The results of a study just released by Ellison Research of Phoenix, Arizona, explored how the personal convictions of Protestant ministers match up with the official political and theological positions of their denomination. A nationally representative sample of 475 churches with a denominational connection provided input to the study. The study included every Protestant denomination in proportion to the number of churches it has nationally (even churches in very small denominations were sampled in the research).
The research demonstrated that about four out of every ten senior pastors in Protestant churches have some significant differences with the political and/or theological positions taken by their denomination. Pastors who differ with their denomination theologically tend to be split almost evenly between those who feel the denomination is too liberal and those who believe it is too conservative. Politically it is more common for ministers to complain that their denomination is too liberal.
When asked to compare the official theological positions of their denomination with their own theology, 59% of all ministers say the two are “pretty much in line.”
Those who do not feel their theology matches up with the official positions of their denomination are divided over whether the denomination is too conservative or too liberal. Sixteen percent say their denomination is a little more liberal theologically than they are, and 7% call it much more liberal. Conversely, 16% say their denomination is a little too conservative, and 3% say it is much more conservative than they are.
Interestingly, while mainline denominations tend to be more theologically liberal and evangelical denominations tend to be more theologically conservative, how pastors from each group perceive the denominations they’re in does not differ much between the two groups. Among self-described evangelicals, 17% consider their denomination to be too theologically conservative, and 24% say it is too liberal. Among mainline ministers, 20% say their denomination is too conservative, and 28% feel it is too liberal.
Because the denominational world is so fragmented, it is not possible to analyze how ministers from every individual denomination answered these questions. A denomination with 5,000 churches nationwide represents a tiny fragment of all Protestant churches, and therefore also represents just a few respondents in this study.
However, four major denominational groups did have enough individual respondents in this study to be able to evaluate them separately: Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, and Methodists. (Again, note that other groups such as Presbyterians, Nazarenes, and Episcopalians are included in the study, but the sample sizes for these groups are not large enough to allow them to be viewed separately.) Also note that each of these four groups contains numerous individual denominations (“Baptist” includes American Baptist, National Baptist, Southern Baptist, Free Will Baptist, and all other Baptist groups, for instance).
Of these four denominational groups, Methodist ministers are the ones least likely to think along the same lines as their denomination. Just 33% feel their own theological positions are pretty much in line with the official positions of their denomination. Twenty-five percent say they are more theologically liberal than their denomination, while 42% say they are more theologically conservative.
Two-thirds of Lutherans find themselves on the same line of theological thought as their denomination, while 17% believe their denomination is too conservative, and 17% find it too liberal. Among Baptists, 59% are pretty much in agreement with their denomination’s theological positions; 26% feel their denomination is too conservative, and 15% believe it is too liberal.
Pentecostal and charismatic ministers are the ones most likely to see things the same way their own denomination does; 82% say their theology is pretty much in line with their denomination’s. Fourteen percent feel their denomination is too conservative, and 4% say it is too theologically liberal.
When the subject changes from theology to politics, pastors tend to shift a bit to the right. Overall, 58% say their own political beliefs are “pretty much in line” with the official political positions of their denomination. However, while 16% say their denomination is more conservative politically than they are, 27% consider their denomination more liberal than they are.
This is true among both evangelical and mainline churches. Mainline Protestant pastors, particularly, don’t see eye to eye with the official political positions of their denominations. Among mainline ministers, 45% say their own political positions and their denomination’s positions are similar, while 18% consider their denomination too politically conservative, and 36% believe it is too liberal. Among evangelicals, 60% have political beliefs that match their denomination’s official position, while 13% see their denomination as too conservative, and 26% believe their denomination is too liberal politically.
Pastors who are politically conservative are especially likely to agree with their denomination’s views. Among ministers who identify themselves as political conservatives, 69% believe their denomination’s political positions are right where they should be (9% say the denomination is too conservative, and 22% consider it too liberal). Among politically liberal ministers, 14% think their denomination is even more liberal than they are, while 37% feel it is too conservative, and 50% feel it mostly holds the correct positions. Among political moderates, 46% agree with their denomination’s politics, while 12% consider them too conservative, and 42% believe their denomination is too liberal politically.
Again, the perspectives of ministers from four major denominational groups can be examined individually. Many Methodist ministers feel their denomination takes political positions that are too liberal. Just 29% of Methodists feel their own political beliefs match those of their denomination, while 20% report their denomination is too conservative, and 51% say it is too liberal.
Fifty-seven percent of Lutherans are on the same political track as their denomination, while 14% feel the denomination is more conservative than they are, and 29% believe it is more liberal. Among Baptists, 66% feel their political positions match those of their denomination, while 22% feel the denomination is too conservative, and 11% say their denomination is too liberal. Once again, it is the Pentecostal and charismatic ministers who are most likely to be in line with their denomination’s positions (82%); 11% feel their denomination is too conservative, and 7% call their denomination too liberal politically.
Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research and director of this study, noted that theologically, it would be hard for denominations as a whole to fit their member ministers better. “Theologically, about as many pastors feel their denomination is too conservative as feel it is too liberal. With almost an equal proportion coming down on each side of the fence, any shift by denominations could create an imbalance. And while we can’t say that every denomination is a good theological match with the ministers serving in that denomination, when viewed in the big picture, it’s hard to see where a change could improve things. It would seem to be more up to individual ministers to consider whether they are a good fit in their current denomination if they strongly differ from the denomination’s theological positions.”
However, Sellers also pointed out that politically, it is more common for ministers to complain about liberalism than about denominations being too conservative. “Denominational leaders need to understand when they espouse a position on something political that pastors serving in their denomination may not view things the same way. And since pastors are often respected opinion leaders in local congregations, this means the laity also may not agree with that position. And it can be hard to maintain an official position if popular support for that position is lacking.”
Study Details: The study was conducted by Ellison Research, a marketing research company located in Phoenix, Arizona. Although Ellison Research has numerous clients, this study was funded and conducted independently by the company. The sample of 567 Protestant ministers included only those who are actively leading churches. Within that sample were 475 churches that are connected with a denomination; only those churches were asked the questions covered in this release. The study’s total sample is accurate to within ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level with a 50% response distribution.
The study was conducted in all 50 states, using a representative sample of pastors from all Protestant denominations. (Only certain denominational groups are discussed individually in this news release because others did not have a large enough sample size to be examined separately, although they are represented within the total sample in correct proportion to their size.) Note that even among the four denominational groups analyzed separately in this study, sample sizes are small, which means an increased potential sampling error within each group (the study included 139 Baptists, 73 Methodists, 61 Lutherans, and 62 Pentecostal/charismatic churches). Respondents’ geography, church size, and denomination were carefully tracked to ensure appropriate representation and accuracy.
Source: Ellison Research, Phoenix, Arizona
Since the publication of this article, Ellison Research has changed its name and has become Grey Matter Research, www.greymatterresearch.com