Lewis Center Director F. Douglas Powe describes shifting staffing patterns and ministry models emerging as more and more mainline congregations suffer decline. The Lewis Center is launching a three-year research effort supported by Lilly Endowment Inc. to study these and other changes in the religious workforce, the impact on local congregations, and implications for how people prepare for ministry.
Many of us remember a time when most congregations were staffed by seminary-trained M.Div. graduates, usually assisted by one or two other staff members, such as an office assistant or secretary. Larger congregations typically had more paid staff in specialized roles like Christian education and youth ministry. But this model of ministry, perceived by many as the gold standard, is shifting with the decline of many mainline churches.
The Lewis Center has received a three-year grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to study the changing landscape of the religious workforce. Let me share a few trends illustrating why this inquiry is so critical at this time of rapidly changing religious culture in the United States.
1. Decreasing number of full-time pastors
As we delve into this research, we expect to discover that full-time pastor positions are decreasing. As congregations continue to shrink, the cost of maintaining a full-time, fully credentialed clergy person is unsustainable for many. We see evidence of this trend in The United Methodist Church; in many regions of the country the number of part-time pastors is increasing while the number of full-time pastors is decreasing. If this trend continues, it has implications for the configuration of Master of Divinity programs that set the standard for full-time ministry.
2. Bi-vocational pastors
We also expect to find an increase in bi-vocational pastors. Certainly, there have always been bi-vocational pastors, but the difference will be the increasing number of bi-vocational pastors in mainline churches. This trend suggests a need to rethink the leadership role of the pastor since they will no longer be available in the same manner as before. This shift is already occurring in some small congregations, and we may discover effective models of bi-vocational ministry in these smaller churches.
3. More volunteers taking on paid roles
We suspect that congregations will see more volunteers taking on roles that used to be paid positions — positions such as Christian education, youth ministry, and even church assistants. This shift implies a need for high-caliber volunteer training that provides the basics to those called to take on this work.
4. Shifts in financial models
Many congregations rely on pledges or some form of parishioner giving to sustain their finances. But shrinking memberships and a less religiously inclined culture make this financial model less sustainable. Congregations will need to think about ways of sustaining ministry that move beyond the standard model of parishioner support. This implies that pastors may need a different type of training that equips them to think more creatively about stewardship and economic sustainability. Another implication is the need to leverage physical assets and pay attention to property issues ranging from repairs, underusage, and the affordability of mortgages.
5. New models of church
In recent years, unconventional faith communities are popping up across the United States with increasing frequency. These communities range from house churches to a canoe church. Some are within denominational bodies and others are unaffiliated. Many of these unconventional faith communities are “small on purpose.” This trend begs the question of the kind of training appropriate for leaders of these novel expressions of church. Some may not seek an M.Div. degree but still need a solid foundation for leading a faith community.
The Religious Workforce Study is large in scope and will no doubt reveal many other trends. But these initial insights illustrate some of the critical issues at stake as denominations and congregations try to figure out what it means to be the church in a shifting culture. This study will also help us learn how theological education intersects with these congregational staffing patterns, economic opportunities, and pressures. The Lewis Center will continue to share insights that can help resource leaders to be better prepared as the face of ministry continues to change.