The Impact of Status, Education, and Age on Clergy [umc]

The Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church has an online version of their "health and wellness" report.  It has mostly to do with pensions (Zzzzzz wake me when it's over), but there are at least three interesting nuggests of demographic data that could spark discussion.  Credit goes to my ministry colleague Rev. Sarah (blog) for noticing some of these.

First, after the polling and lifestyle data, there is this information about Elders (fully-educated and ordained clergy) versus Local Church Pastors (no education or ordination requirements outside of training classes).

Elders are less likely than licensed local pastors and deacons to have experienced the presence and power of God in the ordinary, sensed the presence and power of God in their thoughts and feelings, consciously practiced discerning the presence and power of God, and felt that events were unfolding according to God’s intent.

In addition, licensed local pastors are the most likely to have felt that they have a vital relationship with God.
Um...ouch!  That seems like a damning dismissal of the spiritual makeup of the "fully-ordained" clergy and an affirmation of the "non-ordained" ministry of the local pastors.  While I certainly affirm the latter, I can't see this solely as an indictment of the clergy represented.

Having not been in ministry very long (currently in my fourth year of ordained ministry) and seeing the wide diversity of pastoral appointments, I won't agree with the findings but even if they were true, it would seem like an indictment of appointments not clergy.  Let me explain.  Full Elders are often appointed to larger churches with larger bureaucracies.  In larger contexts, it is little wonder that the minutiae of ministry may drag them down, as well as being appointed somewhere that may be out of their comfort zone.

Thus for local church pastors, who are often in smaller churches (though with LOTS of minutiae...I know that much!) but also in contexts closer to their comfort level, then it is little wonder they report being more spiritually connected.  Any pastors reading this can chime in and let me know if I'm on the right track with this.

Second, but in the same area, education has much to do with these results as well:
There are also differences in experiences based on education. Those with a course of study or bachelor’s degree are more likely than those with more advanced degrees to sense the presence and power of God in their thoughts and feelings, felt God’s grace and love as they are, felt their prayers have been answered, felt that events were unfolding according to God’s intent, and felt that they have a vital relationship with God.
Detailed Report, page 47
Huh...all the questions had to do with feelings and then they are judged based on academic achievement?  Weird. I know this is pounced on as an indictment of the inadequacy and spiritual stuntedness of our seminary system.  BURN!  So again, I will redirect, but in the opposite direction.

It seems more that academia focuses the pursuit of God in a different direction.  I'm academic in a lot of ways in the way I think and I would have a hard time answering enthusiastically to those questions. But looking back at my writings and musings from college, I would have enthusiastically affirmed them.

So perhaps the real indicator here isn't spiritual growth or stuntedness, but that our understanding of God progresses and grows as we do.  People with higher education see and experience God very differently (but not worse) than those without because they may have a better grasp of the theological concepts of God in all their diversity in academic.  This sounds mean, but it's easy to drill a deep spiritual well when you don't have to interact with the rest of the field (ie. having to wrestle with different well-constructed theologies in higher education).

Third and finally, there's this note less about ministry status/education and more about age groups engaging in prayer and bible-reading:
Full time clergy and those in extension ministry are more likely to say that they spend less than one hour a week in prayer and those who are less than 44 years of age spend less time praying than those who are aged 45 or older.

Slightly more than half of respondents say they read the Bible or other devotional literature, not in preparation for sermons or other work‐related tasks, at least once a day. Similarly to prayer, those less than 44 years of age are less likely to read the Bible daily.
This is a tough one...I really don't have a response.  Anyone else want to take a crack at why bible reading habits have changed for the under 45 crowd?  I would simply say reading the bible devotionally instead of utilitarianally (ie. what sermon or bible study can I get from this?) is a constant challenge for me.

Even though I'm not and you may not be in the Virginia Conference, these same issues affect clergy everywhere.  What thoughts do you have about them?

  • Does status in ministry affect spiritual outlooks?
  • Does education affect spiritual receptiveness?
  • Does daily practices affect spiritual effectiveness?


Andrew January 29, 2010 at 8:00 AM  

I wonder how much of this has to do with itinerancy in general? I would be curious to know how UM Elders compare in the areas you named to Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans and other non-denominational clergy who are not appointed but must find their own employment in a local church context.

