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Why don't more Americans ask faith leaders for advice?
U.S. adults are more likely to turn to family, professionals, prayer and their own research than religious leaders when they need help making a major decision. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Andrea Revethis left her six-hour marriage prep class on May 14 feeling grateful and excited. She hadn't necessarily planned on taking relationship advice from Catholic leaders when she envisioned her dream wedding, but friends had encouraged her to give the Pre-Cana program a try.

"The thing I enjoyed most about it was hearing from other couples from the church who had been married for years," she said. The priest also stopped by to talk about the joy of building relationships with the couples he marries.

Revethis and her fiance, Derek, look forward to meeting with the priest a few more times before their October wedding. Although they're not regular churchgoers, the marriage course helped them see faith communities in a new light: as a source of wisdom for life's big moments or difficult situations.

But they are in the minority, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey that asked more than 35,000 adults where they sought guidance in making major life decisions. Only 15 percent of U.S. adults said they rely a lot on advice from religious leaders, compared to 82 percent who do their own research, 45 percent who pray, 43 percent who ask family members for help and 25 percent who ask experts for their insights.

These findings are disheartening but somewhat unsurprising, said experts on pastoral care. Supporting church members in times of need is an important part of being a religious leader, but it's also one of the hardest aspects of the job.

"(Listening well) takes a lot of practice. People might think, 'Oh I'm a good listener. My friends talk to me all the time.' But it's a little bit different when people are coming to you because you're a religious leader," said Mary Moschella, a professor of pastoral care and counseling at Yale Divinity School. "The problems people bring aren't spoken about every day in polite company."

Faith leaders shouldn't try to solve everyone's problems, she added. But they should build worship communities in which everyone feels free to strike up a conversation.

Common missteps

People avoid turning to religious leaders for advice for a variety of reasons, experts said.

Some, like Revethis, may not be very active in a faith community, making it awkward to appear in a priest's office out of the blue.

But Pew's research showed that even highly committed believers choose to turn to other sources of wisdom more often than they visit with pastors.

One in three highly religious Americans (33 percent), or people who pray daily and attend worship services at least once a week, rely a lot on advice from religious leaders when making major life decisions, compared to 80 percent who trust their own research, 86 percent who pray and 49 percent who ask family members for input, the study reported.

Paul Raushenbush, an ordained American Baptist pastor and senior vice president for public engagement at Auburn Seminary in New York City, said it's natural for even committed believers to be anxious about sharing personal issues with their pastor.

"People fear the horror show of coming to their pastor with a problem and then hearing your problem preached from the pulpit on Sunday," he said.

They may also worry about asking a religious leader about a major decision and being told they're overthinking it, Moschella said.

"It's an easy mistake for a young pastor to just try to solve it. To put an answer on it, say a prayer and send someone out the door," she said. "Sometimes the problem that someone comes in with is not really the issue that's bothering them. It might just be what they can start with."

Moschella trains her students to do more listening than advising when they're meeting with church members. A congregant might be frustrated if he doesn't receive a clear answer, but religious leaders shouldn't be in the business of making everyone see things their way, she said.

"People have it within them to find their own way," Moschella said.

Similarly, Brian Stucki, who operated his own business when he was called to serve as a bishop in the Las Vegas area for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2011, said he had to know the boundaries of his own knowledge in order to be an effective lay leader.

"I think it's critical to know where your limitations are, because if you give people the wrong advice, they don't just doubt you, they doubt the church," he said.

Bridging the gap

People may turn to the Internet or family members before they talk to a religious leader because it's more convenient, Raushenbush said, noting that if a faith leader wants to be more involved with congregants' lives, he or she will have to meet them where they are.

That logic guided Raushenbush to launch "Ask Pastor Paul" with Beliefnet in 2000. He later continued the project with Huffington Post Religion.

"There's a hunger online for people looking for answers to questions," he said. "I thought, 'Let's see what happens if I start putting myself out there.'"

Raushenbush was surprised by the number of responses he received. People asked for help during faith crises and when they struggled to find acceptance after coming out as gay.

"Many people were writing me questions that I think they felt uncomfortable asking their local religious leaders about," he said.

The experience showed him that people are still interested in hearing what faith leaders have to say. They just may not feel comfortable asking face-to-face.

In order to close the gap between believers' needs and their own abilities, religious leaders have to ensure that they're approachable, Moschella said.

"A lot of religious leaders will be preaching once a week. It matters what you say in your sermons," Moschella said. "Sometime in the course of the year, if you get around to mentioning some of the real issues people deal with on a regular basis like psychiatric illness or intimate partner violence or addiction even if you mention them very lightly, almost in passing you're often going to get people knocking at your door on Monday morning."

She tries to help her students understand that ministry requires a big helping of humility and the ability to empower others to make the decision that's best for them.

"They have to be willing to listen and hear what's really going on in someone's life. If they can do that, the rest of it flows," Moschella said.

Lay leaders like Stucki can benefit from already having strong connections to their faith community before taking a more prominent role, he said. When he became a bishop, people already knew his personality and felt comfortable around him.

"I'd served with them on service projects or gone to Scout Camp with them. There was a real familiarity," he said.

Stucki's challenge was to become an effective hub of information for his church. Rather than constantly fielding phone calls, he wanted to be able to connect people with questions to the best source of help.

"I didn't ever want to fake my way through a conversation," he said.
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