Following the Leader

Do the actions of a religious leader in any way influence how their congregation will act? The idea that religious leaders like pastors and priests serve as a model for their flock is widely accepted within a number of world religions. In the Bible, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” In the Quran, believers are told that “For you the life of the Prophet is a good model of behavior” (33:21).

Politics is one area where the actions of the clergy and their influence on congregations have garnered a good deal of attention. Books, scores of articles, and news reports highlight the sway religious leaders can have on the political views of their followers.

Beyond politics, many religious leaders influence other aspects of their congregants’ lives, like health, for a current example. Megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s new book The Daniel Plan proposes a healthy eating and lifestyle plan that his congregation and many around the United States are adopting.

The U.S. Congregational Life Survey provides a unique view of how congregational leaders’ actions may influence their congregation. Using data from surveying both the religious leaders and the people in the pews, we can peek at if and to what extent congregants follow the example set by their religious leaders.

The first figure below displays a number of different actions religious leaders and congregants reported participating in over the last year.[i] Some of these are political in nature, and some are religious or community-service related. The bars represent the percent of the congregation that reported participating in the action in the past year. The darker bars represent those congregations where the leader reported performing the action. The lighter bars are those congregations where the leader did not perform the action. The differences between the bars highlight whether or not the leader performing the action influences how many congregants report the behavior.

fig 1

A word of caution: because this data was collected at one point in time we cannot assume that because the leader reported doing one action that the congregants then followed along. We can only point to the fact that these things are associated in some way. It could be that religious leaders act in these ways in response to greater numbers of their congregation doing so.

The actions with a star beside them are those where the differences between those congregations where the leader performed the action and those congregations where the leader did not are real and significant differences. The figure below highlights these four actions.

fig 2

It appears as though when religious leaders have worked to help solve a community problem, or loaned money to someone in need, a greater proportion of their congregation reports doing the same. The other two actions are more political in nature. When religious leaders have contacted an elected official or contributed money to a campaign, more of their congregation reports acting likewise.

Religious leaders are no doubt aware that what they do and how they act can influence those they lead. It may be that for religious leaders to see changes in their congregants’ lives and activities, an old adage may be most apt: Lead by doing.


[i] These activities include: Voting in last election, donated money to charitable organization (other than congregation), worked with others to try to solve a community problem, donated or prepared food for someone outside your family or congregation, contacted an elected official about a public issue, helped someone outside your family find a job, cared for someone outside your family who was very sick, went on a mission or service trip, loaned money to someone outside your family, contributed money to a political party or candidate