It seems like the system itself isn't very good at guaranteeing that a local congregation and a pastor (Elder) will be a good "fit" for each other. As vigilant and careful as district superintendents and bishops undoubtedly are, the system obviously doesn't work all the time.

Moreover, I'd almost be willing to bet that the issues of Bible reading and devotional practice are far more prevalent among "mainline" clergy than among non-denominational and Baptist / evangelical clergy simply because these groups typically place stronger emphasis on personal devotion and prayer. This, of course, isn't based on any sort of "research" but on my experience in various denominational contexts. Also, this is NOT a moral judgement, just an observation.

Jared Littleton January 29, 2010 at 9:30 AM  

Having just gone through the commissioning process, I actually have a larger objection to the tone in which the data is presented. It assumes that if I do not express following God or discernment in emotional language as opposed to head language, then I am not really experiencing God. Though their are problems with deliniating a head-heart divide, there is the reality that many people experience God from different starting points. It is no surprise that those who pursue seminary may (on average) approach God slightly more from a head perspective. I'm the first to admit that this does create a one-sided approach to God. I truly do need to figure out how to approach God not just with my head but also with my heart. BUT, I also think approaching God just from the heart also results in a limited view of God. Unforunetly, whenever these reports are written, it appears that the default assumption is you really don't care about God unless you express it in emotional language.

As for the lack of reading scripture, it seems true, and I can't really defend it. However, I would bet those under 45 also consider ethics and theology more often than those over 45, so it may simply be a different way to discern how God is working in the world.

Rev. Jeremy Smith January 29, 2010 at 9:45 AM  

From Jared: "As for the lack of reading scripture, it seems true, and I can't really defend it. However, I would bet those under 45 also consider ethics and theology more often than those over 45, so it may simply be a different way to discern how God is working in the world."

**Very** well said.

Anonymous,  January 29, 2010 at 11:41 AM  

I'm not sure where Jared's data on ethics/theology comes from, so I would not put much stock in that.

I find this data quite interesting and worth wider discussion. A great many local pastors are bi-vocational and very poorly paid, so I would not be too quick to suggest that elders are faced with more complex work lives than local pastors. They do have bigger churches for the most part.

On the head/heart issue, I'd encourage a fuller discussion of what these descriptions mean. I see words describing "experiences" with God, not feelings - certainly not in the sense of fuzzy-headed feelings vs. rational thoughts.

I think this kind of data is not an indictment of the elders or local pastors. It is not even an indictment of the current system. It is a description. If we do not like the description, then let's ask what might change the system so that it supports and creates outcomes we think are better.

Anonymous,  January 29, 2010 at 12:08 PM  

I just skimmed the report a bit. I'd be careful of drawing to big a conclusion on some of these differences. The charts I saw indicated pretty high responses on most categories. It may just be that local pastors were a bit more likely than elders - statistically significant but not really a big numerical difference - to say something.

In other words, maybe there is less to these differences than the summary makes it appear.

Lauren January 29, 2010 at 2:04 PM  

I would be interested in seeing what the actual numbers were in variance between the local pastors and ordained clergy on these issues. Like John, I suspect that there isn't that big of a difference, and I find his caution well-taken.

That said, I don't find it surprising that there is a difference. I have often felt that the local pastors I worked with were considerably more passionate about their work than we ordained clergy. The reason, I think, is that this is something they really want to do.

That is, the average local pastor already has a full-time job. Yet, they feel so called by God to serve in ministry that they voluntarily take on a part-time paid job as a pastor that often requires closer to full-time work. But, most don't complain because it's what they really, really want to do, and they know that they can quit any time they want to and go back to life as usual. Still, pastoring fills a deep spiritual need for most.

Whereas, most ordained clergy I work with tend to be more dispassionate and "professional" about the pastoral and spiritual life. That is, at some point, it just becomes a job. We want it to be more, but after a while, it's work. In my opinion, that takes some of the passion and excitement out of it at times.

Education plays a role in this, because for ordained clergy, seminary tells us how to filter our spiritual experiences. Plus, for some professors, sadly they pass on certain spiritual biases and prejudices. They can cause us to look down on others as simple-minded and naive in very unnecessary ways.

