What’s on the Minds of America’s Pastors

Barna Research on State of the Church 2020

For decades, Barna has conducted research specifically on U.S. church leaders, uncovering what they, and others, believe about their role in the Church, as well as shedding light on their concerns and aspirations for both the local church and the Church in the U.S. In an effort to get a snapshot of the current concerns clergy may have as they enter a new decade, Barna conducted a poll to see how pastors and priests rank some of the issues facing the Church today.

We’re kicking off our State of the Church 2020 project with this new study, along with a few findings and statistics from past research to help contextualize faith leaders’ most pressing questions and problems. Throughout the year, we’ll be returning to many of the issues highlighted in their responses with new research and resources.

Concerns at the Local Level: Reaching the Next Generation

When presented with a list of possible challenges facing their church today, half of Protestant pastors note that “reaching a younger audience” (51%) is a major issue for their ministry. Just over one-third of pastors (34%) marks this statement as a top three concern for their church, with 12 percent noting it as the top concern.

Half of pastors also agree that “declining or inconsistent outreach and evangelism” is a major issue facing their local church (50%). Of all the pastors who affirm this statement, exactly two in five (40%) say it falls within their top three concerns, with 14 percent agreeing it is their largest concern.

The findings listed above fall in step with past Barna studies which offer a glimpse into the ups and downs of ministry work. One such example shows that “low spiritual maturity among churchgoers” (27% in 2017 vs. 8% in 1992) has been an increasing pain point for pastors over the years. Meanwhile, the practice of evangelism has fallen out of favor even with young adults who are practicing Christians.


Overall, more than one in three pastors (36%) notes that “declining or inconsistent volunteering” is an issue facing their ministry today, with about one-quarter (23%) saying it’s one of their top three problems. Similar proportions express worry in regard to “stagnating spiritual growth.” While 34 percent of pastors label this a major concern for the local church, 24 percent rank it as one of their top three concerns.

One in four U.S. pastors (23%) selects “lack of leadership training and development” as a major concern facing their church today. In terms of developing young leaders, data featured in both The State of Pastors and Leadership Transitions reports show that, as of 2017, only 15 percent of senior pastors were 40 years old or younger, echoing the need for younger pastors in ministry. The State of Pastors research also showed that seven in 10 U.S. pastors agree “it is becoming harder to find mature young Christians who want to become pastors” (69%).

Overall, Barna found that three-quarters of Catholic priests agree that “reaching a younger audience” is a major issue facing their parish today. Nearly half consider it the top concern facing their parish today.

Other issues that rank high among Catholic priests include “declining or unpredictable giving patterns,” “declining attendance,” “declining or inconsistent volunteering” and “declining or inconsistent evangelism” (all cited by nearly half of Catholic priests). When asked about concerns facing their Archdiocese, more than four out of five priests agreed that “lack of leadership training and development” was a major concern currently facing their district.

Among Protestant pastors, challenges that did not elicit as much worry included their church’s “economic model” (10%), “multi-campus management” (3%) and either acquiring (8%) or reducing (1%) space. Similar findings surfaced for Catholic priests as both downsizing (28%) and upsizing (2%) space ranked low on their list of concerns, specifically in relation to their archdiocese. When it came to their personal parish, Catholic priests agreed that “divisions within the parish” (12%) and “not reflecting the demographic makeup of the community” (7%) were lower on the list. 

Concerns for the Church in America: Culture’s Shift to a Secular Age

For this recent poll, Barna also asked pastors to rate issues facing the Christian Church at large in the U.S. While a variety of issues were mentioned, a few concerns related to strong discipleship and teaching during an era of secularization bubble to the top. U.S. pastors rank “watered down gospel teachings” (72%) as the largest issue. Looking at denominational responses, over three in four non-mainline pastors (78%) agree with this statement as opposed to about three in five mainline pastors (59%).

