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Ministers use in-depth survey by Research Services to share the joys and travails of their calls and lives

Eight-part series on their nearly 5,000 responses begins Sept. 20

by Mark Koenig, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The eight-part series on reports from a survey with responses from nearly 5,000 Presbyterian ministers begins Sept. 20.

LOUISVILLE — What are Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ministers of the Word and Sacrament thinking, feeling, and experiencing in terms of physical, mental, and financial health, satisfaction of call, and more? To answer that question, Research Services conducted the first-ever comprehensive study of ministers.

The study originated with questions. Research Services regularly receives questions from mid council leaders, congregational staff and members, ministers, and others in the PC(USA) about ministers. But often Research Services staff could not respond to those questions because they did not have the data needed for an answer.

To change that, Research Services director Dr. Susan Barnett had her colleagues design a survey for ministers of the Word and Sacrament that would gather the needed information. The survey contained 110 questions.

Despite the 45 minutes needed to complete the survey, nearly 5,000 ministers responded of the 20,000 who were sent postcards.

After the survey had been created, a postcard marked the next step in the process. Postcards were mailed to almost 20,000 ministers of the Word and Sacrament. The cards described the survey and told the recipients how to participate. It contained the warning that “the online survey is lengthy, 45 minutes.” Despite that warning, almost 5,000 ministers — 23% of those who received the postcard — responded.

The surveys were completed prior the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenges and stresses of the pandemic impacted all of life — ministers and ministries included — and may have resulted in different responses in some instances had the survey occurred during the pandemic. The results, nonetheless, provide insights into the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of PC(USA) ministers.

Research Services staff analyzed the data from the responses and wrote a series of eight reports on the results. Stories about those reports will be shared — one story a week for eight weeks each Monday beginning Sept. 20. Each story will contain a link to the report on which it focuses.

The survey results contained surprises. “I was surprised by the financial debt, for education and for other reasons, being carried by ministers, including ministers who were retiring with their own educational debt,” Barnett observed. “Debt may impair the ability to purchase a home and may cause additional challenges.”

The survey invited ministers to share what they would tell their younger selves. Many responses provided encouragement. “The work will be hard, but worth it,” proved a common theme, according to Barnett. “I was glad to see ministers confirm decisions they had made as young adults. Precious!”

Photo by Mark Neal via Unsplash

The results of the survey will have many uses. The information gathered may prove helpful to congregations, ministers, mid councils and the national church. When asked about her hopes for the survey results, Barnett said, “I hope each minister will read the reports and see something of themselves it them and then ask, ‘What can my colleagues and I do to make things better?’ I hope mid councils and national offices ponder the same question and work to address the concerns identified, especially around continuing education and mental health. I hope seminaries will see the need for additional counseling training as a required component of the degrees they offer to equip ministers to be able to recognize their limits and know when it is time to refer professional counselors.”

The survey and reports are completely confidential. No mid council or congregation received a report on their ministers; no minister or church is named. Research Services hopes that these reports help them earn the trust of ministers as there will be future surveys about their lives and work. Surveys of bi-vocational ministers and those who serve congregations but are not ministers of the Word and Sacrament are planned. Information will be available soon about those surveys.

“Research Services had many partners to make this survey a success,” Barnett said. Call to Health, the Board of Pensions’ wellness program, offered points toward the minister’s wellness goal for participation. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation offered a discount for a future purchase for all who completed the survey. Communication staff members from the Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Mission Agency, and Presbyterian Foundation wrote and published stories that included the survey link. Office of the General Assembly Mid Council relations staff regularly promoted the survey in its newsletters. “With these and other partners, we made the survey happen,” Barnett said.

What are PC(USA) ministers of the Word and Sacrament thinking, feeling, and experiencing in terms of physical, mental, and financial health, satisfaction of call, and more? Beginning on Monday, September 20, a weekly story about the results of this survey will help answer that question. The stories, with links to reports, will focus on:

  • Demographics
  • Mental health
  • Finances excluding educational debt
  • Finances — educational debt
  • Wellness
  • Discrimination, opportunity and the struggles of leadership
  • The call to ministry
  • Summary

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