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Ellison Research study shows pastors’ views of denominations

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Just how “denominational” are denominational churches in the United States? A new survey shows that most Protestant pastors are committed to their denomination. But they also are frustrated at the lack of agreement within their denomination as well as the lack of interdenominational cooperation.

Results from the study have been released in Facts & Trends, published by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. The research, in the magazine’s January/February issue, was conducted by Ellison Research of Phoenix among a nationally representative sample of 567 ministers from all Protestant denominations. Baptists were included in the survey’s “Protestant denomination” designation.

The independently funded study asked pastors from denominational churches to agree or disagree with a number of statements about denominations.

Fifty-eight percent of all ministers agreed strongly with the statement, “You feel committed to your denomination.” Another 33 percent agreed somewhat with the statement, while 8 percent disagreed (7 percent somewhat and 1 percent strongly). Ministers 60 or older, as well as those from Pentecostal/charismatic denominations, were particularly likely to be committed to their denominations.

While many pastors are committed to their denomination, there was no overwhelming feeling that “Your denomination is an important part of the identity of your church.” Just 38 percent agreed strongly with the statement, although another 45 percent agreed somewhat.

Lutherans and Pentecostal/charismatic ministers were particularly likely to feel that their denomination is an important part of their church’s identity, while Methodists were less likely than average to feel this way. Older pastors were more than twice as likely to agree strongly with the statement than were young ministers (55 percent among those 60 or older, 36 percent among those 45 to 59, and 26 percent among those under 45).

On the recent trend among some churches to omit a denominational reference in the church’s name (e.g. “Medford Community Church” rather than “Medford Baptist Church”), such a practice remains relatively uncommon among denominational churches. Just 11 percent of churches associated with a denomination did not reference the denomination in their name.

Although more than nine of 10 pastors felt at least somewhat committed to their current denomination, that didn’t stop some from saying they might consider leading a church in another denomination. Fifty-nine percent agreed with the statement, “Your current denomination is the only one you would considering pastoring in” (31 percent agreed strongly, 28 percent agreed somewhat), but 41 percent disagreed with the statement (30 percent somewhat, 11 percent strongly). Interestingly, although Lutherans were no more likely than other ministers to feel committed to their denomination, they were much more likely than others to say their current denomination is the only one in which they would consider serving.

Fifty-three percent of all ministers agreed with the statement, “There are too many differences of opinion among churches in your denomination.” While only 10 percent agreed strongly with the statement, 43 percent agreed somewhat.

This was particularly evident in mainline Protestant churches with membership in the National Council of Churches (Presbyterian Church U.S.A., Episcopal, United Methodist, etc.). Among NCC-member churches, 63 percent agreed that their denomination suffers from too many differences of opinion. Members of churches affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals were considerably less likely to complain about internal differences (34 percent). Baptists also were likely to feel that there are too many internal differences (62 percent). Pentecostal/charismatic denominations were least likely to register this concern from their pastors (39 percent).

A significant proportion of ministers struggled with at least some feelings that their denomination is headed in the wrong direction. One-third agreed with the statement, “In many ways, your denomination is moving in the wrong direction,” although only 6 percent agreed strongly. Methodists were particularly concerned (54 percent agreed with the statement), while Pentecostal/charismatic pastors were among the least likely to register a concern.

A significant percentage also said they don’t always feel as if they fit in their denomination. Four out of 10 agreed that “You sometimes feel like an outsider in your own denomination.” Ten percent agreed strongly and another 30 percent agreed somewhat. This was especially an issue among mainline churches in the NCC (51 percent agreed); even more particularly among Methodists (58 percent agreed).

Regardless of how pastors felt about their own denomination, the vast majority felt there should be more interdenominational cooperation, both at the denominational level and among individual churches. Eighty-six percent of all Protestant pastors agreed with the statement, “There should be more cooperation among different Protestant denominations.” Forty percent agreed strongly and another 46 percent agreed somewhat. A majority in most denominations agreed with the statement, but some were more vocal than others. The strongest agreement came from Methodists and other members of the National Council of Churches, while Baptists were among those less likely to feel strongly about interdenominational cooperation. Among Baptists, 30 percent agreed strongly and another 49 percent agreed somewhat.

Even stronger was the feeling that “There should be more cooperation among individual churches of different Protestant denominations.” Forty-seven percent agreed strongly and another 42 percent agreed somewhat. Again, churches from mainline denominations were most likely to agree strongly. While most Baptist ministers agreed, only 35 percent agreed strongly, which was lower than average.

Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, noted that it’s not surprising that mainline churches are the ones most likely to call for ecumenism and complain that there are too many differences within their own denomination.

“Mainline denominations are being split apart by severe differences between liberal and conservative elements on major issues such as abortion, homosexuality, syncretism and the primacy of Scripture,” Sellers said. “Many pastors in these denominations find they have more in common with likeminded conservatives or liberals from other denominations rather than with pastors holding opposing viewpoints within their own denomination.”

Sellers also pointed out that pastors are the ones who must make inter-church cooperation work. “The vast majority of ministers wanted more cooperation among churches of different denominations, but that level of cooperation will not happen just by hoping or desiring. The pastors themselves will have to make this happen. Maybe knowing that there’s a strong chance other ministers in their community also want more inter-church cooperation will encourage that cooperation to take place.”

The sample of 567 Protestant ministers included only those who are actively leading churches. The study’s total sample, according to Ellison Research, is “accurate to within plus or minus 4.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level with a 50 percent response distribution.”

The study was conducted in all 50 states, using a representative sample of pastors from all Protestant denominations. Ellison Research described the respondents’ geography, church size and denomination as having been carefully tracked to ensure appropriate representation and accuracy.
Facts & Trends is on the Web at www.lifeway.com/factsandtrends. More complete data on the Ellison Research survey can be accessed at http://www.greymatterresearch.com/index_files/Denominations.htm.

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