News reports say poll paints bleak picture of clergy's role in American society — but does it really?


Is the glass three-quarters empty or one-quarter full?

That’s the question one prominent Godbeat pro is asking after an Associated Press story painted a somewhat negative portrait of clergy members’ role in U.S. society.

It probably should be noted that the award-winning journalist, G. Jeffrey MacDonald, also is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

According to the AP headline, a new poll shows that Americans “rarely seek guidance from clergy.” MacDonald takes issue with the global wire service’s concept of “rarely.” More on that in a moment.

First, the lede from AP:

DETROIT (AP) — Timothy Buchanan says he never consults clergy about important decisions, but it’s not for lack of faith: He regularly attends a nondenominational Christian church near his home.

Buchanan, 41, is not alone. A large majority of Americans make important decisions without calling on religious leaders for advice, according to a new survey released Monday by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research . The poll finds three-quarters of American adults rarely or never consult a clergy member or religious leader, while only about a quarter do so at least some of the time.

“The church we go to is quite large, and we’re relatively new there,” said Buchanan, who lives with his wife in Bolivia, North Carolina. “We really haven’t established a relationship with a minister there. Going to larger churches, it’s nearly impossible now to get a relationship with a clergyman or woman.”

The lack of personal connection with ministers even includes people who identify with a specific religious faith, though those who are most engaged with their faith are more likely to have relationships with clergy.

The poll finds about a third of Americans saying they attend church or other religious services at least twice a month; roughly a quarter never go. Among religious adults who attend services at least twice a month, about half say they sometimes or often consult with a religious leader. That compares with 16% of religious adults who attend services less often.

(By the way, Religion News Service wrote about the same survey this week, presenting the findings in an equally negative light. “New poll shows growing view that clergy are irrelevant,” says the headline.)

MacDonald responded to a Facebook post of the AP report that asked: “Are you surprised or not?”

“Nope!” replied one Facebook user.

“Not surprised at all,” chimed in another.

But here’s what MacDonald had to say:

This story says one in four Americans seeks guidance from clergy. That's 65 million adults. That's twice as many as receive mental health counseling or therapy. Should we say Americans 'rarely' go for therapy? No, that would be unnecessary characterization, as is the editorializing in this AP headline. This survey & story should be answering the really interesting question: who are the 65 million Americans who seek guidance from clergy? Are they largely African-American, Chinese-American, Latinx, female, non-Christian, over 50... who are they? In which types of situations do they seek guidance? What type of guidance do clergy offer them -- moral advice, reflective mirroring, something else? Wow, this story could have been so interesting!

I agree that the story proposed by MacDonald — to whom I pitched a few pieces when he served as Religion News Service’s interim editor-in-chief — would be interesting.

At that same time, both the AP and RNS stories contain some excellent expert analysis, and I appreciated the insight offered in both pieces, which is not to say they wouldn’t have been better with a little wider scope like that proposed by MacDonald.

Your turn, dear reader: Do you agree with the idea that the original AP story got it wrong?

Again, I’ll ask: Is the glass three-quarters empty or one-quarter full?

Photo by Eber Devine on Unsplash

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