, but the longer trend is down. Trust is built over several years, not two or three years. Fewer pastors have made it to the point of several years.
  4. Some church members have a strong entitlement mentality. They see the local congregation as a place largely to meet their needs and desires, rather than to serve and give. If those needs and desires are not met, the pastor is often the locus of blame.
  5. Social media encourages criticism from a distance. There is much commendable about social media. Indeed, I am heavy user of it. But it also is a means for critics to sound off about pastors (and others) without forethought or consequences.
  6. A few pastors have poor work ethics. More pastors are just the opposite; they fight workaholism. But the few pastors who are lazy and have little accountability hurt the perceptions people have of other pastors.
  7. Pastors are often the scapegoats for fear and change. It is cliché to say the world is changing rapidly. Many church members would like their churches to remain the same every year. Such a reality is not possible, and the pastor is often the scapegoat for the discomfort that comes with change.
  8. There is a pervasive cynicism in our society. The reasons behind that reality are many. But congregations and their leaders are not immune from this widespread and pervasive cynicism on society that seems to be growing.
  9. There is a failure of some pastors in two key areas: leadership and emotional intelligence. Some pastors are well prepared biblically and theologically. But some have not been taught leadership and healthy interpersonal skills.
  10. There are higher expectations today for pastors to be competent, even dynamic, leaders. But, as I noted in the previous point, some pastors have no preparation to be leaders of churches.
  11. More churches are dying in America today. I estimate as many as 100,000 churches in America are dying. Many will close their doors in the next few years. Many of the pastors of these churches are blamed for this malady.

I love pastors. Most pastors are wonderful servants of God, yet their plights are often very difficult.

What do you think of these eleven reasons? What would you add?

And allow me one footnote: please pray for your pastor.

Image Credit: elev8.com

Posted on January 20, 2014

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • There is also the rising trend of non-belief, at least in the US and Europe: http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/

    This is a good thing. We have a younger generation who is learning more about empirical evidence and science. We no longer need “faith” in outdated & dogmatic religions. We can live happy and compassionate lives with other humans on this planet without fighting over whose ancient book is correct or whose god is the correct god.

    Religion is a cultural phenomenon from a time when the world was a very confusing and dangerous place. When we didn’t understand that the lightning in the sky was just a storm causing large electrical fields to be generated – not some god who was angry with us. A person’s religion is more often than not determined by where they were raised. Middle East countries typically believe in Islam while the US tends towards Christianity. Picking the “correct belief” is usually just the luck of where you were born or the community you were raised in.

    Sometimes we see industries decline (rotary phones, typewriters, etc) and I think it’s about time we see the decline in churches, religions and their leaders.

    • Science does not have to clash with religion. The two can support each other, not fight each other. Some on both sides force the two to fight, when it is not necessary.

  • I would love to see a follow-up article on how to combat this, perhaps focusing on number nine, the lack of leadership and emotional maturity. This is where I failed when I was a pastor and what I need to work on most so I can return to my calling equipped.

  • I believe the list misses a couple of major points:

    12. The aversion to authority instilled by our culture. The pastor is an authority figure and so is naturally suspected.

    13. The failed experiment with omitting church discipline. About a century ago churches in the USA thought they’d try to organize the church differently than the Lord Jesus described (Mt. 18:16ff) by omitting the practice of church discipline. It’s like trying gardening without doing anything to suppress weeds. Now many churches are over-grown with people who, in the 19th century and earlier, would have been confronted about their sin and expelled if they didn’t repent. So the shepherd is trying to lead a flock of goats with some wolves mixed in, with predictable results.

    14. The loss of the ideal of regenerate church membership. Revivalism gave us the quest to accept anyone in the church as a member who would ask for it. The result is churches with members who aren’t truly converted. See “Revival and the Unregenerate Church Member” by Jim Elliff: http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ref-rev/08-2/8-2_elliff.pdf.

  • I would add to this thread something I have heard being a pastor. Some have said they cannot trust pastors because they have used churches as stepping stones to bigger and better ministries. Just as pastors are getting started, they make changes and then leave the church to a better paid, better compensated church. In my time hearing this my heart breaks knowing this reality. However, I have also realized this and held back from making changes and earned the right to help the church by listening, loving , learning. Each allows me the opportunity to then truly lead with trust of the people.

    • You’re right. Professionalism is a problem. But churches that hire (rather than “call”) and treat their pastor like an employee, shouldn’t be surprised when he acts like an employee.

  • I don’t think ministers have nearly enough emotional support from their congregations. I am fortunate enough to number some really great pastors and ministers among my close online friends, have clergy in my immediate family, and when I was a Christian, I was married to a minister. It’s a system that is doomed to fail, I’m afraid. These folks get trained in whatever theology their seminaries and denominations like, but they’re thrown under the bus once they get into churches. They’re not allowed to show any sort of human weakness or needs. Then everybody gets shocked when they go nuts or develop some kind of weird addiction. Congregations turn on their ministers on a dime, going from 0 to 120 almost instantaneously, and treat them like slaves or worse, and then wonder why all these constant dramas come out of pastors’ offices.

    Ministry isn’t like any other job. You can be a call-center drone and not believe in your product. You can be a salesperson for anything but a god and be able to fake it. But you can’t be a minister without being 100% “on” all the time. You’re not allowed to relax or have a beer. You’re not allowed to go to a psychologist or a massage therapist. You’re not allowed to need to talk to anybody for help. It’s just heart-wrenching. I’m just glad my online friends have people they can secretly talk to, like me, but I wish there were more I could do besides lend an ear and moral support. Most congregations are happy to take, take, take from their ministers, but very few understand how to give–and the two-facedness and petty politics that goes on in churches is just unbelievable to anybody who’s not intimately connected with it.

