Skip Navigation

The big tent? - Differences in attitudes among pastors influence church discussions

By Chuck Niedringhaus

SUMMARY: The State of the Church Report, prepared by the Connectional Table for General Conference, provided a rare glimpse of United Methodist attitudes and perceptions.

Reviewing only pastor information, a deeper analysis of this data identified four distinct attitudinal groups within clergy. United Methodist Communications and the General Commission on Finance and Administration created these pastor profiles to help them understand how attitudes affect local church giving.

Using cluster analysis, the agencies grouped people by how they responded to the State of the Church research. This approach documented four separate groups of clergy with differences that could affect far more than church giving.

Outwardly Looking Disciples
The analysis identifies 48 percent of the participating pastors as "Outwardly Looking Disciples." These clergy indicate that personal discipleship factors are extremely important to them. They consider prayer, regular worship with others, generous and regular giving, lifelong study of the Scriptures, and work for social justice extremely important. Similarly, they strongly support creation of disciples of Christ, new church starts and evangelism. These pastors advocate a church active in the world, in connection with other Christians and in addressing racism, sexism, and problems associated with refugees and war. They agree with the church's positions on homosexuality and that grace is available to all. These disciples also are more likely to be women and to feel God claimed them to the church.

Inwardly Focused Disciples
These pastors, approximately 15 percent of the respondents, express opinions on discipleship very close to those of Outwardly Focused Disciples. They differ, however, on their world outlook. They are less interested in maintaining connections with other Christians and in having the church participate in social issues, such as gender inequality, health issues, children at risk, overseas missions, refugees or war. The Inwardly Focused are concerned about the church's use of resources, apportionments and the perceived presence of powerful cliques within the denomination. These pastors are more likely to be male and to be from the Southeastern Jurisdiction.

Social Justice Advocates
Social Justice Advocates represent about 16 percent of survey participants. Their answers reflect the lowest levels of interest in personal discipleship practices. Compared with other clusters, Social Justice Advocates consider drawing from Scripture for daily living, making disciples of Christ, starting new churches, the Quadrilateral, youth programs and evangelism less important. On the other hand, this group has high interest in church activism related to addressing social ills, such as racism, gender inequality, health issues and war. They strongly disagree with the Church's position on homosexuality. They also indicate concern about the church using too many resources and generally give lower ratings to the church as a place to practice faith or to discuss values. These pastors score the church lower as a place providing vibrant worship.

Social Justice Advocates are more likely to be from the West and Southwest and to have been born into The United Methodist Church or to have been attracted to it by the denomination's concern for the poor and social justice. Churches headed by pastors from this cluster tend to be the strongest supporters of churchwide Special Sundays with offerings.

The Less Engaged
About 19 percent of the pastors surveyed fell into the Less Engaged Cluster. These respondents are similar to the Inwardly Focused Disciples regarding less support for social activism, but have important differences related to the importance of personal discipleship. While considering worship, prayer and making disciples very important, these pastors see financial giving and Bible study as less important. They have little interest in a socially active church. They express moderate positions on the denomination's position on homosexuality, but they are less likely to support affirming God's grace for all.

What Do the Clusters Say About Us?
Cluster analysis, by its very nature, emphasizes differences in an effort to create groups. However, given the disagreements that have bubbled up within the denomination in recent years, the existence and depth of these differences are not surprising. Nevertheless, the clusters show how diverse opinions are within United Methodist pastors and how deep and fundamental the disagreements are on church direction. Many pastors express limited enthusiasm for stewardship, discipleship and evangelism, let alone having the church address global health and poverty.

This information has implications on connectionalism. Without pastor support for key initiatives, many local congregations may not receive the information or encouragement to participate in important church ministries or in giving financial support to church programs.

These pastors appear to have embraced only part of the Wesleyan tradition. Are current practices in pastor training and education contributing to this? The research does not provide an answer, but it suggests training, pastor mentoring, communications and consensus building within the church may need attention.

What Do You Think?
How do you react to this information and what do you think it means to the church? Share your thoughts at the link below.

For your review, I have attached charts highlighting differences between the clusters. Please send your questions and comments to Chuck Niedringhaus at cniedringhaus-at-umcom-dot-org.