Indicators of ministerial resilience

The first part of a long-term study of trends among Adventist ministerial students and pastors

Jack E. Bynum, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of sociology at Southern Oregon University.
Douglas R. Clark, Ph.D., is professor of Biblical Studies and Archaelogy at Walla Walla College, College Place, Washington.

In 1987 several Seventh-day Adventist academicians and the Southwestern Union Conference launched a longitudinal research investigation on Seventh-day Adventist clergy residing and working in the United States of America.

Stage I of Project SDA Clergy was designed to survey 82 senior ministerial students enrolled that year at Adventist colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. The highly detailed questionnaire resulted in an extensive database of demographic, attitudinal, and experiential information from the study group. Extremely insightful and useful reports on patterns of origin, background, recruitment, and placement of young Adventist ministers were subsequently published in two is sues of Ministry in 1993.1

In 1997, in keeping with the ongoing longitudinal commitment of the research team, Walla Walla College spon sored Project SDA Clergy: Stage II. This second phase was initially designed to focus solely on the 66 percent of the 1987 ministerial student graduates who actually entered the professional ministerial ranks of the church. We wanted to find out how they had progressed in their ministerial careers during the intervening ten years their fulfillments and frustrations, pleasures and problems, significant experiences and aspirations, along with their attitudes, values, and opinions as they evaluate their past and face their future as ministers.

At the same time, we realized that 34 percent of 1987 senior ministerial students did not climax their college training with a ministerial appointment. What became of them? To our knowledge, there has been no previous systematic inquiry into the possible stress, maladjustment, and sense of failure and rejection that may afflict many of those whose "call to ministry" and years of hope and preparation did not bear fruit. Thus, this large group became a secondary target of the 1997, Stage II investigation.

As our research strategy crystallized, another troubling and understudied sub group emerged. Not all of the 53 members of our 1987 cohort who entered the ministry of the church remained in that capacity; 34 percent had dropped out of church employment between 1987 and 1997 for one reason or another. This unexpected and alarming finding alerted us to the need for different forms of the 1997 survey instrument to address the three current subgroupings of the 1987 cohort of SDA ministerial students, which in this study are called: 1) Ministerial Persisters; 2) Ministerial Dropouts; and 3) Ministerial Rejects. The nomenclature of "Dropouts" and "Rejects" troubled us as unhappy and stigmatizing labels regardless of the validity of those terms in describing the experience and identifying the members of those two groups. Later it was found that those subjects often referred to themselves as "Dropouts" and "Rejects" in their completed questionnaires.

The data

During the summer of 1997 we began our search for the current ad dresses of our original 82 subjects. Our intensive data gathering efforts were well rewarded: we received the completed questionnaires from 33 of the 35 Ministerial Persisters (94 percent); from 9 of the 18 Ministerial Dropouts (50 percent); and from 14 of the 29 of the Ministerial Rejects (48 percent).

In the 1997 Stage II report that fol lows, readers may see a few things in the minds and experiences of the ministers that may be surprising. We asked for candid responses and we got them. Our job is to report faithfully the facts and findings. We trust that colleagues will rejoice with us with what seems good news. When the news is unsettling, we trust there will be empathy and com passion for the occasionally beleaguered young ministers.

The research findings

1.1997 evaluation of 1987pre-ministerial college curriculum (See Table 1). In general, our Ministerial Persister and Dropout groups ten years after graduating from college and based upon their ministerial experience gave high marks to ministerial education courses they had received in homiletics, Bible, and biblical languages. On the other hand, the respondents were less enthusiastic about the usefulness of course work in how to give Bible studies, church administration, and pastoral counseling.

Nearly 75 percent of respondents suggested that their college preparation for ministry would have been greatly improved with additional instruction in how to handle church finances and ad ministration, leadership skills, ethics, conflict resolution, fund raising, how to give Bible studies and officiate at wed dings and funerals, and course work in business, sociology, and psychology. One pastor complained: "Upon graduating, I received my own church. While I could parse a Greek text, or discuss theology from a philosophical standpoint, I lacked practice in daily application. I completely lacked in understanding of church organization and committee structure."

