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Race and Religious Leadership

by Albert L. Winseman

The saying, "Eleven o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America," alludes to an anecdotal observation that people tend to worship in congregations in which the members are racially and ethnically alike. When it comes to whites and blacks, data from Gallup's 2003 congregational engagement survey* certainly support that observation. Among whites, 87% say that most of the people in their congregations are of their same racial group. More remarkable, given their minority status in the population, is that among blacks, the figure is similar, at 85%.

That black congregations tend to be highly homogenous has historically helped black churches become centers of social and political influence. Prominent black leaders from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to the Rev. Al Sharpton have been religious leaders first and foremost. In recent decades, the political nature of black churches has receded somewhat, though they remain vital sources of community development. (See "Black Churches: Has Their Role Changed?" in Related Items.)

The Race of the Leader

Certainly, the race of a congregation's leader (the pastor, priest, rabbi, imam, etc.) tends to mirror that of the congregation. Ninety-two percent of white members of congregations say their primary leader is also white, while just 8% of white members say their leader is black or some other race. Black leaders are also overwhelmingly likely to serve black congregations; 81% of black church members say their leaders are black, compared with 19% who say their leaders are white or some other race.

The Congregation

Previous Gallup Polls have demonstrated that church congregations are perhaps the social entity most resistant to racial integration. A Gallup Poll Social Audit on black-white relations in 1997 showed that blacks live, work, and befriend whites, but do not go to church with them. Seventy-three percent of whites attended mostly white or all-white churches, while 7% attended mixed churches. Almost no whites attended churches that were mostly or all black. Seventy-one percent of blacks attended mostly or all-black churches, while 13% attended churches that were equally black and white. Only 6% went to churches that were mostly or all white.

Bottom Line

Do religious leaders of a particular race attract congregation members of that same race, or do members of a congregation tend to choose leaders who are the same race as themselves? As religious leaders think about encouraging diversity in their congregations, should they be concerned about doing so in ways that preserve the kinds of social benefits that black churches lend to African-American communities? These are questions not easily answered, but they are good starting points for leaders as they consider ways to reach out to communities across the country that are increasingly multiracial.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,000 adult members of a church, synagogue, or other religious faith community, aged 18 and older, and 500 nonmembers, conducted in October and November 2003. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±2.6 percentage points.


As Global Practice Leader for Faith Communities, Dr. Winseman leads Gallup's research and consulting services that assist faith communities in helping their members become more engaged. He is a co-author of Living Your Strengths, written to help members discover and use their talents and strengths in their congregations. Before joining Gallup, he was a pastor in the United Methodist Church for 15 years.

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