Barna Survey: Pastors’ Confidence in Ministry Calling Has Sharply Declined

By Josh Shepherd
barna pastors pulpit confidence
A new Barna survey finds most pastors feel less confident about their ministry calling than they did when they began to pastor a church. (Photo: Nycholas Benaia / Unsplash / Creative commons)

Only half of U.S. pastors are “very satisfied” in their current vocation and two-thirds feel less confident about their ministry calling than they did when they began to pastor a church. 

That’s according to a newly released survey by Barna Group, a leading research firm that specializes in evangelical and religion trends. “The number of pastors who feel burnt out, lonely or unwell is growing,” the firm stated in research released on Wednesday.

In 2015, 72% of pastors reported being “very satisfied” with their current job. By last fall, only 52% of pastors had the same response—a decline of 20 points.

pastor confidence
Chart: Pastoral Confidence, Then and Now (Source: Barna Group)

The nationally representative Barna survey of 585 Protestant senior pastors has a margin of error of 3.8%. It was conducted September 6 to 16 of last year, as part of their years-long Resilient Pastor initiative. 

“Being a pastor is difficult currently, and there are reasons to be concerned,” said Ron Citlau, senior pastor of Calvary Church in Orland Park, Illinois. “However, this presents an opportunity for pastors to strengthen their relationship with Christ on a more solid foundation than the torrents of crisis facing them.”

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The survey found a significant age gap on pastoral job satisfaction. For pastors under age 45, only 35% reported being “very satisfied” in their vocation, whereas 58% of pastors age 45 and older reported being “very satisfied” to Barna. 

pastoral satisfaction barna
Chart: Pastoral Satisfaction (Source: Barna Group)

Other measures reflect similar declines. In 2015, two-thirds (66%) of pastors said that they were “more confident” in their calling than when they started ministry. The recent results show that proportion has flipped, with only about one-third (35%) reporting “more confidence.” 

Pastors are also increasingly doubting whether they’re suited for the job. Those who reported that they have “significantly doubted” their calling as a minister “at any time” rose from 24% in 2015 to 55% in the recent survey. 

Last year, a related Barna survey stated that 42% of pastors surveyed are considering leaving the ministry—up from 29% a year prior. 

COVID pandemic factors into pastoral challenges

Barna pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as a major factor in the drastic decrease in pastoral satisfaction and security, which comports with initial findings of an ongoing survey. 

Dr. Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research serves as principal investigator for Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations, a multi-year research project. In summer 2021, he and his team surveyed nearly 2,000 clergy members, asking if the previous year had been their hardest year in ministry. 

“Two-thirds (67%) claimed to have thought this at least once or twice, and nearly a third (29%) had this thought fairly or very often,” stated Thumma in an op-ed last year. However, he said that “a third of them actually (reported having) a year harder than 2020.” 

Other studies have revealed the pandemic’s negative impact on church attendance. A study released in January by the American Enterprise Institute utilized data polling 9,425 Americans about their religious identity and worship attendance. 

Ron Citlau Reformed RCA
Ron Citlau

It found that religious attendance has declined since the pandemic. The data indicates that 8% of all Americans haven’t returned to the house of worship they previously attended prior to the COVID pandemic—including 13% of young adults ages 18 to 29.

Illinois pastor Citlau told The Roys Report (TRR) that these challenges provide congregants opportunities to “show intentional love” to often-exhausted lay leaders and ministers.

He suggested supporting them with family therapy when needed, protecting their “emotional well-being from mean people,” and “accepting their humanity” when weaknesses are evident.

“I am praying that this crisis will be the ground of pastoral renewal and churches growing in love,” he added.

Freelance journalist Josh Shepherd writes on faith, culture, and public policy for several media outlets. He and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area with their two children.



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11 thoughts on “Barna Survey: Pastors’ Confidence in Ministry Calling Has Sharply Declined”

  1. As an ex-pastor who left the church world in 2020 due to Covid, I was also ready to leave…I will say this, the Sunday program/production has to change for us as Protestants.

    Do I know the answer to how, no. We all know the Nondenominational lights, Jumbotron, rock band and Ted Talk is doing nothing for spiritual development/growth.

    My journey over the last three years has definitely shown me how small of a faith I have had in the churches I attended and was on staff at.

    Truth, goodness and beauty, whole life discipleship, liturgy, understanding that our bodies aren’t bad because we are made fully in the image of God. I don’t know the answer on how to change the church but these are some major thoughts.

