John Stonestreet

My pastor recently told me that 25 years ago, the first person that people would contact when they faced a marriage crisis was their pastor. Ten years ago, he continued, it was their counselor or psychiatrist. Today, it’s their lawyers.

A recent study conducted by the Associated Press and the University of Chicago concurs. “Doctors, teachers, members of the military,” and scientists are, according to the survey, esteemed “more positively than clergy.” Among infrequent churchgoers, clergy are viewed as negatively as lawyers. (For the record, that last line came from a member of our editorial team who’s been admitted to the bar in two states.)

As my pastor observed, the declining respect for clergy is a trend both in and out of the church, including among those who attend church frequently. While 75% of churchgoers “hold clergy in high regard,” they aren’t as positive when it comes to personal attributes and character qualities of their clergy. Barely half consider clergy to be trustworthy, and only slightly more regard them as “honest and intelligent.”

Remember these are people who attend church at least once a month! Among those who seldom or never attend church, the respective numbers on those questions are 23% and 30%.

The obvious question is why?

At least a significant part of the answer is cultural. As Religion News Service pointed out, “Historians say public attitudes about clergy have been waning since the 1970s, in tandem with the loss of trust in institutions after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.”

Actually, the decline in trust and disregard for institutions predates Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War. After all, the 1964 Free Speech movement at Berkeley had a signature saying: “We don’t trust anyone over 30.” It’s a line that came to sum up the view of many Baby Boomers toward all authority, governmental, parental and clerical included.

Institutions like governments and churches were, at best, obstacles, and at worst enemies of personal liberation. Though the VW vans that dotted the Woodstock landscape have long since rusted away, the commitment to personal liberation and autonomy has only intensified in the half-century since then.

Today, many Americans embrace expressions of personal liberation that wouldn’t have even occurred to the people dancing to Santana in the New York mud. It’s one thing to think you’re liberated from “the man.” It’s another to think you’re liberated from observable reality.

But, if we Christians are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that cultural attitudes toward authority and institutions aren’t the only reason for the waning respect when it comes to clergy. Some is the result of self-inflicted wounds.

Scarcely a week goes by without another report of clergy sex-abuse and/or some other horrible conduct. Given the scope and sheer number of these scandals and the fact that they cross denominational lines from Roman Catholic to Protestant to Evangelical, it would be a miracle if regard for the clergy had not diminished.

This is tragic news because so many lives have been devastated, and because so many people personally know someone whose life has been devastated. I don’t need to tell you that the vast majority of clergy are honest and caring people who have answered the Lord’s call to shepherd His flock and are doing what they do out of love for others. But, their reputation is harmed also.

That’s what makes this such a huge loss—because when done right, clergy can represent, embody and offer a kind of love that is simply indispensable during the inevitable bad times we face. It’s indispensable to individuals, families, communities and to our entire nation. Theirs is a role uniquely gifted to the church, and one that cannot be replicated across the spectrum of society. And what they offer is especially missed when it’s needed most.

John Stonestreet is a commentator for BreakPoint, a Christian worldview ministry established by Chuck Colson in 1991.