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Clergy and faith leaders gather outside Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Penn. Photo courtesy of Mike DuBose/United Methodist News Service.

Pastors’ views on social issues? Americans not interested

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(RNS) What do pastors think about social or political issues?

Americans don’t particularly want to know.

Only 8 percent of adults say they are interested in hearing pastors’ views on issues such as same-sex marriage, LGBT rights, abortion, guns, tax policy, climate change, drug policy or religious freedom, according to the Barna Group’s State of Pastors study, released Thursday (Jan. 26).

And that supports one of the study’s biggest findings, Barna President David Kinnaman said during a webcast about the study: “There is a huge amount of skepticism and indifference to today’s faith leaders.”

The State of Pastors – commissioned by Pepperdine University, an independent Christian university – surveyed more than 14,000 pastors from 40 Protestant denominations across the theological and political spectrum, both online and by phone, according to the full report. It also includes data from surveys of all U.S. adults and millennial adults, born between 1984 and 2002.

One in five Americans reported the pastors in their communities are “very influential,” according to the study by the Christian research firm. That same number said they believe pastors are “very credible when it comes to important issues of our day” — a number that drops when it comes to issues of faith and politics.

But while Americans may be skeptical and indifferent to pastors as a whole, most like the pastors they know. One-quarter have a “very positive” opinion of pastors (48 percent are more indifferent, expressing a “somewhat positive” opinion), but two-thirds who personally know a pastor have a very positive opinion of him or her, according to the study.

Two-thirds also believe pastors present at least some benefit to their communities.

And 48 percent said their personal experience of pastors was more favorable than the media’s portrayal of faith leaders: 33 percent likened the pastors they know to Eric Camden, the likable pastor-dad on the TV show “7th Heaven.” Fifteen percent compared their experience of pastors to Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church.

Other notable findings:

  • The average age of pastors has jumped 10 years over the past 25 years, from 44 to 54 years old. “This is a critical issue if we’re going to have the ranks of young leaders filling the pipeline of spiritual leadership today,” Kinnaman said.
  • The number of female pastors has tripled over the past 25 years. They now make up 9 percent of senior pastors, although many lead smaller churches and earn less pay than their male counterparts.
  • Nearly all pastors (98 percent of those in mainline Protestant denominations and 97 percent of pastors in nonmainline denominations) say the church plays an important role in racial reconciliation, but only 51 percent list it among their church’s top 10 priorities.
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