    1. The way we do church has drifted completely away from God and the Bible. Currently Pastors, Revs, Priests are all seen as Kings and gods. This does not come out of the Bible but out of church tradition that creates a false dichotomy in the body of Christ. The Bible calls us all a nation of priests, not one professional, 10% of the congregation that do everything and then 90% that show up and give irregularly and do not do anything nor see themselves as priests and ambassadors to a dying world. The role of the pastor is not well defined in the scriptures, but it appears to be something far more humble than what we see today.

      1. I see this in Pentecostal churches as well, though I do not agree fully with their theology.
        I see pastors trying to relate with their congregation more than teach, they are concerned more with money than truth, compromising their “kindgdom” with entertainment, and building on relationships than the foundation of preaching Christ crucified.
        No one, outside their picked leadership, can speak into their lives and offer advice or a rebuke.
        They have become the sole beneficiary that only God can speak through. I was shut down because I dared “criticize” their church.
        I haven’t returned.

  2. Today the pastor is supposed to be a superman who has the vision and the personality to make everybody happy and everything click. He either is the narcissist abusing the flock, or the slave made to run himself into the ground. He is likely to end up divorced because he has little time or energy for his wife. His kids are PK’s rebelling, doing drugs and getting into a mess of trouble all because he has no time for them either. He is working himself to death trying to do everything instead of what the scriptures clearly call him to do: prepare the whole body for ministry. The only way to fix this is team ministry that takes the power and pressure down 9 notches and places each notch on the 90% who are doing little to nothing.

    The sad thing is I do not think this change could happen even if the country were nuked. People like you do not know what to do. We are stuck with a system that God is not in and did not build. We are deaf, dumb and spiritually blind.

  3. Ralph, I was looking for dialogue. I’m not sure what you meant by the comment, “people like you…”

    I spent 14yrs as a pastor most of them wondering if what I was doing was causing more harm than good? I would spend days banging my head against the wall asking the question, “am I helping spiritually form disciples or just making more consumers?”

    I have always had a love and deep belief that the local church is the hope of the world. Over time that changed to “can be” over the 7yrs that changed well “I pray it can still be” as long as it’s not polarized or Christian-Nationalist.

    I was tired of trying to live up to the persona of perfection to which the congregations I served held my family and me. It’s unachievable, unhealthy, and spiritually impossible.

    Yes, it definitely feels like the Valley of the Dry Bones in regard to some churches. I would agree it feels like the Spirit of the Lord has left many of our US churches. But we have to remember, the church doesn’t only exist in the US and we can learn many of things from the Church abroad.

    1. I appreciate your transparency and quest for truth. I’ve read through the NT while asking God to reveal to me what the modern day church should look like and I’m still not sure I have a clear answer… And I’ve been in full-time ministry for 27 years.

  4. Rabindranath E Ramcharan

    Well, no wonder. They look around and they see pastors losing their jobs over behavior that would have passed unnoticed or settled quietly when they were coming up. It’s become harder for people (in ministry or in the upper crust of the congregations) to get away with adultery, sexual abuse, financial shennanigannery, and general malfeasance than it used to be, and I suspect a lot of people are looking in the mirror and wondering how close they are to the line.
    In a perfect world, this would have the effect of moving some of the marginal actors into lines of work for which they are better suited. We’ll have to wait and see how it shakes out.

  5. Correlation isn’t causation, but this timeline IS correlated with the trump/maga/christian nationalist takeover of many evangelical spaces. I have seen many pastors struggle with how to address it without losing their paycheck, and many who addressed it and lost their paycheck.

    1. “but this timeline IS correlated with the trump/maga/christian nationalist takeover of many evangelical spaces. I have seen many pastors struggle with how to address it without losing their paycheck, and many who addressed it and lost their paycheck.”

      Were these new church leaders (after the election) or the same ones that had been in place for years, that took over many evangelical spaces? Or are you saying the congregations took over the churches?

      How did pastors struggle with how to address this issue? Did they use scripture?

      Were they kicked out by the elders for addressing it, or the congregations?

  6. It is sad to see what has happened to the U.S. evangelical movement over the past 10 years.

    So it is not surprising this would affect Pastors and their ministry.

    Also with all the political divisions, Covid-19 pandemic issues and conspiracy theories over the past 6 to 7 years it has only further damaged the evangelical witness in the U.S. For me personally, I talk to few evangelicals any more, and when I do, I really only discuss the Gospel nothing else……

    I know here was mention of liturgy in evangelical churches. Below is my observation of a typical service:

    – People Gabbing
    – Worship with rock band and smoke machines
    – Welcome
    – Short Prayer
    – 19 minute TED talk
    – Closing Prayer
    – Benediction

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