Project SDA clergy: part 2

The continuation of the research report of sda clergy

Jack Bynum, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University.
Douglas Clark, Ph.D., is dean of the school of theology at Walla Walla College.
George Hilton, Ph.D., is a professor of mathematics and director of institutional research at Pacific Union College.

In the first part of this research report (Ministry, April 1993) we presented findings regarding the demographic backgrounds of our Adventist senior ministerial students and their first occupational assignments immediately after college graduation. A number of significant patterns were identified, along with some interesting comparisons between the responses of our subjects and two non-ministerial student control groups (one from Adventist colleges and one from a state university).

In this concluding report on Project Seventh-day Adventist Clergy, we summarize and analyze additional response patterns from the 82 ministerial seniors whom we surveyed.

Issues and Answers

Among the most important items on the 127-question instrument was a lengthy set of Likert scales designed to measure the attitudes and positions of our respondents on a variety of issues. Some of these scales and findings are reported in Table 4 on the next page:

Discussion of Table 4

The 27 value- and issue-related statements in Table 4 were extrapolated from the 1987 survey of senior ministerial students. Response categories form a continuum of "agree, uncertain, and disagree" and appear as the three right-hand columns of Table 4.

In reading Table 4, one should also note that the 27 attitude scales are conveniently grouped into six subdivisions in order to facilitate discussion. How ever, these categories are not distinct or mutually exclusive, and other reason able combinations of survey items are possible. In fact, other combinations and correlations are being explored in the ongoing study, together with a large amount of data not reflected in this re port. A brief commentary on Table 4 findings follows.

Group 1 survey items: Literal or symbolic interpretation of Bible. In response to the first item in group 1, our student/ subjects almost unanimously agreed that biblical accounts of miracles are liter ally true. This finding underscores their confidence in the Scriptures and a generalized belief in a God deeply concerned with and involved in the affairs of people. Item 2 elicited an almost identical pattern of response regarding the reality of heaven and hell. On both group 1 items the subjects take the traditional and conservative Christian position.

Group 2 survey items: Contemporary social issues. The same kind of conservative consensus was reached on item 3.

Overwhelmingly, the subjects rejected the proposition that "the use of marijuana should be legalized." However, there was less agreement about the other social issues pinpointed in group 2. While a clear majority of the respondents (65 percent) take a pro-life, antiabortion stance on item 4, a substantial minority (24 percent) are pro-choice, with an other 11 percent uncertain. The modest disagreement among the subjects regarding the legality of abortion and homosexual behavior probably reflects the much greater divisiveness of these is sues in the secular world.

Disagreement is more apparent on item 6. While a small majority of the subjects (58 percent) still subscribe to the traditional homogamy norm that people "should marry within their own racial group," a significant 29 percent disagree and an additional 13 percent are having second thoughts. And, in fact, interracial dating and marriage are more common in the United States today (and probably within the church as well).

Group 3 survey items: Issues in the church. The seven propositions enumerated in this section resulted in more surprising disagreements and departures from long-established Adventist policies and practices. Sizable minorities (and even majorities in some instances) disagree with statements that were almost "institutionalized absolutes" in earlier generations of Adventists. For example, 54 percent of the respondents were less than convinced that "a Christian should not take up military arms to defend his country" (item 7). Nearly all (92 percent) agree that "there are some circumstances in which 'clean' meat may be eaten" (item 8). Item 12 reveals that the subjects are much less willing to ingest tea or coffee, with 72 percent perceiving these products as harmful. On the other hand, the group of ministerial students is largely ready to break with tradition on the ordination of women, with 63 percent favoring ordination of qualified candidates and an other 20 percent indecisive. This liberal position on ordination is supported by similar findings on the acceptable role(s) for married women. Sixty-two percent seem amenable to careers and occupations for women outside the narrow con fines of spouse, homemaker, and motherhood (see table 4, items 9 and 10).

A more diversified response pattern emerged for item 12 concerning the participation of Adventist colleges in athletic competition with other schools. Although 41 percent of the subjects conservatively rejected such a notion, an other 31 percent were in agreement, and the remaining 28 percent were uncertain. There is some reason to believe that ministerial groups such as this one are typically more conservative than the general church population, and a similar survey of laypersons might produce even more liberal views on this and other variables under study.

The last proposition in this series, item 13, generated a strong and interesting finding. Some 88 percent of the respondents agreed that "the church organization could be improved." While the authors will leave the definitive interpretation of this finding to church leadership, in our judgment it represents dissatisfaction with administrative structure and/or process and not disloyalty or theological differences. It probably also reflects an openness to new ideas and perhaps innovation in church organization.

Group 4 survey items: Professional clergy. A profession is an occupational calling that usually requires specialized knowledge and intensive academic training. A professional is one who engages in such a role for appropriate remuneration, in contrast to an amateur practitioner. Moreover, the professional must conform to certain technical or ethical standards and probably holds member ship in societies of colleagues who share the vocation.

