Clergy are more Democratic and ideologically liberal, yet strongly see a need to discuss social and political issues
WASHINGTON (September 14, 2023) — Mainline Protestant clergy are politically distinct from white mainline Protestant churchgoers in many ways, favoring more progressive ideals, according to a new survey released by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) today. The survey, “Clergy and Congregations in a Time of Transformation,” considers the perspectives of more than 3,000 mainline Protestant clergy from the seven largest mainline Protestant denominations on the cultural and political divides facing the nation, and how such divides are impacting their own congregations.
Compared with data about white mainline Protestant churchgoers from PRRI’s 2023 Health of Congregations Survey, mainline clergy are more supportive of LGBTQ rights, more likely to oppose the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and less likely to believe America is in danger of losing its culture and identity. About half of mainline Protestant clergy identify with the Democratic Party (49%), compared to only 14% who identify with the Republican Party and 28% who identify as independent. White mainline Protestant churchgoers, on the other hand, tend to identify more as Republican (36%) or independent (35%), compared to one in four who identify as Democrat (24%).
“Consistent with previous work, our new survey finds that mainline Protestant clergy and their congregants are divided politically,” said Melissa Deckman, CEO of PRRI. “Despite those differences, mainline clergy believe it is important for churches to get involved in social issues even if such involvement provokes difficult conversations.”
At the same time, most mainline Protestant clergy believe their congregants are largely accepting of them when their political views differ and are also generally accepting of their fellow church members in cases of political disagreement.
Mainline clergy and churchgoers are divided, yet clergy still see the need to have challenging conversations about politics.
Nearly one in four mainline clergy (37%) agree with the statement “Today, America is in danger of losing its culture and identity,” compared with about two-thirds of white mainline Protestant churchgoers (64%). Mainline clergy (73%) are also more likely to oppose the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade, compared to 57% of white mainline Protestant churchgoers.
Though a strong majority of white mainline Protestant churchgoers (72%) support same-sex marriage, mainline clergy are more likely to do so (79%). Divides between clergy and mainline Protestant churchgoers are deeper when it comes to support for LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections and opposition to religiously based service refusals. Nine in ten clergy (90%) favor laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing compared with 77% of mainline Protestant churchgoers. Nearly seven in ten of mainline clergy (69%) oppose allowing a small business owner to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people if doing so violates their religious beliefs; just 57% of mainline Protestant churchgoers oppose such exemptions.
Yet, mainline clergy see a distinct need to address social and political issues in their congregations and are more likely than white mainline Protestant churchgoers to say they wish their church talked more about political division in this country. White mainline congregants (43%) are about half as likely as mainline clergy (79%) to agree that congregations should get involved in social issues, even if that means having challenging conversations about politics. Additionally, mainline clergy (37%) are about twice as likely as white mainline Protestant churchgoers (17%), and about three times as likely as all U.S. Christian churchgoers (13%), to say that their church is more divided by politics now than it was 10 years ago.
Nearly 9 in 10 mainline clergy report discussing poverty and inequality somewhat or frequently in their churches; 80% of clergy discuss racism in their churches somewhat or frequently as well. Majorities of clergy also somewhat or frequently discuss discrimination against LGBTQ people (62%) and hatred toward immigrants (65%). In contrast, few clergy report discussing Donald Trump, Joe Biden, elections, or voter fraud with their congregants.
Most mainline Protestant clergy are politically progressive, but differences can be seen based on denomination and geography.
While mainline clergy trend Democratic and are supportive of progressive views on cultural issues, there are some differences based on the specific denominational family, with clergy from the American Baptist Churches USA and the United Methodist Church holding distinctly more conservative views in some cases.
This survey report comes at a time of volatility in the United Methodist Church, when roughly one-fifth of United Methodist congregations in the United States have left the denomination over disagreements over same-sex marriage and ordination, according to an unofficial tally from United Methodist News. Indeed, such volatility appears to provoke thoughts among United Methodist clergy as to their future within the denomination: United Methodist (53%) is the only denomination in which the majority of clergy report thinking about leaving their tradition. Moreover, the survey finds 74% of United Methodist clergy who are Republican have thought about leaving their denomination.
