Last year, Gallup released a poll which found that confidence was in a freefall for many leading societal institutions. For example, only 32% expressed having a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in “the church or organized religion.” That was down from 37% in 2021.
In a follow-up poll, Gallup decided to determine the ethics ratings of leading professions in the U.S. Nearly all professions show some decline in honesty/ethics ratings.
Nurses remain the most trusted profession, with 78% of U.S. adults currently believing nurses have high honesty and ethical standards. “At the other end of the spectrum, members of Congress, senators, car salespeople and advertising practitioners are viewed as the least ethical, with ratings in the single digits.”
Only four other professions, beside nurses, garnered majority-level positive ratings: engineers, dentists, medical doctors and pharmacists.
None of this may be surprising.
What may be surprising is the profession that had one of the largest percentage drops in perceived ethics and honesty, giving the profession a new low in Gallup’s history of polling:
In 2019, 40% felt clergy were honest and ethical; that dropped to 32% in 2023, the lowest it’s ever been charted. Don’t let that slide by. It means that less than one-third of all Americans consider clergy to be honest and ethical. I suppose one could take heart that clergy are still more trusted than politicians, lawyers and journalists.
This is concerning on any number of fronts, not least of which is the biblical qualification of church leadership that “people outside the church must speak well” of them (I Tim. 3:7, NLT). Further, there is the admonition to be “careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior” (I Peter 2:12, NLT). In other words, the very thing the Bible says should disqualify someone from serving as a church leader is the very thing that the majority of Americans believe to be true of them.
Things aren’t helped by the growing number of Americans who don’t even know a pastor, do not belong to a church, and/or who don’t identify with any particular faith.
So what can be done?
Two things come quickly to mind:
First, we must return to the biblical qualifications of church leadership. We have become worldly and value charisma over character, skillsets over spirituality, magnetism over maturity, and displays over depth. Too many people entering ministry love crowds but not people, seek fame and not humility, and crave power instead of servanthood. Spiritual authority is so often abused because it is devoid of spiritual authenticity.
Second, we must accept that we live in a post-Christian world. This means that a positive view of church leaders can’t be assumed. If anything, as Gallup’s polling shows, the opposite is true. This means that church leaders must not demand trust, but instead earn it. Or as Henry Cloud has written, “‘Just trust me’ should come with sirens, flashing lights and other warning signs.” Too many leaders, when thinking of cultivating their image, think of designer clothes, glam shots, and social media likes. They need to think of clothing themselves with righteousness.
“Trust,” adds Cloud, “is the fuel for all of life.” It is important to understand its essentials, to grow in trust and, when needed, to heal from broken trust. This is true for all of us. But for those in positions of church leadership, the goal is much more foundational:
James Emery White
Lydia Saad, “Historically Low Faith in U.S. Institutions Continues,” Gallup, July 6, 2023, read online.
Megan Brenan and Jeffrey M. Jones, “Ethics Ratings of Nearly All Professions Down in U.S.,” Gallup, January 22, 2024, read online.
Kate Shellnutt, “Above Reproach? Fewer Americans See Pastors as Ethical,” Christianity Today, January 25, 2024, read online.
Henry Cloud, Trust: Knowing When to Give It, When to Withhold It, How to Earn It, and How to Fix It When It Gets Broken.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on X, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
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James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.