Pastors on the whole find their jobs deeply satisfying—even though they report difficulty reaching people with the gospel and disappointment with their overall effectiveness.
This perplexing paradox comes from preliminary findings of the most comprehensive survey of American clergy to date. Researchers at Duke Divinity School and the University of Chicago explored how satisfied a cross-section of pastors seems to be with everything from their housing to their health. Preliminary results came out earlier this year.
Though analysis is far from complete, American pastors across denominations appear at first blush to be much more satisfied than other studies and anecdotal evidence have suggested in recent years. What's more, the issue of how they can be satisfied without feeling effective is shedding light on new understandings of what constitutes good ministry.
"How are you effective in a ministry of presence?" asked the Rev. Becky McMillan, associate director of the study, "Pulpit & Pew: Research on Pastoral Leadership." "Were you effective today if you were at a hospital with someone dying? ... It's a frustrating job at times. It's frustrating to not be able to shape culture. But it is the only place where you can participate in the most sacred moments of people's lives."
'Soul satisfaction' With a portion of a $4 million, four-year grant from the Lilly Endowment to study what makes for good ministry, Duke set out to measure "soul satisfaction" in a field that offers few fringe benefits. Interviews with 883 pastors produced a general picture:
62 percent have never doubted in the past five years that God had called them to ministry;
84 percent said what most sustains their commitment is a feeling that their gifts for ministry are right for the congregation they are serving;
74 percent are very satisfied with their housing and current position;
51 percent are very satisfied with salary and benefits; 41 percent are somewhat satisfied with the same;
Only 36 percent are very satisfied with their overall effectiveness;
Only 42 percent are very satisfied with their spiritual life;
76 percent are either overweight or obese.
Since the survey covered more than 80 denominations, it might not accurately reflect realities in the UCC, according to Ministerial Formation Coordinator the Rev. Lynn Bujnak. Some pastors do ministry with enthusiasm, she said, but others suffer from burnout or disillusionment, such as when a recent seminary graduate's passion for justice work is not shared by a local congregation.
"I'm not convinced that if we were to poll our clergy that we'd get the same rosy picture that the Duke study shows," Bujnak said. But satisfaction in the ranks of leadership warrants further study, she said, because "those who are unsatisfied won't lead well."
More important than satisfaction quotients are measures of effectiveness in ministry, according to UCC Minister for Research and Evaluation Kirk Hadaway, especially since survey results suggest there may be some problems there.
"It's a positive picture overall, but there are some red flags," Hadaway said. "I think it's somewhat disturbing that a lot of ministers are questioning how effective they are."
Accounting somewhat for the high satisfaction rates across denominations, McMillan said, would be the understanding that truly unsatisfied pastors have already left the profession and therefore would not be counted among respondents. Also, the fact that clergy tend to complain when they get together and to bemoan their ineffectiveness means they resemble the rank and file in other fields, according to Ian Evison, Director of Research and Resource Development for the Alban Institute, a Christian think tank.
"Griping and satisfaction go hand in hand," Evison said. "If you asked any group of griping workers if they'd rather do something else, they'd say, 'Oh, no. We're just griping' ... People start out with the idea of the uniqueness of ministers and ministry, but I presume ministers are like everybody else until we have reason to think otherwise."
Yet ministry may be unique among vocations insofar as its practitioners cannot "check off successes" because results are often immeasurable and pastors can seldom take credit, according to the Rev. James Dittes, a UCC pastor who recently retired from 47 years of teaching pastoral counseling at Yale Divinity School. This means those who find satisfaction in ministry will not be those with a desire to change the world.
"The minister has to be content with not knowing if it's been successful or not," Dittes said. Ministry "is for those able to renounce their worldly career ambitions [and to accept that] the minister is not a player."
Portrayals of ministry as a vocation with few tangible results might explain why young idealistic graduates are not attracted to the field, McMillan said. The median age at the time of ordination is 37 for those who have been in ministry fewer than 10 years. For those in ministry more than 31 years, the median age at time of ordination is 25.