Relatedly, a majority of pastors (66%) recognizes “culture’s shift to a secular age” as a major concern for the Church today. Younger pastors—under the age of 45—are less likely than their elder counterparts to affirm this statement (50% vs. 73%). Following this pattern, pastors who have been in ministry longer are more likely than those just entering ministry to agree (71% 20+ years in ministry vs. 65% 10-19 years, 47% 1-9 years).

Barna has long reported on Christians’ responses to cultural trends, shifts and movements in the U.S. and beyond. In Faith Leadership in a Divided CultureChristian clergy spoke up about the discomfort that often accompanies addressing social issues from the pulpit. Exactly half of clergy reported frequently (11%) and occasionally (39%) feeling limited in their ability to speak out on moral issues because people will take offense. Another 40 percent said they frequently (6%) or occasionally (34%) feel pressure to speak out on moral and social issues that they’re not comfortable discussing. Some of the issues Barna asked pastors about included homosexuality / LGBTQ+ (44% limited; 37% pressured), same-sex marriage / legalizing gay rights (22% limited; 32% pressured) and abortion / pro-life issues (18% limited; 17% pressured), among others.

In Barna’s most recent pastor poll, this sentiment was once again echoed, as pastors listed “addressing complex social issues with biblical integrity” (58%) as another top concern facing the U.S. Christian Church today. The Barna study Where Do We Go From Here? speaks to one of these dynamics as well, with research showing that pastors are also trying to find their role within church and community as ministers of mercy when it comes to racial reconciliation.

Among pastors’ main worries for the Christian Church in the U.S. is their chief concern for their own local churches: “reaching a younger audience” (56%). When paired with data about aging pastors, the growing group of atheists, agnostics and “nones” and declining church attendance among younger generations, faith leaders may well be getting a glimpse of the next generation’s tenuous relationship to the Church. Globally, 82 percent of young adults say society is in a leadership crisis; while this data point refers specifically to leadership on a broad scale, Barna research consistently paints a picture of 18–35-year-olds’ distrust of institutions, religious and otherwise—something that the Church must overcome if these maturing generations are to help lead the Church in the future.

Among Catholic priests, top concerns facing the Catholic Church in the U.S. today include “culture’s shift to a secular age,” “addressing scandals within the Church,” and “reaching a younger audience” (all mentioned by more than three-quarters). Over half of Catholic priests would also agree that “negative perceptions of the Catholic Church” is an issue that must be addressed. Items that fall low on their list of concerns include “changing attitudes towards evangelism,” “prosperity gospel teachings,” and “keeping up with the latest digital and technological trends.”

It’s worth noting that many of the possible issues listed above regarding the Christians Church in the U.S. generated a strong general response compared to the more localized ones. This full ranking alludes to many of the opportunities, debates and divisions taking place within the Church right now, from leader burnout to church abuse scandals to women’s roles in ministry.

As 2020 progresses, Barna intends to dive deeper into the findings above, uncovering more about the state of the Church, both locally and globally.

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The State of Pastors was conducted on behalf of Pepperdine University. A total of 900 Protestant senior pastors were interviewed by telephone and online from April through December 2015. Pastors were recruited from publicly available church listings covering 90 percent of U.S. churches that have a physical address and a listed phone number or email address. Churches selected for inclusion were called up to five times at different times of the day to increase the probability of successful contact. The sample error for this study is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.

The findings of the Leadership Transitions study are based on surveys of pastors, church staff, and churchgoing Christians. A total of 249 incoming and 70 outgoing senior pastors completed a quantitative online survey in March and April 2017. These pastors were recruited from Barna’s pastor panel (a database of pastors recruited via probability sampling on annual phone and email surveys) and are representative of U.S. Protestant churches by region, denomination and church size. All respondents were screened to include those who had been part of a senior pastoral transition in the last 5–7 years. The margin of error for incoming pastors is +/- 6.2% at the 95% confidence level and +/- 11.7% for outgoing pastors. Outgoing pastors data is primarily for comparison purposes due to small sample size.

