UCCan Ministers and God/god Survey


Some of you will know that I’m a rather inquisitive kind of person. I like asking questions and finding out about where people are at.

This survey grew out of a comment a ministerial colleague, Gretta Vosper, made on The National. The interview was a catalyst to my engaging in this exploration, inviting the rest of our colleagues to check a box or two, telling me a (little!) bit about what they believe.

The paper has been reviewed by three academic colleagues – two who teach in theological fields, and one a sociologist of religion. I asked them to help me make sure that my analysis and recommendations didn’t go past what the data allowed. Their thoughts, along with those of other readers and proofreaders, helped to make this a much better paper. I am deeply thankful for their help.

This was an exploratory study. The results do suggest that further study would be recommended. I’m thinking about how that could happen!

Please feel free to download and then to comment on what you’ve read. (Posts are moderated. Feel free to be passionate… but please be respectful to one another.) If you’d like a one-on-one conversation using my contact form will send an email directly to my phone! I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

I hope you find the reading as interesting as I have found the writing.

Preliminary Report (.PDF)
Executive Summary (Powerpoint slideshow)
Executive Summary (.PDF of slideshow)

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  1. Vosper should do the honourable thing and resign, since she no longer believes her ordination vows. Oh, wait, she needs a job and likes the UCC pension plan. And presbytery doesn't have the guts to fire her. Spare me! My demonination has strayed from its roots and I and getting tired of providing financial support to this nonsense.

  2. Thanks for this work, Richard…and thanks to Gretta for providing some of the motivation for it! My denomination, our denomination, has demonstrated it's acceptance of different ideas. I hope hat continues to be the case! Much further study is required. I hope you continue your good work! (Hello to a different John Anderson who commented previously).

  3. Richard, how do you explain the huge discrepancy between the number of supernatural theists in Q1 and Q3, that is, 34% and 79%, respectively? And why have you ignored the results of Q1 in your abstract? It seems to me Q1 validates the claim that “at least upwards of 50% of the clergy in the United Church … don't believe in a theistic, supernatural, God.” Indeed, that looks to be about 66%, based on Q1.

    1. Hi Steve –

      You wrote, \”Richard, how do you explain the huge discrepancy between the number of supernatural theists in Q1 and Q3, that is, 34% and 79%, respectively?\”

      Steve, can I ask where you\’re getting your 34% from? Are you assuming that the group who chose the definition closest to panentheism (the largest group) are not theistic?

      You wrote, \”And why have you ignored the results of Q1 in your abstract? It seems to me Q1 validates the claim that “at least upwards of 50% of the clergy in the United Church … don't believe in a theistic, supernatural, God.” Indeed, that looks to be about 66%, based on Q1.\”

      I consider panentheism to a theistic theology. The choice that the 50+% group in Q1 (sorry, I\’m on my phone and can\’t open the report here to get the exact number) included a \”divine other.\”

      With Q1 being 83% (not including additions from the \”other\” section) and Q3 79%, I don\’t see the same discrepancy that you do.

      1. Thanks, Richard. I completely agree that panentheism is a type of theism. However, it’s not traditional, *supernatural theism*, which was the subject of Gretta’s comment. As is clear from her writing on this topic, including her email to you and Apr.6 blog post, she distinguishes traditional supernaturalism from all other types of theistic belief and unbelief. This is God of traditional dictionary definition, the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, personal, transcendent and immanent Supreme Being, Creator, Sustainer and Ruler of the universe. This is the god Gretta does not believe in. As she wrote to you, it’s her view that anyone who does not hold the *traditional supernatural view* is not a theist.

        So the statement you set out to explore – how many UCC clergy do not believe in a “theistic, supernatural God”? – had to parse out the supernatural theists from all others. As you know, many UCC leaders have said that very few clergy hold this traditional view. I’ve read both Bruce Sanguin and David Ewart as saying 99% do not hold it. Grettta quoted (or misquoted?) Mark Toulouse as saying at least 50% do not.

        Based on your category descriptions on page 3, I’d say question 1 was fairly well-designed to sort this out, to tease apart 3 kinds of theistic belief (traditional supernaturalism, panentheism, and deism) and 3 kinds of non-theistic belief (non-realism/conceptualism, agnosticism, and atheism). The definitions could have been fuller, but they pointed in the right direction. The question itself used these basic descriptions without the labels and forced respondents to choose one, and the results were relatively clear: 34.1% supernaturalist, 51.3% panentheist, 2.3% deist, 2.1% conceptualist, 1.2% agnostic, and .7% atheist (8.2% other).

