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National Survey of Religious Leaders




Chaves, M. (2023, July 24). National Survey of Religious Leaders.


The National Survey of Religious Leaders (NSRL) is a survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,600 clergy from across the religious spectrum. It surveyed religious leaders who work in congregations, including full-time and part-time ministerial staff, assistant and specialist ministerial staff (such as youth ministers, religious education directors, and others), and head clergy. Conducted in 2019-2020, the NSRL contains a wealth of information about congregations' religious leaders. There are questions about respondents' jobs and careers, including job satisfaction; religious beliefs and practices; views about and practices related to mental health; attitudes and practices related to end-of-life issues; community involvement; political attitudes and practices; engagement with the larger religious world; knowledge of and attitudes about science, and how science informs their work; primary information sources; mental and physical health; and demographic characteristics such as gender, race/ethnicity, age, education, birthplace, marital status and income. The NSRL constitutes a significant new resource for deepening our knowledge about religious leaders in 21st century America.

The ARDA has added six additional variables to the original data set to enhance the users' experience on our site.

Data File

Cases: 1600
Variables: 230

Key NSRL Features Relevant for Weighting:
• Religious Leaders enter the NSRL sample by being identified as leaders of congregations that participated in the Fourth Wave of the National Congregations Study (NCS-IV). Congregations were nominated for the NCS-IV by General Social Survey (GSS) respondents as the place they attend religious services. Since larger congregations were more likely to be named by GSS respondents than smaller congregations, the NCS-IV and NSRL are probability-proportional-to-size samples. Using different weights, the data can be analyzed at the congregation level or at the attendee level.
• Leaders are designated as Primary Leaders (usually one per congregation, but co-leaders are identified in some congregations) or Non-Primary Leaders.
• There are three populations of interest: only Primary Leaders (whether or not they are paid), only paid Non-Primary Leaders and all Leaders (both these groups together).
• Just as there are for the NCS-IV, there are three weights for each population of interest: two that allow users to analyze data at the congregation level (one that ignores duplicate GSS nominations and one that takes account of duplicate nominations) and one that allows users to analyze data at the attendee level.
Use a congregation-level weight if you are interested in leaders in the average congregation..
Use the attendee-level weight if you are interested in leaders in the congregation of the average attendee.

The primary-leader sample is a higher quality sample of a more well-defined population than either the non-primary-leader or all-leader samples, so analysts may want to focus on just the primary-leader sample. In that case:
• Use WT_NSRL_PRIMARY_DUP to describe the primary leaders in the average congregation.
• Use WT_NSRL_PRIMARY_ATTENDEE to describe the primary leaders in congregations of the average attendee.
For most purposes, these will be the only weights needed.

See the detailed weighting documentation for more information about NSRL weights (Link is below).

Data Collection

February 2019 - June 2020

Original Survey (Instrument)

NSRL Full Codebook
NSRL Detailed Weighting Documentation

Funded By

The National Survey of Religious Leaders was funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

Collection Procedures

In collaboration with the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, the NSRL gathered data from February 2019 to June 2020 primarily via an online self-administered questionnaire. Maximizing the response rate from primary leaders was prioritized due to limited resources for conducting follow-up interviews for non-responses. Secondary leaders who did not initially respond received only emailed reminders, and they received emailed reminders only if the NSRL possessed their direct contact information. Primary leaders who did not initially respond were recruited more intensively. They were mailed a paper questionnaire, called on the telephone, and offered enhanced incentives to participate. These efforts produced a much higher cooperation rate among primary leaders than among secondary leaders.

The cooperation rates were 70 percent among primary leaders and 23 percent among secondary leaders, for an overall cooperation rate of 37 percent. The NSRL's response rate is approximately 50 percent for primary leaders and 17 percent for secondary leaders. Eighty-two percent of respondents completed the survey online in a self-administered way, 7 percent completed the online survey via an interview, and 11 percent completed and returned a paper questionnaire. The median completion time for the online instrument was 34 minutes. The final NSRL dataset has 1,600 cases, 890 of whom are primary leaders of their congregations. There is at least one leader in the final NSRL sample from 968 of 1,234 congregations with religious leaders (78 percent) from the fourth wave of the National Congregations Survey (NCS-IV).

Sampling Procedures

Developing a nationally representative sample of clergy from across the religious spectrum requires overcoming the same obstacle faced in developing a nationally representative sample of congregations: the absence of a comprehensive and unbiased sampling frame. There is no comprehensive national list of clergy, and it probably would be impossible to compile one that was adequately unbiased. Overcoming this obstacle requires building on the same insight that inspired the congregations sampling strategy first implemented by the 1998 National Congregations Study (NCS-I) (Chaves et al. 1999). That is, just as the congregations attended by a nationally representative sample of individuals constitute a nationally representative sample of congregations, the leaders of congregations attended by a nationally representative sample of individuals constitute a nationally representative sample of congregational leaders. One can therefore bypass the need for a comprehensive list of clergy from which to sample by starting with a nationally representative sample of individuals, generating a nationally representative sample of congregations by asking those individuals who attend religious services to say where they attend, and, finally, identifying the leaders of those congregations. The NSRL pursued this sampling strategy.

The NSRL was conducted in conjunction with the fourth wave of the National Congregations Study (NCS-IV) and the 2018 General Social Survey (GSS). The GSS is an in-person survey of a nationally representative sample of non-institutionalized, English- or Spanish- speaking adults conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago (Smith et al. 2019). The 2018 GSS asked respondents who said they attend religious services at least once a year where they attend. The congregations named by GSS participants constitute a nationally representative sample of U.S. congregations. NORC then contacted those congregations and interviewed a key informant, usually a clergyperson or other leader, about the congregation's people, programs and characteristics. The NCS-IV cooperation rate - the percentage of contacted congregations who agreed to participate - was 74 percent. The response rate, calculated in line with the RR3 response rate developed by the American Association for Public Opinion Research (2016:62), but not taking account of the GSS's own response rate, was 69 percent. The NCS-IV gathered data from 1,262 congregations. See the NCS codebook for more detailed methodological information about the NCS.

In sum, the NSRL surveyed a nationally representative sample of all primary leaders (paid and unpaid) serving congregations, and all paid secondary leaders doing religious work and serving congregations with 25 or fewer secondary ministerial staff members. In the end, 1,281 primary leaders and 3,030 in-scope secondary leaders were identified in the 1,234 NCS-IV congregations that had religious leaders.

Principal Investigators

Mark Chaves

Related Publications

American Association for Public Opinion Research. 2016. Standard definitions: Final dispositions of case codes and outcome rates for surveys. 9th edition.

Chaves, Mark, Shawna Anderson, Alison Eagle, Mary Hawkins, Anna Holleman, and Joseph Roso. 2020. National Congregations Study. Cumulative data file and codebook. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University, Department of Sociology.

Chaves, Mark, Mary Ellen Konieczny, Kraig Beyerlein, and Emily Barman. 1999. "The National Congregations Study: Background, methods, and selected results." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 38(4):458-76.

Smith, Tom W., Michael Davern, Jeremy Freese, and Stephen L. Morgan. 2019. General Social Surveys, 1972-2018. Data file and codebook. Chicago, IL: NORC at the University of Chicago.

Chaves, Mark, Joseph Roso, and Anna Holleman. 2022. "The National Survey of Religious Leaders: Background, Methods, and Lessons Learned in the Research Process." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 61(3/4):737-749.

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