    Ministry itself attracts only a couple different sorts of people–predators/conjobs, or else really sincere folks who are doing the best they can, like my friends and family seem to be. And congregations seem singularly incapable of telling the difference between those two groups. I just don’t think the current models of ministry really work for ministers themselves. Very few people fit the perfect Ken Doll mold that most denominations seem to outline for their leaders.

    • Online still has a degree of anonymity. Pastors need people fully present in their lives.
      The web site above has some current thoughts on FRIENDSHIP for pastors.
      It’s part of THE ESSENTIALS ministry of Renovator Ministries check it out Captain!

      • Thanks, George, and I totally agree. I think more pastors need friends. Pastors can’t really admit weakness or find help without it getting out and then the church turns on them like any pack of wild dogs sensing weakness in its alpha. Ministers need to be able to access resources to help keep their morale and spirits high. Churches chew pastors up and spit them out, and even as a Christian I never really thought about how to help keep my pastor’s spirits up. It was mind-blowing, the day he sighed and told me and my husband (his youth pastor) that he was really struggling. In the many years since that afternoon, I’ve heard from plenty of other ministers who struggled just like him, and nothing’s really improved. If I could suggest anything to churches today, to Christians today, it’d be to recognize that their leaders are just folks like them, and they’re carrying a lot of burdens–and they need to be able to reach out for help when those burdens get to be too much.

      • Captain:

        You are as well right on. We are praying many pastors begin to sit and be still and let the Master show them the way forward, then act with courage knowing the Kingdom of God is the safest place on Earth. As in all things a presence filled relationship with the Trinity is the answer.

  • Melanie, I am sorry for lecturing you above. There was a kernel of truth to what I said (on 1-2 statements that I made), but at the same time, too, I was too blunt & shouldn’t have chastised you. I apologize if you had a bad experience, in a church, & I pray that God’s blessings be upon you in the future.

  • Heartspeak, why the lecture to pastors? What do you hope to accomplish? Do you not understand the state of many churches in America today? Your labels are really nice. I am not against you, but let’s try to have a respectful discussion here.

  • Great list Mr. Rainer! If I could add one more to the lists of why the world trust less of Pastors, at times I am amazed that some people have not even heard of what a Pastor is or do. Kind of hard to have trust shown for someone you really don’t know what their role is in society

  • Heartspeak says on

    Yikes! I continue to read about really sicko churches here. I’ve always known they were out there but it is grievous to me nonetheless. I understand the challenge presented when a pastor knows that speaking and doing what is necessary will result in the loss of a paycheck. But some churches need a frank, direct talk straight from the pulpit no matter what the consequences are. They will die anyway and the pastor will lose his job eventually either due to the death of the church or due to their eventually eating him up. It’s just hard to knowingly bring it on oneself when the rent and car payment are due next month…

    This dilemma so many pastors are facing seems to me to be a result of a broken or wrong concept of what a local church should be about. I seriously doubt that ‘double honor’ really means ‘give him a paycheck’. It leads to all kinds of problems. Nobody really wants to deal with this but maybe it’s time. There are a lot of churches across the country who continue to bring shame to the Name. Time to overturn some tables I think. Tolerating sin amongst ourselves is not the answer. I would far, far prefer to lose my job for speaking truth than keep my job and not dare to speak truth. But then, that’s just me.

    Btw. Melanie may not be so far off and I cringe more from the posts of those who are taking her to task both publicly and without knowing her. Really people??? That’ll get her to change her mind. Yup. You’re proving her point!

    Dear God, forgive us our sins! I’ve been reading the comments here for a while and they reveal the dirty underbelly of the American church. Wounded and hurting servants, sanctimonious, self absorbed ones and story after story of entire congregations permitted to roll over folks. The ‘state’ of the American church is being discussed these days in many blogs by many people, when do the ‘leaders’ determine that there has to be a new approach to business as usual.

    Sorry, Thom, I’m pretty frustrated and disgusted. I’d give anything to see this all change. Anything! As, no doubt, would you.

    • Do you really not see the contradiction between immediately saying you are willing to be unemployed for speaking the truth to refusing to tell Melanie the truth about her sin? Melanie is flouting the Lordship of Jesus by refusing to abide by His command in Hebrews 10:25. And yet instead of telling her the truth — thus risking losing her approval — you chide those who would tell her the truth.
      The reality is that you are acting exactly like the kind of people who undermine pastors today: believing everything any disgruntled person claims while ignoring the open sin of those making the complaints.

      • Heartspeak says on

        John, let’s be clear. It’s the use of this forum to chastise Melanie that is my greatest objection. Her sentiment and pain are real and need to be understood by many leaders, not just condemned by them. There’s Melanie in every community and close to someone in every church. It is up to the local believers who know her to love her and gently show her what ‘can be’ rather than for a bunch of strangers to pile on her and tell her how she ‘should’ feel..

      • It was quite abusive, too. Her experience is her own, it is valid, and it isn’t anybody’s place to chide her. And instead of hearing her pain and anger, way too many Christians just pile on her to argue about her “tone” or showing negative emotions at all. I see this tendency to circle the wagons and open fire at dissenters as a big reason why Christianity’s having the struggles it is right now. Of course it’s hard to hear criticism of something dear to someone’s heart, but defensiveness doesn’t strike me as a particularly Christian virtue. What do I know though? So I thank you for speaking up for Melanie. Until more Christians stand against emotional abuse, it’ll keep getting worse.

    • Yes, people like Melanie need to be cared for. But it’s so easy to be critical of pastors. Sometimes, they get unfair or baseless criticisms because they’re easy targets. If people can’t see this or admit it, then they’re blind. Bottom line.

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