Several survey questions probed for insights into the professionalization of Seventh-day Adventist clergy. For ex ample, item 14 of Table 4 found that 66 percent of the graduating ministerial students disagreed with the proposition that "a minister should preach without expecting to get paid for it." An additional 10 percent were uncertain. In other words, the majority believe that "the labourer is worthy of his hire" (Luke 10:7). This should not be interpreted as a loss of altruism, because item 15 shows that nearly the same large percentage (65 percent) believed that Adventist ministers are paid a fair salary. At the same time, item 16 apparently confirms a deep division among the respondents regarding the primacy of being called versus being trained for the ministry, with "the call" leading by a small majority (56 percent).

Finally, a definite indicator of professionalism is found in the responses to item 17, in which an overwhelming 88 percent endorsed the suggestion that Adventist ministers should join local ministerial associations.

Group 5 survey items: Attitudes to ward the organized religious institution. Specifically, this group of questionnaire scales focused on attitudes and opinions regarding church authority and doctrines. In general, the response pattern was more liberal than anticipated. A majority of the subjects demonstrated flexibility and independence when addressing the propositions listed as items 18, 19, and 20. Only 23 percent agreed wholeheartedly that "church membership should be contingent upon acquiescence to all church regulations." Sixty-three per cent disagreed and 14 percent were uncertain about such a proposition. In harmony with this position, 77 percent of these senior ministerial students agreed that "church doctrine is subject to future modification" (item 19). Additional evidence of the autonomous thinking of this group was the 81 percent who registered reservations about investing total trust and reliance in acknowledged leaders (item 20).

A reaffirmation of their conservative belief in the Bible (as previously indicated) and application of moral codes to everyday life was manifested in the almost unanimous condemnation (91 per cent) of "sexual relations before marriage" (item 21).

Group 6 survey items: Christianity as primary personal experience or secondary relationship with the church. The survey items grouped together in this subcategory were collectively designed to assess each subject's perception of spiritual needs and the quality of interaction with the church in meeting those needs.

Some individuals seek a more personal and spontaneous encounter with God and see this as more likely and more satisfying in smaller, less structured religious groups and meetings whose primary interaction is sometimes thought to be more characteristic of former times in the church. Other persons are more attracted to formal worship services and are spiritually edified and uplifted by highly trained clergy and musicians in a religious milieu featuring secondary relationships and less personal involvement. Our 82 senior ministerial students gave mixed and often uncertain responses to the survey questions in this area. (See items 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, and 27.)

Fifty-one percent disagreed with the statement that "a person should feel his/ her religion before joining a church." The remaining 49 percent agreed or were uncertain regarding the efficacy of the personal, emotional, religious experience as a prerequisite for church membership (item 22). This lack of consensus is partially neutralized by the responses to item 27. Seventy-one percent rejected an emphasis on religious education over against conversion of new members. Regarding the content of sermons and worship services, a small majority agreed that Bible-based topics and "the old-time religion" are prefer able. But sizable minorities disagreed (items 23 and 26).

Church music—as a vehicle for participation in religious services and spiritual fulfillment—also came under scrutiny. However, responses to item 24 ("In church, I would rather sing hymns than hear the choir sing") and item 25 ("I like to sing the old gospel songs rather than the new hymns") were spread inconclusively between "agree," "uncertain," and "disagree." Although the data may suggest a trend favoring modern, formal, and structured musical expression in our church services, the lack of comparative data from earlier ministerial groups studied limits the validity of such a conclusion.

The church-sect continuum

It is appropriate and perhaps important at this point for the authors to ob serve that we have no vested theological or political interest or objective in this research project. We see our task as objectively reporting the data and trends that may indicate significant and helpful findings for the church and its ministry. Concomitant data interpretations have been modest. Now, as we approach the conclusion of Project Seventh-day Adventist Clergy, Parts 1 and 2, it may be useful to review briefly a sociological construct that has been applied to social change and dynamics in numerous religious organizations, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 1

A hasty and superficial perusal of Table 4 might suggest that the polarization of subjects on some survey items is a simple manifestation of the old "conservative versus liberal controversy" in the church. Such a dichotomous and stereotypical conclusion is an oversimplification of complex social variables and human behaviors. One confounding factor is that the same subjects are often inconsistent in their responses to typical "liberal" versus "conservative" positions on certain survey scales. This appearance of vacillation or fluctuation in subject responses, depending on the issue, may indicate that a process of change is underway. Major attitudinal changes occur unevenly. It takes time before a person achieves a consistent pattern of responses and positions on all related issues.2

A more specifically sociological interpretation of Table 4 findings indicates that we are seeing some evidence of an inexorable and classic march along the church-sect continuum. Ernst Troeltsch3 argued that the history of Christianity can be perceived as a cycle of compromise with the secular world and regeneration of fresh opposition to that spirit of accommodation.

