A Quick Question

What do Lay People Want in Pastors?

The quick answer: 
  A sense of humor and an ability to laugh.

The longer answer:  Ask a woman what she wants in a man, and a congregation what it wants in a pastor, and you’ll likely get the same answer: A sense of humor and an ability to laugh.

Those are among the conclusions of a comprehensive study of denominational executives and lay members in seven denominations by researcher Adair T. Lummis of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Lummis finds that a sense of humor is a subtle but important indicator of whether a pastor and a congregation are culturally compatible. Congregations want pastors who understand their values and their way of life. An ability to laugh at life’s joys and sorrows may provide a clue as to how the pastor and congregation will get along.

It may also be an important indicator of a pastor’s people skills, yet another factor congregations consider in their search for a pastor. Lay leaders on pastor search committees said they want a pastor who was a “people person,” an extrovert, someone who could easily relate to other people, look them in the eye and show a genuine sense of caring.

But Lummis’ study, titled “What do Lay People Want in Pastors,” concludes that, first and foremost, lay leaders want a pastor with an authentic religious life. Most lay people define that as a person whose faith combines both head and heart; a person whose lifestyle is spiritually inspiring to others. The most visible place where these qualities come together is at Sunday morning worship — and that’s one reason candidates for the pastor position are typically expected to preach a sermon before they are selected for the job.

Lummis’ study shows that denominational leaders and lay members don’t always agree on what makes a good sermon. Denominational leaders look for sermons that display solid scholarship and organization; lay members want to be personally moved and engaged. This is only one area where denominational leaders, sometimes called judicatory executives, differ with lay leaders when it comes to selecting a pastor.

Another point of difference is in the area of time management.  Lay leaders expect their pastor to be available 24 hours a day. They want a pastor with an open-door policy, someone who is willing to roll up their sleeves and pitch in at church suppers and other social events. Judicatory executives, worried about clergy burnout, want pastors who can negotiate time limits and maintain a healthy boundary between work and home. A pastor with a thriving spiritual life, they say, is one who can carve out time alone for study, prayer and meditation.

Of course, the recommendations of judicatory executives may be entirely irrelevant in free church, or congregational church traditions, where lay members may hire a pastor without the approval of a denominational leader.  Baptist congregations and those belonging to the United Church of Christ fall into this category, as do many Pentecostal churches. In connectional or hierarchical denominations,  such as the Episcopal Church or the United Methodist Church, a regional leader may approve or disapprove the choice of a pastor. As Lummis’ study points out, regional leaders have much greater say in small, poor congregations, which are often dependent on the denomination to help pay the pastor’s salary. They have far less power in choosing a pastor for wealthy churches that contribute large sums of money to the denomination.

Regardless of the denominational polity, lay leaders interviewed in this study typically wanted to hire a male pastor under 40 years of age with a decade of experience and a wife and children in tow. Even in connectional denominations that have ordained women for more than 50 years, men are still preferred to women. Gay and lesbian pastors rank even lower.  Lummis suggests that part of the reason is that churches want pastors to exemplify the spiritual ideal of a nuclear family and to draw similar families to the congregation. Yet at a time when the pool of ministerial candidates is getting older and seminaries are graduating more women than men, the preference for a young male pastor  may be harder to attain.

Selecting a pastor for a rural church is perhaps the biggest challenge to connectional churches. Often, these churches cannot pay a full-time salary sufficient to support a pastor and his or her family.  In addition, many seminary graduates saddled with educational loans feel pressure to take on large urban congregations if they are to repay their debts and begin saving for the future.  Denominational leaders have responded by hiring retired clergy, pastors from other denominations, or lay leaders with some ministerial training but no Masters of Divinity degree.

While many of these arrangements have worked well,  Lummis concludes her study by suggesting that non-traditional church leaders need to be monitored, and that small congregations will be best served when leaders locally, regionally  and nationally work together to creatively meet the needs of small churches.