Pastors Want More Feedback

Pastors Want More Feedback

Christian Reformed Church councils could have a more positive impact on and show significant support for their ministers by providing regular feedback on their preachers’ sermons, according to a recently released Sustaining Pastoral Excellence survey.

Called "Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Project Evaluation Survey: Third Wave Report," the survey by the CRC-related initiative found, among other things, that too few CRC Church councils communicate with their pastor about the quality of sermons.

The SPE survey also found that 10 percent of pastors reported they wouldn't be a pastor if they started their careers over (up from five percent in 2005),  that the frequency of personal prayer and devotions by pastors has remained steady, and that about 72 percent of the pastors surveyed came to the ministry through Calvin Theological Seminary.

"We're very excited to have the final SPE survey report completed. The report takes the information gathered from two earlier SPE surveys, along with the current findings, to create much rich data," says Lis Van Harten, director of the CRC's Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program.

"Not only will SPE have valuable information to consider but so will many others such as the seminary, councils, pastors, and anyone who works with pastors. The report is thorough and easy to read. There truly is something for everyone in its pages," she says.

Those who did the survey caution people to read the survey carefully, with the awareness that two of the surveys were done on paper and the most recent one was done via the Internet.

The SPE project began in 2003 and has been funded by grants from the Lilly Endowment, Inc. The report now available contains a look at all three surveys that have been done over the last several years.

"The purpose of the (SPE) project has been to create a culture of pastoral excellence in the CRC," says Van Harten.

Programming has focused on assisting pastors through peer learning, continuing education events and mentoring. Conferences and peer groups for pastors’ spouses, and learning events for pastors and their spouses have also been part of the project.

Researchers are thankful for CRCNA "pastors and clerks of council for their responses to the survey and their patience with our repeated requests over the years," says Neil Carlson, who helped to conduct the survey on behalf of the Calvin College Center for Social Research.

The picture that they see over three waves of surveys since 2004-2005 is of a "generally healthy clergy that is holding its ground on several important measures of sustainability, including vocational satisfaction, spousal support and personal life balance," says Carlson.

However, he adds, "at any given time, there are at least dozens of pastors who are seriously struggling in ministry. We conducted some statistical analyses that suggest a couple key levers to pull:  one is boosting leadership skills. Changes in self-assessed pastoral leadership skills are strongly related to increases in pastoral health. Another is council support in general and systematic preaching feedback in particular." 

The three surveys show that there has been stability in the ministries and lives of pastors over the time that the surveys have been done.

But the current survey, along with the two that came before, show that there is room for improvement, especially in the areas of leadership and high-quality skill development.

In addition, the survey finds that, while the majority of pastors are doing well, that there "are significant numbers of pastors and churches that are in pain or in crisis."

Almost every year that the survey has been done, it has found at least dozens of pastors “who are dissatisfied with their current pastorate, frequently feel isolated in their ministry, and wouldn’t be pastors again if they could start their careers over.”

But, says the survey, on "average, the CRCNA’s pastors and churches appear to be weathering hard times well – at least they tell us they are doing so!"

In 2005, some 550 pastors and 522 clerks participated in the survey. In 2007, 512 pastors and 451 clerks responded. In 2009, the latest survey period, 523 pastors and 406 clerks responded. In some cases, pastors responded to all three of the surveys.

One "marked" difference that the survey found "is that self-reported devotional frequency is significantly lower for Calvin Theological Seminary graduates than for pastors who followed another route to ministry."

But at the same time, the survey found that nearly 60 percent of pastors who are graduates of Calvin Theological Seminary responded that they believe they have a "thorough" knowledge of the Reformed faith. This compares to just fewer than 50 percent of non-CTS graduates.

The survey also found that pastors are discipling “mature Christians” more often than they are "pre-Christian or new Christian" disciples. Over the three-year period, the statistics didn’t change much, except a decrease from 2005 to 2007 in pastor’s discipling those who are referred to as “new Christian disciples.”

A pastor commented in a section set aside for comments on this issue.  "As I reflect  on my main challenge as a pastor in an established church, it is managing the tension  between discipling and caring for church members . . . Often I feel alone in this tension in our church as a person who believes (and hopefully acts) that mission is first biblical and essential, then practical."

Other findings include:

  • Churches are starting to involve themselves more frequently in pursuing "God's justice."
  • About one in five pastors does not feel a strong sense of fit with their congregations, up from about one in seven in 2005.
  • As in previous years, older pastors are far more likely to report daily devotions than are younger pastors.
  • Probably due to the poor economy, pastors were not as able in 2009 to attend continuing education programs, compared to 2005 and 2007.
  • Pastors and clerks of council are grateful for SPE and feel it is a necessary CRC program.
  • Pastors of Canadian congregations see their congregations as more or less reflective of CRC mission elements as do U.S. pastors.

You can read more details and download the full survey results. For more information about Sustaining Pastoral Excellence, visit their website or contact:

Lis Van Harten - Director
Phone 877-279-9994 X0805 (toll-free)
or email pastoralexcellence@crcna.org.