Troeltsch, Max Weber, and others sought a theoretical resolution to this paradox by suggesting that religious bodies manifest sequential and alternating church and sect restructuring. In other words, ideological and organizational strain results in recurring separation and transition of a portion of a fully developed church to a more elementary form of religious society—the sect. The "church" is characterized as formal, affluent, liberal, universal, bureaucratic, well institutionalized, with professional clergy, and generally respected in the larger society. The "sect" begins as a subgroup within the church that becomes disenchanted with the "worldly compromise" and "loss of original mission." This minority group calls for spiritual and organizational reform and a return to "the old-time religion." This alienation ultimately leads to a split from the parent church of a small religious sect characterized by conservatism, primary relationships, less formal rituals and organization, and great missionary zeal. In many ways, the sect is the very antithesis of the church.4

In time, the sect gains in member ship, affluence, and respectability in the larger society. Gradually, Troeltsch and his colleagues observed, the growing sect patterns its organization, rituals, and codified doctrines more and more like those of the church that it originally rejected. In short, the sect evolves into a church from which, over time, the dialectic strain and social adjustment are repeated as newer sects emerge and embark upon their evolvement into churches. This ongoing developmental process of church to sect to church to sect has been applied by numerous scholars and writers to help explain the development and dynamics of many religious movements and organizations.5 While it is possible to apply this reasoning as a partial interpretation of the data and findings presented in Table 4, such conclusions should remain tentative for the time being.

In evaluating the significance of the above hypothesis regarding the church-sect continuum, we must remember that these data reflect just one ministerial group at one point in time. We have no earlier group of comparable subjects or similar set of empirical data with which to compare and trace such hypothesized ideological and behavioral changes. Despite the intrinsic value and challenge of the data generated by Project Seventh-day Adventist Clergy, we caution against subjective and impressionistic (and perhaps invalid) conclusions. The future for Adventist clergy placement, the status of the church in general at some point on the church-sect continuum, as well as the direction and magnitude of movement would all be enhanced if we treat this data as a reference point for future data collections. Then our conclusions would rest upon careful, longitudinal, and repeated contextual comparisons.

Ministerial motivations

The final dimension of Project Seventh-day Adventist Clergy focused on the motivations, circumstances, and cognitive processes involved in our respondents' decision to embark upon the college preparatory course for the ministry. This understudied and fascinating area of inquiry is reflected in Table 5.

The subjects' answers to survey questions about why they chose a ministerial major were subjected to a systematic content analysis. This methodology enabled us to separate the subjects' responses into topological categories reflecting dominant motives for pursuing a ministerial career. As the researchers processed the responses of these students regarding their motivation for wanting to be ministers, we often felt impressed and inspired by their sincerity and commitment.

At the top of Table 5 we see that nearly a third (31 percent) of the 82 subjects expressed a feeling that they were called by God into the ministry of the church. Another 6 percent of the ministerial students indicated that they felt no such particular "call" or sense of "divine mission." The remaining 63 percent—a clear majority—cited more specific reasons and motives for choosing the ministry, which we recorded as five subcategories in the top half of Table 5. The largest number of subjects with specific rationale fall into two motivational categories: "Moved and motivated by love for God and humanity" (19 percent), and "Emphasis on personal talents specific to the ministerial role" (20 percent).

One of the most interesting inquiries on the survey questionnaire had to do with miraculous experiences related to the subject's career choice. More than one-fifth (22 percent) of these 82 senior ministerial students indicated that they had experienced such phenomena (see footnote at bottom of Table 5).

The last section of Table 5 deals with the mental and emotional process involved in their career choice. Apparently, the large majority (83 percent) of decisions developed after considerable deliberation. On the other hand, a minority (17 percent) of these students re ported making their decisions rather quickly and decisively. It may prove useful in later phases of this research project to correlate the type of "call" and the nature of the response with subsequent developments in the ministerial careers of our subjects.


An unusual bond formed between the three college professors comprising the research team for this project and the ministerial students who so cheerfully cooperated with us. Thus, a final word to our subjects is in order:

As we have pondered your responses to our probing questions, we have come to regard you as special indeed—not only to us but to God. In time you will experience for yourselves the deeper meaning of those poignant words so often spoken at ordinations: "Welcome to the joys and sorrows of the ministry." And we pray that you will always be courageous and true.

1 Ronald L. Johnstone, Religion in Society: A
Sociology of Religion, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs,
New Jersey; Prentice Hall, 1988), pp. 72, 73, SI-

2 Keith A. Roberts, Religion in Sociological
Perspective (Homewood, 111.: Dorsey Press,
1984), pp. 61, 62, 205-209.

3 Ernst Troettsch, The Social Teaching of the
Christian Churches (New York: MacMillan Com
pany, 1931 and 1950).

4 Rodney Stark and William Sims, The Future
of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult
Formation (Berkeley, Calif.: University of Calif.
Press, 1985).
5 Johnstone.

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Jack Bynum, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University.
Douglas Clark, Ph.D., is dean of the school of theology at Walla Walla College.
George Hilton, Ph.D., is a professor of mathematics and director of institutional research at Pacific Union College.

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