As for the age factor, I don't find this a problem at all. Instead, I am encouraged by it. I certainly hope that at 60 I am praying and reading the Bible more fervently than I was at 30. How sad it would be if I remained the same or, worse yet, digressed with age!

Anyway, those are my thoughts. Thanks for highlighting this fascinating study. I look forward to hearing more from it.

journeyman37 January 29, 2010 at 3:23 PM  

Indeed, I would draw no conclusions as all. There is no data offered even in the full findings report to back up the assertion that local pastors experienced some of these things differently to ANY significant degree. Instead, there is just the statement that they were more likely to do so. We've got to ask-- more likely by how much? And to what degree, actually does that represent variance from the confidence interval of this sample size (154 local pastors, 400 elders). This sounds to me not like a finding, but like a bit of an agenda. If it were an actual finding, we would have been (or SHOULD have been) given the statistics to back the claim. Absent that, I don't know (and no one else knows) with what confidence to accept it or what do to with it.

Sean Delmore January 29, 2010 at 5:16 PM  

I'd like to add that this is *self-reported behavior.* Research data shows that people often report 1) what they believe researchers "want" to hear, and/or 2) what they believe their behavior "should be."

It is *possible* that local pastors are reporting that their behavior and experiences are what they think it "should be," and it is *possible* that fully ordained elders are more secure in their positions, and are therefore less likely to provide answers that they (rightly or wrongly) assume the researchers (in this case, the VA Conference leadership) want to hear.

Regarding the difference in Bible reading by age:
I think Jared's made a great point. While he might not be able to prove his very specific claim, research does show that Americans are turning to more religious texts as sources of authority and inspiration.

As an example: when my grandparents were my age, all of the readings during worship came from the Bible - anything else would have been unimaginable. They came out of UCC and UMC congregations - I've been in both of the particular churches in which they were raised several times and heard during regular Sunday worship services some readings that did NOT come from the Bible (and while there might have been a grumble, no one fainted!). Notably, some were Christian, two were "secular" or generically "spiritual," and one was Buddhist in origin.

Bottom line:
The answer to all of these questions is: e) Not enough information provided.

Rev. Jeremy Smith January 29, 2010 at 5:30 PM  

@Sean, actually (d) is "not enough information provided." (e) is "only on Thursdays"

Anonymous,  January 29, 2010 at 6:59 PM  

Some of the conversation here seems to suggest a lack of mutual respect between local pastors and elders.

Carolyn January 29, 2010 at 7:46 PM  

@ John Meunier, Sean is not ordained, nor is he a local pastor.

As a person with a BA in sociology, I have to agree with both Jared and Sean's points. It's *really* easy to manipulate and misreport statistics- to accurately report them, you have to know what you're doing and be honest. And also you need to use the right language. If differences between groups are slight, give caveats to everything you say.

Also, I was part of a medical study this fall and I had the placebo effect... based on my doctors' constant talking about my "progress" on the "drug." Researchers need to be really clever and obscure in their question design to get away from this effect.

For what it's worth, I left behind "warm fuzzy" Christianity not because I got an education, but because it no longer worked for me. I felt betrayed by all the emotional language because it couldn't help me after I entered the dark night of the soul. This was the year I graduated high school.

Anonymous,  January 30, 2010 at 8:34 AM  

No argument about the survey methodology. I would point out, though, that absent further study, tossing out hypothetical ideas about how the data might be biased is not really any insight. Also, I doubt you will find any kind of data other than "self-report" for whether people have experienced the power of God in their lives. God does not fill out our surveys. We are generally stuck with self-reports.

Thank you for the information on Sean's background. Let me rephrase. There seem to be some stereotypes and assumptions working here about elders and local pastors and a certain amount of defensiveness, which I find interesting.

And, again, I'm struck by the casting of statements of "sensed the power and presence of God" as "warm fuzzy" emotionalism. Since when is having an experience of God emotionalism? How is consciously discerning the will of God?

I don't think John Wesley (we are talking about Methodists in the post) would affirm a fuzzy-headed faith that does not sustain you in the dark night of the soul. But he would certainly affirm that value and even the need of a experience of God's power and presence in our lives.

Again, I find our various responses to the this data - including mine - and interesting reflection of where we are and our own issues.