        On the face of it, then, Q1 clearly answered the primary query: 34.1% of UCC clergy respondents self-identified as traditional, supernatural theists, meaning 65.9% did not. According to this survey question, the Toulouse/Vosper claim was validated.

        But for reasons unknown, your whole report ignores this result – you never even mention it. Instead your abstract is based on the claim that “almost 80%” affirmed “a belief in a supernatural, theistic God.” You seem to have taken this number from the ‘No’ responses to the awkwardly worded and (in my view) highly biased phrasing of Q3 (as I wrote to you previously). But to NOT include oneself among those who do NOT believe in supernatural theism is not at all equivalent to affirming belief in supernatural theism. Respondents apparently didn't want to support Vosper’s claim, but the double negative doesn’t make a positive supernatural theist.

        In addition, you offer no analysis squaring this 79% result in Q3 with the 34.1% of Q1, nor do you explain why the Q1 panentheists – 51% of the respondents! – completely disappear in Q3, absorbed into your supernaturalists. Curiously, you also moved Q3 to the top of your Results Discussion and put Q1 into Table 4, ignoring the specific results and highlighting that 94.9% “articulated a belief in God,” thus lumping all the theist categories together, exactly contradicting the purpose of the whole survey, which was to tease the supernatural theists apart.

        I recognize you’re done a tremendous amount of work, Richard, and I’m sure it’ll benefit the Church. Unfortunately I think you significantly misinterpret the results. Q1 answered the initial query, but it’s buried in the Report. And your high-level claim – that 80% of UCC clergy respondents believe in traditional, supernatural theism – is quite unbelievable given what UCC seminaries teach and what keen UCC observers tells us about the prevalence of panentheism among clergy. It just doesn’t add up.

        1. Thank you for your interpretation of the data and thoughts on the analysis, Steve.

          You asked why I didn\’t report on the discrepancy between Q1 & Q3 – and I shared why I didn\’t there being a large difference.

          You have a different interpretation than I do of where panenthiesm fits into this discussion. So I guess I\’ll flip the question around. *grin*

          What are your thoughts on the difference that you see in the responses to Q1 & Q3?

          1. Well, let’s start with the first question. Q1 forced respondents to choose one of six approaches to theism, each of which you describe on p.3. The 5th item, labeled ‘theism’, offers the definition for traditional, supernatural, ‘interventionist’ theism. Modern liberal theologians stretch the word ‘theism’ to include other forms of belief (panentheism, deism, etc), but the word as popularly understood – and defined in common dictionaries and Wikipedia, as you found – refers specifically to supernatural theism. You made that meaning clearer in the survey question by adding the phrase “supernatural revelation” to that option. By your own definitions, then, survey Q1 offered six options: 1) panentheism, 2) ‘supernatural’ theism, 3) deism, 4) ‘God as metaphor’ or non-realism, 5) agnosticism, and 6) atheism.

            That seems completely reasonable to me, and well-enough suited to answer the question at hand: How many UCC clergy “don't believe in a theistic, supernatural, God”? The answer: those who chose options other than #2.

            Having corresponded with Vosper, you'll know this is the narrow group (option 2) to which she always refers, as do Bruce Sanguin, David Ewart and others wishing to highlight the difference between modern UCC belief and traditional Christian understanding. Panentheism is NOT included in their understanding of traditional supernaturalist belief.

            That’s how I understand the purpose of Q1, even before interpreting the results. I'm interested to understand your view. Thanks!

          2. Re-reading Doug Todd’s post makes me wonder, Richard, if our apparent difference stems from differing interpretations of Vosper’s actual claim. Doug casts her as saying that 50% of UCC clergy are full-on atheists. Is that also your reading? Do you consider ‘not supernatural theist’ equivalent to ‘atheist’? That's definitely not my reading, but I’d like to understand yours

          3. Steve, at this point, I need to let the report speak (as far as it can) for itself.
            I will happily engage with you in this question – and others – at a future time.

            I appreciate that you are asking the question, and hope that you will continue to explore this conversation with as many UCCan ministers (and others) that you can get a hold of!

  4. Richard I would be interested in how the responses to the survey differ for for those retired, or entering order of ministry prior to 1980 compared more recent ministers. Including students in with the retirees does not make sense to me. Is there a difference in the older active ministers vs younger ones? Is there any indication of an impact of changes at theological training instituions on the present "big tent" senarion in the UCC?

    1. Rick, I haven't done much focus on the age cohorts, at this point.

      Part of the difficulty with both the students and the retired (and not currently serving) folks is that there number is so small compared to the population.

      I have to wonder if the questions you ask would be better served by a future study that actively reaches into those two groups. (But I'll see if anything comes out of the numbers!)

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