Another summarized a point made by many respondents: "I highly valued my biblical studies, and critical thinking classes; however I was left helpless and hopeless when it came to administration and leadership."

2. Recollections of unrealistic college expectations of ministry. The 1997 survey inquired of cohort members whether any expectations they may have had in college concerning their future ministry proved to be unrealistic and disappointing, and whether such expectations required later revision. The close correspondence of answers to this question from both Ministerial Persister and Dropout groups allowed us to combine their responses in Table 2. The table organizes the subjects' responses in a typology of three clusters of unrealistic expectations: The Role of the Minister, The Role of Church Members, and The Role of Conference Leadership.

One pastor verbalized some expectations that proved unreal: "My education would be valued by my congregation. My personal devotion and ministry would be appreciated by my conference. I would be master of my time and to some extent my ministerial agenda. It doesn't matter who I knew for I was following God's leading."

Another pastor contrasted the situation: "Expectation: ministry is about winning souls. Reality: Ministry is about keeping the saints from killing each other."

3. Persisters, Dropouts, and Rejects: lifestyle comparisons. Table 3 presents several concrete indicators that identify, measure, and compare the current "lifestyles" of the 1987 cohort subgroups.

Table 3 provides data to compare the three subgroupings on family life, work and community involvement, socio-economic status, and religious commitment. Note the following:

  •   Church attendance. While the Ministerial Persisters all reported regular attendance at an Adventist Church, over a third of the Reject and the Drop out groups no longer attend church. A few of them reported joining other churches.
  • Support to church schools. A third to one-half of the Dropouts and Rejects send their children to public schools. However, it must be noted that despite disappointment and stress associated with their unfulfilled ministerial careers, one-half to nearly two-thirds of Dropout and Reject groups continue to attend SDA churches and send their children to church schools.
  •  Life satisfaction. Results on this scale were not unexpected. Although the Persisters are often troubled by serious misgivings regarding their congregations and conferences, they demonstrate a stronger sense of purpose and fulfillment than Dropout and Reject groups. Even after ten years, many of the Rejects are still haunted by their lost hopes and dreams. One respondent lamented: "I still feel pain over my rejection because I know I was called to the ministry."
  •  Residence moves. Young ministers moved on an average of 4.5 times between 1987 and 1997. This familiar pattern seems to be accepted as a standard inconvenience and "part of the job." This variable is not applicable to the lifestyles of other groups.
  •  Social class. In this study, the social class of every subject in each of the three subgroups was identified and quantified with a highly regarded "Occupation Ranking System." The Persisters have, on the average, significantly higher social class status than members of the other two subgroups (based on occupation).
  • Economic indicators. The social class standing and status of the three groups are reinforced by the economic indicators targeted in f and g. In spite of numerous moves, nearly two-thirds of our young ministers have acquired their own home mortgages. Several announced that their homes are "almost paid for! "Members of the Dropout and Reject groups, because of their generally lower incomes, lag behind. Similarly, the Persisters drive newer automobiles. It is interesting to note that the economic fortunes of the three sub groups of subjects (as indicated by home ownership and vehicle quality) consistently decline as ministerial involvement declines.

4. Comparative findings on selected attitudes and values.

Table 4 provides a set of continuum-type scales developed by researchers in the social and behavioral sciences to measure such variables as authoritarianism, marginality, liberalism/conservatism, idealism/realism, tolerance/prejudice, and alienation.2

Responses to the first scale indicate that Persisters are more likely to have authoritarian inclinations. This means that a majority tends to perceive issues as "right" or "wrong," and to have unswerving loyalty to focal institutions (e.g., government or church). Ministerial Dropouts are more likely to take a less rigid position and to be more independent from centralized authority.

