National Congregations Study: Church Size and Clergy Age, Part 1

Thanks to Ed Stetzer, I’ve been reading the National Congregations Study. This study follows thousands of US congregations over the years and reports trends. And some are quite surprising.

Church size

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.

Clergy ages

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.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to National Congregations Study: Church Size and Clergy Age, Part 1

  1. Joe Baggett says:

    I just read the article in the Chronicle it was prompted by a previous article about the shortage of ministers in the North East. Then everyone wrote the Chronicle and informed them it was not unique to the North East. If it was not for the ministers 45+ in age the churches of Christ would not have very many. All of my friends from ACU (about 15) that went into ministry 15 years ago have gotten out. The situation is so desperate that Harding and other schools are offering practically free ministry degrees. The Baptist churches are going through the same thing. Very few of the emerging generation want to enter ministry in the traditional setting as a life long livelihood. I tried ministry a couple of times. The first church is now closed and the second split two times and is now also disbanded. If the Chronicle really wanted a brutally honest answer then they would go and interview all those under 45 that have left the ministry permanently and then they might get a straight answer. They might not be able to print their answers word for word. You know I am reminded about Jeremiah the weeping prophet. He was not optimistic he never made explanations like Flavil and the Chronicle do; he just called like it was. They drug him out to the desert and stoned him. I wonder if we had a prophet like Jeremiah what he would say to us today. Wait I think he would tell us the same things Jeremiah told his church. We have slowly given ourselves over to the Gods of our culture like hedonism, greed, and busyness. We have turned church in mostly empty religious dogma. We have created division to level they many have lost faith. Our children have abandoned faith. Jeremiah spoke all these things to the church of his day without pulling any punches. I wish he would come speak to us. But he would probably be silenced and castigated by the Gospel Advocate and its cohorts.

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