Jared Littleton January 30, 2010 at 10:42 AM  

"I'm not sure where Jared's data on ethics/theology comes from, so I would not put much stock in that."

You are certainly right that I have no data to back this up, that is why it was only suggested. However, I don't think it is an unreasonable inference to suggest that those with a seminary education are more likely to be reading Neihbur, Tillich, Bultman, etc. then those who did not. Those of us who have gone to seminary would have been exposed to these texts, and we who go to seminary go partly because we are interested in exploring them. That is not to say that many local pastors don't do this too.

My point is not to disparage people who don't read current, or historically important, works on ethics and theology. My point is that the general assumption seems to be that the only "authentic" approach to God is expressed in emotional or relational language. It is absolutely valid to describe and approach God in these ways, but I'm tired of being assumed to be "disconnected" if I don't use that language when I talk about my experience of God. I just wish we all could be more respectful of the unique ways in which God interacts with us. Having gone through the candidacy and commissioning process, their is a very real sense that the Conference/Denomination has a strong preference about the "appropriate" way to express ones experience of God.

Anonymous,  January 31, 2010 at 1:19 PM  

Jared, since your first post was about age (over 45 and under), I did not actually read it in terms of the local pastor/ordained elder issue.

I think I hear what you are saying about the expected language to talk about God. I wonder if there are denominational flavors here. For instance, I gather from second-hand reports that Presbyterians are big fans of head spirituality. It may be our Wesleyan DNA favors a certain way of talking about and thinking about God. That could be what you are bumping up against.

I don't know. Just responding to what you wrote.

Jared Littleton January 31, 2010 at 10:32 PM  


Your right, in the day or so between the two comments, I let the two issues merge. You are right that my response doesn't account for the age divide!

Brett February 2, 2010 at 9:59 AM  

Interesting. While I agree self-reported surveys are weak reeds when it comes to gathering data, some of what I read here is what I'd expect to see regarding differences between local pastors and elders, as well as those between bachelor's degree holders and course of study students on the one hand and MDivs or beyond on the other.

Seminary tends to educate us out of expressing ourselves in the terms the survey uses ("sense the presence and power of God," for example), as we consider from analytical angles things that we formerly most often considered from the experiential side. For example, I don't know that what I mean if I say "presence and power of God" is the same thing another respondent might mean, or even if it's the same thing the questioner means. So I don't know if my answer is yes or no without some more discussion. I've analyzed myself into indecision about a statement that to someone else, seems pretty straightforward and easy to accept or reject.

We were taught how to split hairs and even though our post-academic experience and better judgment quickly set about helping us un-learn that rarely useful skill, it doesn't disappear.

Anonymous,  February 2, 2010 at 3:57 PM  

I'm under 45. I've been spending the last couple of hours browsing the internet and catching up on the blogs of my clergy friends, popping in at an online lectionary forum, and writing a blog post about the moral implications of trying to kidnap children in order to save them from starvation. I didn't read the bible or pause for prayer during that time. Yet for me, this was a spiritual and reflective time in which I would say I was in the presence of God in and through that.

My answer about the not reading the bible thing.

I agree with the statement about self-reporting being inaccurate, and also with the observation that ordained clergy and local pastors often have poor regard for one another. Putting that together, I think the study found what it expected to find. But what a cool conversation! See, you've deepened my spiritual reflection for the day!

Carolyn February 7, 2010 at 9:54 PM  

You know, I agree with Becca. I'm 25 and a certified candidate, and I'm about to graduate from seminary. I definitely "sense the presence and power of God," but it's in situations that are not seen as orthodox God-time, like Bible reading. When you study the Bible weekly in sermon prep, sometimes your refreshment needs to come from other places.

I pray best when I'm singing in choir. I'm in three choirs right now, one being my seminary choir and one is a church choir. I know that this is my spiritual practice, so I set aside time for it. I also talk to God a lot when I'm walking from here to there, which is plenty of time when you live in Boston and don't have a car.

I sense God when I buy a cheeseburger for a homeless person and when I thank a harried bus driver. I sense the power of God when I decide to give an awful day one more shot. God's everywhere I am... it's just a matter of awareness.

But would any of the above fit in the survey's check-boxes? I doubt it.

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