Protestant churches in the United States rarely reprimand their members for misconduct as a survey indicates that more than half of pastors say they don't know of an instance in which their church has disciplined a member.
LifeWay Research unveiled a new poll Thursday in which over 1,000 Protestant senior pastors, ministers and priests were interviewed about their church's handling of formal discipline. The responses were weighed by region to reflect population. The sampling size includes a 3.2-percentage-point margin of error.
When asked over the phone when the last time their church formally disciplined a member, 55 percent of pastors said that "a member has not been formally disciplined since I came as pastor nor prior as far as I know."
Only 3 percent of pastors said that discipline was issued within the last month and 5 percent said that their churches disciplined members within the last six months. Meanwhile, 8 percent of pastors said their churches had disciplined members in the last year and 5 percent said that members had been punished in the last two years.
Twenty-one percent of pastors said that their churches had disciplined members in the last three years and only 2 percent of clergy said that they didn't know the answer to that question.
"It's one of the topics that churches rarely talk about," Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, said in a statement.
The survey, which was conducted between Aug. 30 and Sept. 18, 2017, also finds that pastors of churches that have an attendance of 100 or more were more likely — 20 percent to 13 percent — than pastors of churches with an attendance of 50-99 to say that their churches had disciplined members within the last year.
Sixty-five percent of pastors of churches that have fewer than 50 members said that no member had been disciplined under their watch or prior to their service at the church as far as they knew.
Sixty-three percent of pastors with an attendance of 50-99, 48 percent of pastors of churches with an attendance of 100-249 and 38 percent of pastors of churches with an attendance of over 250 said the same.
Additionally, evangelical pastors were more likely than mainline pastors — 19 percent to 11 percent — to say that their churches had disciplined members within the last year. Likewise, evangelical pastors were 12 percentage points (31 percent to 19 percent) more likely than mainline pastors to say that church members were disciplined "more than a year ago."
Forty-nine percent of evangelical pastors said that a church member had not been disciplined during or before their time at the church as far as they know. Sixty-seven percent of mainline pastors said the same.
According to the data, 29 percent of Pentecostal pastors, 23 percent of Holiness pastors and 19 percent of Baptist pastors said that their churches disciplined members within the last year. Just 4 percent of Methodist pastors and 9 percent of Presbyterian pastors said the same.
A total of 85 percent of Methodist pastors said that "a member has not been formally disciplined since I came as pastor nor prior as far as I know."
"There's some red tape involved for churches," McConnell said. "It is not easy to be kicked out of a church.
The clergy were also asked who at their church is responsible for administering the formal discipline of church members who stray from biblical teachings.
A total of 8 percent said that the "pastors alone" were in charge of administering the discipline, while 1 percent said the "deacons alone." Fourteen percent said "elders alone," while 4 percent said "trustees or board members alone." The majority of pastors (51 percent) said that "two or more of these groups must agree" in order for discipline to be administered.
Eighteen percent of pastors said, "we have no official policies in place for disciplining members."
Methodists (37 percent) are the most likely to answer, "we have no official policies in place for disciplining," while 24 percent of mainline pastors and 15 percent of evangelical pastors said the same.