DETROIT – Timothy Buchanan says he never consults clergy about important decisions, but it’s not for lack of faith: He regularly attends a nondenominational Christian church near his home.
Buchanan, 41, is not alone. A large majority of Americans make important decisions without calling on religious leaders for advice, according to a new survey released Monday by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The poll finds three-quarters of American adults rarely or never consult a clergy member or religious leader, while only about a quarter do so at least some of the time.
“The church we go to is quite large, and we’re relatively new there,” said Buchanan, who lives with his wife in Bolivia, North Carolina. “We really haven’t established a relationship with a minister there. Going to larger churches, it’s nearly impossible now to get a relationship with a clergyman or woman.”
The lack of personal connection with ministers even includes people who identify with a specific religious faith, though those who are most engaged with their faith are more likely to have relationships with clergy.
The poll finds about a third of Americans saying they attend church or other religious services at least twice a month; roughly a quarter never go. Among religious adults who attend services at least twice a month, about half say they sometimes or often consult with a religious leader. That compares with 16% of religious adults who attend services less often.
And while the poll finds a majority of Americans still identify with a specific faith, about half overall say they want religious leaders to have little influence in their lives.
For his part, Buchanan feels a connection to faith – he grew up in a small church and has an uncle who is a Baptist minister – but he’s still feeling his way around where he worships. Besides the size, he feels some of his own reticence to reach out to a pastor could be a reflection of the technology-focused times.
“People don’t know how to have personal communications with other folks when you need to ask questions or need to get help,” he said. “For instance, we’ve got some issues with our health insurance plan, so I spent an hour today Googling ... instead of just picking up the phone and calling somebody.”
Tim O’Malley, a theology professor at Notre Dame University, said he suspects that technological self-service is among the factors contributing to infrequent contact with clergy.
“In American life, there has ultimately been a broad rejection of ‘experts’ apart from the person searching for the answer on his or her own,” O’Malley said in an email. “Think about the use of Google. You can literally Google anything. Should I have children? What career should I have? When should I make a will? How do I deal with a difficult child?
“In this sense, there has been a democratization of information based on the seeking self,” he added. “You can find the information more easily through a search engine than finding a member of a clergy.”
There are some topics on which Americans are more likely to reach out to religious leaders, the poll finds. Nearly half say they’re at least moderately likely to consult with a clergy member or religious leader about volunteering or charitable giving. About 4 in 10 say they’re at least moderately likely to consult about marriage, divorce or relationships.
Jo King said she rarely consults with clergy members but would be moderately likely to talk to one of them about marriage, divorce or relationship issues. While she doesn’t feel the need to regularly meet one-on-one with priests, she regularly attends services and says religion has always been “very important to me.”
“I used to consult periodically with them ... when I was younger, but I rarely consult with anybody. I kind of live my life my way,” said King, 72, a Catholic from Canal Winchester, Ohio.
Experts say the clergy sex abuse crisis confronting the Roman Catholic Church also could be taking a toll on consultations between parishioners and priests. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, about a quarter of U.S. Catholics said the crisis had led them to reduce their attendance at Mass and their donations to the church. Some bishops have acknowledged that many Catholics are distancing themselves from the church because of the furor.
Polling has shown a steep rise over several decades in the share of Americans identifying as unaffiliated with a religion. Gallup polls in 2018 showed 20% of Americans saying they have no religion, up from 2% in 1955.
At the same time, more Americans describe religion as unimportant in their lives, and church membership and service attendance have declined. Gallup polling shows about half of Americans said they attended religious services within the past week in the mid-1950s, while just about a third say they did now.
Weekly church attendance among Catholics specifically has been steadily declining, to roughly 40% from 75% in 1955, according to Gallup.
O’Malley, who also serves as director of education for Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, sees “a lack of trust in all sorts of institutions,” including houses of worship.
“Surely, the church – the Catholic church in particular – has lost some moral authority in the last 25 years in the United States,” he said. “But it is joined by schools, newspapers, the media in general, etc.”
The AP-NORC poll of 1,137 adults was conducted May 17-20 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points. Respondents were first selected randomly using address-based sampling methods and later were interviewed online or by phone.