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A Bass Connections research project called "Politics and Polarization in Mainline Protestant Congregations" is investigating how polarization is affecting Mainline Protestant churches since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The project brings together a team of researchers from the Religion & Social Change Lab, along with Duke undergraduates and post-docs, to better understand how to promote civil discourse and bridge political differences.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented an unprecedented opportunity to explore depolarization, as it brought a surge of online sermons and a series of politically charged events. Within this unique context, the team studied sermons from 217 United Methodist congregations in North Carolina, including 25 predominantly Black congregations. They analyzed the sermons, conducted interviews, and collected survey responses to understand how clergy make connections between politics and religion, the frequency they addressed political and social issues in sermons, and the impact of polarization on their well-being.

"By digging deeper into these changes, we can learn valuable insights to navigate the future successfully," said David Eagle, director of the Religion and Social Change Lab.

Analyzing Sermons & Seeing Patterns:

Taking a random sample of 300 out of 1600 United Methodist congregations in North Carolina, the sub-team analyzed transcriptions of sermons found online, focusing in on ways pastors engage in political discourse with their congregations and the specific language they use when speaking about current events such as the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020, the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, and the January 6th attack on the U.S. capitol in 2021. 

"I created a word dictionary of about 30 words that I thought might indicate depolarization by a clergy member and then tested the frequency of language and how it changed over time related to current national political and cultural events," said Haley Toresdahl, a Master of Public Policy candidate at Sanford. “It was interesting to see that there wasn’t that much difference in depolarizing language between democrat or republican leaning pastors.” 

Interviews with UMC Clergy: Is There a Place for Politics in the Pastorate?

Another sub-team conducted interviews with 34 pastors in North Carolina to explore how politics is incorporated into their ministry, how they handle political conflicts, and how they connect politics with theology.

The findings showed significant variation among pastors regarding their views on the role of politics in their pastoral work. Here are a few examples:

  • "I believe the gospel is inherently political. Preaching what Jesus taught is engaging with politics."
  • "Politics cannot be separated from religion, just as religion cannot be separated from anything else. It should guide everything we do and believe."
  • "I don't preach politics, injustice, or social issues. I preach Jesus, because Jesus is the answer to all of them."

The team discovered that almost all pastors, in some way, incorporated political language or action into their work. However, they did so indirectly, abstractly, and without personal candor.

Sajel Meyer-Patel, a member of the team, explained the challenges pastors face in talking explicitly about politics, “As public figures, pastors must frame their sermons to resonate with their congregations, even when they disagree.”

Preliminary findings reveal that pastors, irrespective of their political affiliation, tend to prioritize common ground and emphasize shared values to navigate political tensions within their congregations. Rather than focusing on divisive issues, pastors seek to unite their congregations by emphasizing what unifies them.

Disaffiliation, according to Meyer-Patel, is a major struggle for nearly all pastors, and while all pastors recognized its importance, they seldom addressed it directly with their congregations in sermons.

These findings highlight the complexities clergy face as spiritual leaders in a divided America.


Striking A delicate balance

“That's sort of the needle they have to thread through these political discussions, which is admittedly extremely difficult. These pastors are in a really tough place because America is in a tough place,” said Trent Ollerenshaw, a Political Science Ph.D. candidate at Duke.

Survey & Network Analysis: Is political conflict in pastors' workplace associated with worse well-being? And who do they turn to for support?

The team aimed to investigate the effects of political conflicts on pastors' well-being and identify the sources of support they rely on when navigating these challenges. They focused on four health outcomes: emotional exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and occupational distress.

To conduct their research, the team utilized data from a statewide panel survey conducted by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative, which has been carried out every two years for nearly two decades. This survey reaches out to all Methodist clergy in North Carolina to gain a better understanding of their needs and determine how to provide optimal support.

"We were fortunate to have access to this extensive dataset," said team member Dave King. "We specifically examined the data from 2021, with responses from over 1000 pastors. This allowed us to assess their well-being, how they were handling political polarization, and who they sought support from."

The initial analysis revealed that younger pastors who struggled to navigate political conflicts within their congregation experienced higher levels of mental distress. Surprisingly, this finding remained consistent regardless of their political party affiliation.


Conflict-avoidant pastors experience higher levels of distress

"That was unexpected. We initially anticipated finding differences based on political parties. However, it suggests that the impact of political polarization on health outcomes is more closely tied to an individual's ability to handle the stress surrounding political differences rather than their partisan affiliation," explained King.

The second analysis unveiled that pastors predominantly seek social support from elders within their own conference. Interestingly, political party affiliation did not significantly influence their choice of support network.

"This indicates that hierarchy and maturity may serve as reliable indicators for seeking support," noted Oliver Hess, a Duke undergraduate involved in the research.

Keeping research Human

Megan Forbes, a Master of Public Policy Candidate at Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy who served as a pastor for ten years before coming to Duke, said she learned a lot more than interpreting data and coding from this project. At the end of the day, she says, it's all about people's stories and learning how to bring a sense of shared humanity to qualitative research was key for Forbes.

“I hadn't done qualitative research before. Learning from experienced qualitative researchers who are also deeply empathic taught me what that actually looks like. I think the research we did shows a very human-concerned perspective that I'm really proud of.”


Keeping Research Human

“At the end of the day, this project is about people’s stories. It's not just about theoretical concepts and agreement or disagreement. This is about individuals sharing what they have dedicated their lives to, how it has affected them emotionally, and how they have persevered through challenging times." - Megan Forbes, Master of Public Policy Candidate, Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy

Learn more about the Bass Connections project