Mainline clergy in rural areas hold more conservative views on a range of issues and are less likely to speak about social issues in their churches compared with their counterparts at urban or suburban churches. Rural clergy are less supportive of LGBTQ rights, less likely to oppose the overturn of Roe, and more likely to say America is in danger of losing its culture and identity than urban and suburban clergy. Rural clergy are also less likely than urban and suburban clergy to say they discuss racism (71% vs. 86% and 85%, respectively), discrimination against LGBTQ+ people (53% vs. 74% and 65%, respectively), or hatred toward immigrants (57% vs. 72% and 71%, respectively) in their congregations.
Mainline Protestant clergy want to see more racially diverse leadership, programming to attract younger members, and better connections with other churches.
American churchgoers (43%) and white mainline Protestant congregants (48%) are notably less likely than mainline clergy (82%) to say they wish more people of color served in their church leadership. Similarly, only four in ten mainline clergy (39%) agree with the statement “My church does a good job reaching out to young people,” with 60% disagreeing. On the other hand, 70% of white mainline Protestant churchgoers say their church does a good job reaching out to young people.
While almost three-quarters of mainline clergy (73%) wish their church had better programming for children and worked more with other churches in the community (71%), only 39% of white mainline Protestant churchgoers wish their church had better programming for children.
Division is causing burnout and religious switching among Mainline Protestant clergy, but overall, job satisfaction is high, and clergy feel they are positively influencing people’s lives.
Clergy, especially Republican clergy, are more likely to have considered leaving their religious tradition than white mainline Protestant churchgoers. Nearly two-thirds of Republican mainline clergy say they have thought about leaving their current religious tradition (64%), compared to half of independent clergy (50%), and one-third of Democratic clergy (32%). More than two-thirds of conservative clergy (68%) say they have thought about leaving their current religious tradition compared to 40% of moderate and 36% of liberal clergy.
About one-third of mainline clergy (32%) report feeling emotionally drained from work every day or at least once a week and three in ten (30%) say they feel the same once or a few times a month. Over one-third (36%) report feeling emotionally drained a few times a year or never. Similarly, about one in four mainline clergy (27%) report feeling frustrated with their job every day or at least once a week, compared to 32% who feel the same once or a few times a month.
Overall, the vast majority of mainline clergy across all denominations say they feel every day or at least once a week that they are positively influencing other people’s lives through their work (76%), they feel energetic (74%), and feel that they have accomplished many worthwhile things in their job (65%).
More than seven in ten mainline clergy (72%) say they are optimistic about the future of their church. The rate of optimism is similar across clergy denominations. All churchgoers (82%) and white mainline churchgoers (77%) are somewhat more likely to be optimistic about the future of their church than clergy (72%), including 45% of American churchgoers who are very optimistic about the future of their church compared with 31% of white mainline churchgoers and 22% of mainline Protestant clergy.
The full survey report is available on PRRI’s website (prri.org).
The survey was designed and conducted by PRRI. For this study, PRRI surveyed 3,066 of mainline clergy who lead congregations from each of the seven largest mainline Protestant denominations: The United Methodist Church (UM), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA), the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC), and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (DOC). In most cases, PRRI worked with denominational offices, who sent the survey to all clergy who lead congregations. In the case of the United Methodist Church, PRRI compiled a sample of United Methodist clergy through a variety of methods, resulting in a primary sampling frame of approximately two-thirds of active clergy in the denomination. The data was weighted to adjust for age, gender, race/ethnicity, Census region, congregation size, and denomination to reflect the relative size of each denomination in the general population. This strategy allows the report to have a sense of the relative influence of clergy from each denomination on the population of clergy as a whole. The methodology is discussed in detail in the appendix.
PRRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy.
# # #
 PRRI surveyed clergy from the Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Presbyterian Church (USA), American Baptist Churches USA, United Church of Christ, and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Mainline Protestant churches have played an outsized role in America’s history, with more than half of American adults identifying with one of the largest seven mainline Protestant traditions until the 1960s. Since then, mainline Protestant denominations have seen significant declines in membership, although their membership has stabilized somewhat in the past few years.
 There were fewer than 100 American Baptist clergy who completed our survey, so their individual results in the comparative tables should be interpreted with caution.