A new Gallup Survey published in December shows that our country’s opinion of clergy has fallen to a record low. Specifically, on a list of widely-held professions, Americans—including those who identify as Christian as well as those who do not—rate clergy as number eight in terms of “honesty and ethical standards.”
According to the survey, a mere 37 percent of Americans believe clergy in this country are trustworthy.
While this may not come as a big surprise—especially considering this survey has been done yearly for the past 40 years and clergy has been on a steady downard trajectory for much of the past decade—it should come as a deep disappointment and a wake-up call to those who love God and endeavor to lead the church.
Church leaders in this country have a trust problem, and it’s time for that to change.
Who ranked higher?
According to the Gallup Survey, seven professions rank higher than clergy for their honesty and ethical standards. In order, those fields include the following:
2. Medical doctors
4. High school teachers
5. Police officers
7. Funeral directors
The good news?—Clergy isn’t the least trusted profession of the twenty professions that were ranked. At the bottom of the list with just 8 percent trust of the American people is Members of Congress. But it’s still premature to celebrate in this regard. Clergy—more than anyone on the list—has an obligation to God to be trustworthy.
Who’s to blame?
With regard to the yearly Gallup Survey, positive scores for the honesty and ethics of clergy first began to drop in 2002 at the height of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. When the scandal quieted, ratings moderately improved, but then they fell again in 2009 and have continued to do so ever since.
While it’s easy to point the finger of blame at the Catholic Church—known for its seemingly endless conveyor belt of clergy abuse cases—it should be noted that Protestants have experienced their own share of wrongdoing and unethical behavior, especially in recent years.
Numerous allegations against Bill Hybels, for instance, led him to take an early retirement as the lead pastor of the well-known Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. The investigation into these allegations is ongoing. And many other pastors—though having lesser-known names or ministries—have had to step down for similar reasons.
Abuse—sexual or otherwise—is not just a problem in the Catholic Church.
What contributes to the distrust?
Mistrust in church leadership is not new. Some common reasons people distrust pastors and church leadership in general include the following:
- Church leadership has lied about something.
- Church leadership is hypocritical—preaching/teaching one thing but living inconsistently with it.
- Church leadership doesn’t commit long-term to a church.
- Church leadership mishandles money.
While there are certainly immoral or unethical pastors, much or most of the distrust in church leadership happens in more subtle ways.
What can be done to improve?
Those who desire to be overseers of a ministry must carefully examine the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:
“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (3:1).
The chapter outlines the following qualifications, saying a pastor must be—
- above reproach
- the husband of one wife
- able to teach
- not a drunkard
- not violent, but gentle
- not quarrelsome
- not a lover of money
- able to manage his own household well
- a seasoned believer
Perhaps most ironically in this list is the qualification at the end. “Moreoever, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (3:7).
Yet 37 percent of Americans believe clergy in this country are trustworthy.
1. Clergy must understand from the outset that trust is earned; it is not an immediate benefit of the job. Trust is built over years. Pastoral tenure in a single church ministry continues to decline. The average tenure in a church is less than three years. Why should people trust a revolving door of church leadership?
2. Clergy must also understand that the only way to lead correctly is to do it God’s way. Charisma, eloquence, and interpersonal savvy are all bonuses, but they certainly aren’t pre-requisites.
In the words of James 3:1, “Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly.”