Data from the second scale reveal that a large majority of minister respondents reinforced their earlier lack of confidence in conference administrators. One anonymously observed: "I simply cannot trust the conference with my own weakness or vulnerability." This survey item uncovers a serious concern. Ministers are human, too, and therefore can experience spiritual crises. But in whom might the minister confide without fear of judgment or career endangerment?

The third scale illuminates a paradox. Ministerial Persisters--even with their common complaint about administrative leadership--do not feel over-regimented or over-regulated. Thus, it appears that subjects are able to separate what they perceive as unfavorable administrative style from favorable administrative substance. The result is that most ministers in this study willingly conform to tasks and expectations defined by conference leadership.

Scale d reveals a measure of cynicism and fatalism regarding job promotions among a majority of subjects in all three subgroups. And one respondent noted: "A few pastors have made apple-polishing an art form!" Perhaps merit criteria for advancement to larger responsibility should be defined and emphasized.

Scales e and f touch on a perceived vulnerability and helplessness among many of our respondents. Ministers sometimes feel that they are subjected to unrelenting criticism, yet are required to maintain a pious and stoic compliance and congeniality. Over half of our Ministerial Persisters are deeply hurt by their critics. Dropouts apparently are less thin-skinned. At the same time, the majority of Persisters and Dropouts feel "used" or manipulated by other people.

Scale g focuses on the dimension of pessimism/optimism by probing subjects' attitudes toward the world at large. The majority of Persisters disagree with the statement that "the world is basically a friendly place." This perspective may be more common among those who strongly anticipate future plagues and persecutions. On the other hand, the Dropouts have evidently found living in the secular world less threatening.

Scale b produces the most confirming occupational data. Ministers are considered models of faith and spokes persons of truth regarding God's plan for humanity and the ultimate destiny of this world. Consequently, the vast majority of Persisters is confident about "the meaning of life." Dropouts and Rejects are less sure.

The last scale finds that over half of our Persisters "sometimes feel very lonely or remote from other people." Clearly, this is part of a larger pattern of occupational isolation from full association with their congregations and their conference leadership. Ministers have been "set apart" somewhat both symbolically and literally. Many respondents recognize formidable barriers to candid communication and to anything more than superficial relationships with most parishioners and colleagues.

Sadly, Ministerial Dropouts re ported an even higher incidence of loneliness and remoteness. Social scientists have developed some theoretical constructs that can help explain this phenomenon. For example, Stonequist3 and Wittermans4 describe the plight of individuals who experience marginal, incomplete, and unsatisfying social assimilation. The construct of the "Marginal Man" suggests that persons are painfully caught between two divergent cultures, groups, or perspectives. The individual's involvement and commitment are fragmented between the of ten contrary demands of the two. Consequently, there is a failure to identify fully or bond with either of the conflicting groups or orientations. The "Marginal Man" concept is helpful in describing and understanding the situation of many Dropouts as they are torn between their previous occupation and religious subculture on the one hand, and their new occupations and orientations in the secular world, on the other. Similarly, many Persisters may also experience a kind of lonely marginality as they negotiate their minis try between the expectations of congregation, conference, and their own special calling.

Editorial note: The concluding part of this report will appear in October. It will examine the reasons why individuals leave the ministry and suggest a prevention and treatment strategy for this critical loss of clergy. It will also develop a demographic profile of those subjects with the greatest probability of becoming Ministerial Dropouts.

1. Jack Bynum, Douglas Clark, and George Hilton. "Project SDA Clergy: Part 1," Ministry, April 1993, 16-21; Part 2 in June 1993, 9-13.

2. Delbert C. Miller, Handbook of Research Design and Social Measurement (New York: David McKay Co., 1970).

3. Everett V. Stonequist, The Marginal Man: A Study in Personality and Culture Conflict (New York: Scribner's, 1937).

4. Tamme Wittermans, "Structural Marginality and Social Worth," Sociology and Social Research 48 (April 1964), 348-360.

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Jack E. Bynum, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of sociology at Southern Oregon University.
Douglas R. Clark, Ph.D., is professor of Biblical Studies and Archaelogy at Walla Walla College, College Place, Washington.

August 2000

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