The statistics and data-based analyses in Faith Leadership in a Divided Culture are derived from a series of national public opinion surveys conducted by Barna Group, among 1,608 clergy in the U.S. in 2014, 513 Protestant pastors in the U.S. in 2015 / 2016 and 601 Protestant pastors in the U.S. in 2017. Responses were collected via telephone and online. Once data was collected, minimal statistical weights were applied to several demographic variables to more closely correspond to known national averages. On questions for which tracking was available, findings from these recent studies were compared to Barna’s database of national studies from the past three decades. Data from the clergy study were minimally weighted on denomination and region to more closely reflect the demographic characteristics of churches in each media market. When researchers describe the accuracy of survey results, they usually provide the estimated amount of “sampling error.” This refers to the degree of possible inaccuracy that could be attributed to interviewing a group of people that is not completely representative of the population from which they were drawn. For the general population surveys, the sampling error ranged from 2.7 to 2.9, for religious leaders, it ranged from 2.2 to 3.9. Major portions of this research was supported by the Maclellan Foundation; Barna Group was solely responsible for the design and analysis of the research findings.

The Where Do We Go from Here? study is based on quantitative surveys of 1,007 U.S. adults, 1,502 U.S. practicing Christian adults and 600 U.S. senior pastors of Protestant churches. Among pastors, Barna oversampled to include more perspectives of black pastors (100 respondents total). Interviews were completed online and by telephone between April and August 2018. The rate of error is +/- 2.3 percent for practicing Christians, 3.9 percent for pastors and 2.9 percent for the general population, at the 95 percent confidence level.

The Connected Generation study is based on online, representative public opinion surveys conducted by Barna Group. A total of 15,369 respondents ages 18 to 35 across 25 countries were surveyed between December 4, 2018 and February 15, 2019. See full details of sample distribution based on continent and country at theconnectedgeneration.com. Unless otherwise noted, all data referenced in The Connected Generation were collected by Barna, among a nationally representative sample of the population identified. For this study, Barna relied on online collection methods, including mobile phone users. The study used online national consumer panels that are representative by age, gender, region and ethnicity. Respondents were fully verified by the representative sample sources. Additionally, quality control measures checked that respondents were completing the survey at an appropriate pace and paying attention to the questions asked. The survey was offered in nine different languages, (English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, German, Romanian, Korean, Indonesian and Taiwanese), translated by a trusted translation service and verified by local partners in every country for context-specific nuance. Based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Data Base, the CIA World Fact Book and available census data from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Chile, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, the UK, Germany, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Romania, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, India, Philippines and Singapore, quotas were designed to ensure the final group of adults interviewed in the study reflected each country’s distribution of adults nationwide based on age, gender, ethnicity and region. Online surveys necessitate literacy and an internet connection, which means the sample reflects adults who have those capabilities and does not reflect those who are unable to read or lack connectivity to respond to online surveys. Thus, in spite of a robust methodology, this sample is not meant to be representative of entire national populations, regions, continents or the world. The countries selected for this study were based on countries and regions where Barna and World Vision receive frequent requests for research-based insights. These and other concerns or limitations were respectfully considered while interpreting the data.

Pastor Poll
Data for this study was based on 547 online interviews with Protestant senior pastors from Barna’s PastorPanel from November 15 to Dec 17, 2019. Sample error is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Christian clergy are pastors of a congregation in a mainstream tradition of Christianity.

Protestant clergy are pastors of a congregation in a Protestant tradition of Christianity.

Catholic clergy pastor a Catholic parish.

Mainline refers to denominations such as American Baptist Churches USA, the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church USA.

Non-mainline refers to denominations such as charismatic / Pentecostal churches, the Southern Baptist Convention, churches in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and non-denominational churches.

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash.

About Barna
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2020