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Survey Results: What Do You Look for in a Pastor?

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One month ago, I posted a link to a survey asking ten questions about what people look for in a pastor, promising to post the results one month later. The idea was to try to shed some light on the disconnect between supply and demand when it comes to ministers looking for a call and churches looking for a minister.

The first thing that should be said is that, while I am grateful to all who participated, the sample size is too small to be significant. 71 people took the survey. Nevertheless, we can still reflect on the results with the hope that future studies may yield more insight.

By tradition, there were 1 Anabaptist, 7 Baptists, 1 Church of Christ member, 4 Eastern Orthodox, 2 Episcopalians or Anglicans, 2 Lutherans, 21 Prebyterians or other Reformed, 3 Methodists, 13 Non-Denominational Christians, 2 Pentecostals, and 16 Roman Catholics.

Theologically, 3 considered themselves liberal, 18 moderate, and 50 traditional. Politically, 4 considered themselves progressive, 17 moderate, and 50 conservative. I suspect this distribution is reflective of Acton’s readership and my friend circles more than American Christians as a whole.

4 respondents preferred a pastor or priest who is young, 20 middle-aged, 4 elderly, and 43 had no preference. We may detect here a slight preference, then, for middle-aged ministers. While the dominant trend seems indifferent to age, this might be something for young seminarians to keep in mind.

Among the options given, the most important trait of a pastor or priest was that he/she be intellectual (biblical/theological knowledge) at 51 votes, 6 for pastoral (home/hospital visits, counseling), 1 for administrative (able to coordinate programs and groups), 4 for an activist (advocate for social justice), and 9 for none of the above. I think it is safe to say that there is a strong overlap of traditional theology and conservative political views with desiring a minister who stands out as an intellectual. One possible flaw that was pointed out to me was that I did not include the option of “good preacher,” which may have taken some of the votes from this category.

60 respondents preferred that their pastor or priest be a man, 1 a woman, and 10 had no preference. This, again, is likely due to conservative and traditional views as well as denominations that explicitly prohibit the ordination of women to the pastorate or priesthood, such as the Roman Catholic Church, for example. Still, the number indifferent or in favor of women could be higher given how many Reformed, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Methodist denominations (28 respondents in all) allow it.

When asked about marriage for ministers, 2 people believed it to be necessary, 33 preferred, 23 unimportant, 1 detrimental, and 12 prohibited. No doubt these 12 were Roman Catholics, the other Roman Catholics may simply have in mind Eastern Rite traditions in which married men can become priests as they may favor a change in this longstanding Roman tradition. Interesting to me was the large percentage (nearly 50%) of people who responded that marriage was either necessary or preferred while only 24 respondents (about 33%) preferred a minister who is middle-aged or elderly (and this may include Roman Catholic respondents). This suggests that while age may be incidental to many marriage is not. If it could be shown from a survey of a larger sample size that this is a wider trend, it would not bode well for young, unmarried, non-Roman Catholic seminarians. One might wonder if relationships are rushed to the altar for future ministers worried about their job prospects, for example. Stacking up so many major life changes in a short period of time — graduation, marriage, and ordination — would be a recipe for a high stress beginning to one’s ministry as well.

When asked what income level a pastor or priest should receive, 2 favored volunteer-only ministers, 7 for just enough to get by, 49 for an average, middle-class income, 2 for more than most of the congregation, and 11 for no limit/doesn’t matter. The average person taking this survey, then, would be comfortable with paying their minister a middle-class or better salary (about 77%). Whether, on the other hand, churches actually have sufficient funds in their budget to pay at that rate is another question, of course.

From an economic perspective, if one is hoping for total devotion to one’s calling, insisting on volunteer ministers might be ideal. On the other hand, one cannot expect a person to pay for a high level of education with no compensation to help pay it back. On the other hand, the more a person is paid for their job, the more they tend to seek their own self-preservation in that job. This can be both good and bad. On the one hand, it might be a source of accountability. On the other hand, it could be a source of corruption.

Regarding education, 27 believed training at a program within their denomination to be necessary, 27 important, and 17 unimportant. Depending on how this is taken, it may tell us different things. We could say that a majority (about 62%) do not think it is necessary for their minister to be trained in a denomination-specific program. This is interesting given the large number who consider themselves theologically traditional (50, about 70%) and who prefer an intellectual minister (51, about 72%). This may be due to traditions represented by multiple denominations, such as Presbyterians and Reformed all being broadly Calvinist. However, we could also say that such denominational training is important (combining “necessary” and “important”) for the majority (about 76%) of respondents as well.

Regarding level of education, 12 had no preference, 13 preferred a minimum bachelors level education, 2 a masters of any kind, and 44 a masters from a seminary. This interestingly means that while 46 think a masters is minimal, 51 prefer an intellectual minister. This would seem to indicate that for 5 respondents intellectual is not necessarily the same as educated. In all, however, there still seems to be a strong preference for seminary education, no doubt much more so among elders, bishops, and other administrators and senior clergy.

In the end, again, I would stress that the small sample size of this data is not statistically significant. However, it does at least give a limited picture of the demand, especially among theological traditionalists and political conservatives. If a fuller survey could be produced, the next question would be: what sort of ministers are being trained at seminaries, bible colleges, and other programs? Is the source of the supply and demand disconnect the training programs at these institutions or the sort of person that feels called to pastoral ministry in the first place? And how much does the demand of parishioners reflect the demand of those who make hiring decisions in each tradition?

Personally, I would prefer a minister like St. Augustine or St. Gregory the Theologian who were ordained against their wills and didn’t want to be ministers in the first place, but I suppose that philosopher kings (or bishops, as the case may be) are hard to come by in all ages. And anyway, I didn’t include that as an option on my survey.

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Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.