By Aaron Earls
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Pastors often deal with churchgoers with strong opinions, but they’re much more concerned about the people in their congregations who don’t seem to care much at all.
In the final release from Lifeway Research’s 2022 Greatest Needs of Pastors study, most pastors say the primary people dynamic challenge they face in their churches is people’s apathy or lack of commitment.
“Many people can be a member of a church, but not participate in the work of the church,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “Pastors see the potential of mobilizing everyone in the church to minister to others in the church and in their community.”
People dynamic challenges
For the 2022 Greatest Needs of Pastors study, Lifeway Research interviewed 200 U.S. Protestant pastors who identified 44 issues related to their role and then surveyed 1,000 additional pastors to determine which of these needs was most prominent among pastors. The nearly four dozen needs were divided into seven categories: ministry difficulties, spiritual needs, skill development, self-care, personal life, mental health and people dynamics.
Among these categories, 22% of pastors say people dynamics in their congregations are the most challenging or require the most attention today. Skill development (23%) is the only category more pastors identify as their area of greatest need.
Six of the 44 total needs are classified as people dynamics, but pastors say apathy is by far the most pressing issue in this category. Three in 4 U.S. Protestant pastors (75%) say apathy or lack of commitment is a people dynamic they find challenging in their congregations. Among all 44 issues pastors identified, developing leaders and volunteers and fostering connections with unchurched people are the only issues more pastors say they recognize as a need.
Close to half of pastors say they find it challenging in their ministries to deal with people’s strong opinions about non-essentials (48%), resistance to change in the church (46%) and people’s political views (44%). Around a third point to people’s unrealistic expectations of the pastor (35%) and caring too much about people’s approval or criticism (32%). Fewer than 1 in 10 (8%) say none of these are challenging for them as a pastor.
“Congregations are filled with many opinions,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “It is not easy to bring a congregation’s focus to a few things to do together that matter. People’s obsession with non-essentials, politics and a dislike for change all hamper a pastor’s ability to provide leadership.”
Young pastors, those 18-44, are frequently among the most likely to say they face challenging people dynamics at their church, including people’s strong opinions about non-essentials (60%), people’s political views (55%), resistance to change (52%), people’s unrealistic expectations of the pastor (46%) and caring too much about people’s approval or criticism (45%).
White pastors are among those most likely to say they deal with strong opinions about non-essentials (50%), challenging political views (47%) and caring too much about people’s approval or criticism (33%).
Pastors in different denominational families are likely to struggle with different people dynamics in their congregations. Baptist (79%), non-denominational (78%) and Pentecostal pastors (77%) are among the most likely to say they find people’s apathy challenging, while Lutheran (40%) and Methodist pastors (38%) are among the most likely to point to caring too much about people’s approval or criticism as a ministry challenge.
In facing strong opinions about non-essentials, Lutherans (58%) and Baptists (50%) are among the most likely to say they deal with this. Lutherans (54%), Presbyterian/Reformed (51%), pastors in the Restorationist movement (51%) and Methodists (48%) are more likely than Baptists (35%) or Pentecostals (34%) to say they find people’s political views to be a challenge in their congregations. Methodists (53%) and Presbyterian/Reformed (50%) are among the most likely to say they see resistance to change in the church as a challenging people dynamic.
Most challenging people dynamic
When asked to narrow down all the people dynamics they identified as an issue, close to half of U.S. Protestant pastors (47%) say people’s apathy or lack of commitment is the one they find most challenging.
Around 1 in 9 pastors say the most pressing people dynamic for them is people’s political views (13%) or resistance to change in the church (12%). Fewer than 1 in 10 pastors point to people’s strong opinions about non-essentials (8%), caring too much about approval or criticism (6%) or unrealistic expectations of the pastor (6%). Another 9% say none of these are their most challenging people dynamic or they’re not sure.
“The typical church is not overrun by politics or stuck in the past, but many are,” said McConnell. “A Christ-honoring church keeps its focus on the spiritual mission of bringing people in their community the good news of what Jesus Christ has done for them. When this focus shifts to personal agendas, pastors are burdened to shift it back to the gospel.”
Evangelical pastors (51%) are more likely than mainline pastors (42%) to say their primary people dynamic challenge is people’s apathy. Similarly, pastors 65 and older (51%) are more likely than pastors 18-44 years old (42%) to say apathy is their greatest issue in this area.
At least half of Pentecostal (55%), Baptist (52%) and non-denominational pastors (52%) identify apathy as their top people dynamic concern.
The more the education, the less likely a pastor is to say their greatest people dynamic challenge is people’s lack of commitment: pastors with no college degree (58%), Bachelor’s degree (52%), Master’s degree (43%), and doctoral degree (39%).
African American pastors (22%) are the most likely to say their primary challenge with people dynamics is resistance to change in the church. Pastors at churches with fewer than 50 in attendance (15%) are more likely than pastors at churches with 250 or more (7%) to say resistance to change is their top concern in this area.
Pastors of larger churches (11%) are, however, among the most likely to say caring too much about people’s approval or criticism tops their people dynamic issues.
Pastors in the West (20%) are more likely than those in the Northeast (12%) or South (10%) to say people’s political views create their most challenging people dynamic.
“These challenging people dynamics all affect the unity within a local church,” said McConnell. “Unity matters greatly to Christ as seen in his prayer for his followers in John 17. Many things can disrupt that unity and one of the most common is not outright disagreement but silently abstaining from what the church is doing together.”
Aaron Earls is a writer for Lifeway Christian Resources.
The phone survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors was conducted March 30 – April 22, 2021. The calling list was a stratified random sample, drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Quotas were used for church size. Each survey was completed by the senior or sole pastor or a minister at the church. Responses were weighted by region and church size to reflect the population more accurately. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.1%. This margin of error accounts for the effect of weighting. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
About Lifeway Research
Lifeway Research is a Nashville-based, evangelical research firm that specializes in surveys about faith in culture and matters that affect churches.
About Lifeway Christian Resources
In operation since 1891, Lifeway Christian Resources is one of the leading providers of Christian resources, including Bibles, books, Bible studies, Christian music and movies, Vacation Bible School, and church supplies, as well as camps and events for all ages. Lifeway is the world’s largest provider of Spanish Bibles. Based in Nashville, Tennessee, Lifeway operates as a self-supporting nonprofit. For more information, visit Lifeway.com.