NSRL Methodology

The NSRL is a natural extension of the National Congregations Study (NCS). While the NCS focuses on congregations, the NSRL focuses on the clergy within these congregations. As part of the fourth wave of the National Congregations Study (conducted in 2018-19), detailed staffing information was collected from a nationally representative sample of American congregations. NCS key informants were asked to provide names and contact information for each ministerial staff person, and these reports were supplemented with staffing information gleaned from congregational websites, Facebook pages, and other online sources to create a nationally representative sample of ministerial staff working in congregations. The religious leaders of NCS-IV congregations constitute the NSRL sample.

A congregation’s religious leaders are those doing the core religious work of preaching, teaching, leading collective worship services and other rituals, and engaging in pastoral care. Each congregation’s primary leader was included in the NSRL sample whether or not they were paid and whether or not they were ordained clergy. Beyond the primary leader, we included religious leaders who were paid for their work in the congregation, and who served congregations with 25 or fewer paid secondary leaders. Since very few congregations have staffs that large, this size criterion does not significantly limit the NSRL’s generalizability. The NSRL sample still represents 94 percent of all secondary ministerial staff in congregations and the secondary staff in more than 99 percent of all congregations.

In collaboration with NORC at the University of Chicago, the NSRL gathered data from February 2019 to June 2020 primarily via an online self-administered questionnaire. Primary leaders who did not initially respond were more intensively recruited than secondary leaders. 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. Taking into account the NCS-IV’s own 69 percent response rate, 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. Sample weights adjust for some non-response bias, and for other features of the sample.

The 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 the 1,234 NCS-IV congregations with religious leaders (78 percent).

More methodological detail about the NSRL is included in the NSRL codebook.


  • 1,600 participating religious leaders representing 70+ Christian denominations, plus Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious groups
  • Information on demographics, job and career, pastoral activities, health, perspectives on science, political activities, and much more


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