The first conclusion has to do with the size of congregations.
Even though the number of megachurches continues to increase, and a trend towards increasing concentration of people in the largest churches continues as well, the median congregation is the same size today as it was in 1998 (75 regular participants). Likewise, the median person still attends a congregation that is the same size as it was in 1998 (400 regular participants).
Although half the congregations have less than 75 members, half the members attend churches of over 400 members. Well, only a very small percentage of churches have more than 400 members, but they represent half the membership.
How is it even possible for more people to be attending larger churches and yet have the average church size remain unchanged at 75? Plainly, the membership is shifting from the more medium-sized churches to the larger churches — some by virtue of their church growing larger and some by transfers of memberships from medium-sized churches to larger churches.
Perhaps most significant of the characteristics of those who lead congregations (meaning head clergy in multi-staff congregations, sole clergy in single-staff congregations, or the person named as the religious leader in congregations without a clergyperson), congregational leaders are older, on average, than they were in 1998. The median age of head clergy in American congregations has increased from 49 in 1998 to 53 in 2006. This seems like a large change in only 9 years.
By way of comparison, the average age of the American public (limiting attention only to the over-25 population) has increased 1 year since 1998, from 47.5 to 48.5. And the percent of people in congregations led by someone 50 or younger has declined from 48 percent in 1998 to 39 percent today.
This aging of clergy is happening across the religious spectrum, though it is happening faster for Catholic and liberal/mainline congregations than for others. The average age of head clergy in liberal/mainline congregations increased 6 years since 1998, from 49 to 55; among clergy in predominantly African American congregations, median age increased only 2 years. It appears that the increasing number of second-career clergy and the simultaneous decline in the number of people going to seminary immediately after college are combining to produce a rather rapidly aging American pastorate.
Interesting. Some of this is surely due to clergy working later in life, as improved healthcare and health habits allow many to work into their 70s who could not have done so 10 years ago.
I don’t get the impression, however, that the Church of Christ clergy is dramatically aging in place. I do think our ministers likely are continuing to work longer as they age, which reduces the number of jobs available for young ministers, making it harder for a new graduate to break in.
In the next post, we’ll consider the latest articles from the Christian Chronicle on this very subject.