Trends in Latino Congregations: An In-depth Interview with Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi


How are the trends in majority Latino congregations different from those in non-Latino congregations? Jessica Anschutz speaks with Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi about her report Latino Congregations: Trends from the Faith Communities Today (FACT) and Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC) Studies. It reveals that while Latino congregations face financial difficulties, a majority have experienced growth or remained stable in recent years. 

Watch the interview video on YouTube, listen to this interview, or continue reading.

Jessica Anschutz: Share with our audience a little bit about the background behind the report on the state of Latino congregations today, Latino Congregations: Trends from the Faith Communities Today (FACT) and Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC) Studies 

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi: The report analyzes data from two research efforts. The first survey is called the Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey, and it is a periodic national survey of congregations that has been taking place since the year 2000. The report analyzes data from the 2020 FACT national survey, which reported on over 15,000 congregations. The second study is Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC), which is a five-year project seeking to analyze and look at the effects of the COVID pandemic on congregational life in the United States. This project involves not only national surveys but also panel surveys following congregations over time, and nearly 100 regional case studies of congregations themselves across nine regions. So, 100 case studies across nine regions of the country. Both research efforts are organized and housed at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research out of the Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, which used to be Hartford Seminary.  

Jessica Anschutz: Before we dig into the report, I think it might be helpful to know about the background of the Latino population in the United States. What is key to know as we prepare to discuss these studies?  

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi: Latinos in general are very similar in terms of the broad breadth of diversity, country of origin, ethnicity, that you would find in any other grouping. So, Euro Americans, Indigenous peoples, Asians, Asian Americans: they are not a monolith. As we categorize ourselves in the United States, Latinos are peoples who generally trace our heritage to Central and South America, Spain, and/or the Caribbean.  

We constitute about 18% of the total U. S. population, based on the 2020 U. S. Census survey. We are the second fastest growing racial and ethnic group, behind Asians. We constituted about half of all growth in the U.S. population from 2010 to 2020.  

We are not a monolith. We speak a variety of languages. Many of us are bilingual, so English, Spanish, Portuguese, and a host of indigenous languages from across the southern western hemisphere. We name and call ourselves by many different monikers. For the purpose of our conversation, I will use Latino. But there are gender inclusive terms like Latinx or Latine, which is a newer one. We also are referred to as Hispanic or call ourselves Hispanic. There are also ethnic and national specific kinds of ways that we talk about ourselves. So, I’m Puerto Rican, so I’m Puertorriqueña. There’s Cuban, there’s Mexican, Chicano, and so on and so forth.  

Jessica Anschutz: Thank you for setting the stage for our conversation. When it comes to the research, what are some of the key findings?  

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi: There are lots of key findings in this report, but I want to share just one to begin with. I think this is a unique aspect of Latino congregations in general, apart from other congregations in the United States. A majority, six out of 10, Latino congregations have experienced growth or remained stable in attendance over the past five years. That is a very different picture than for other congregations. Over half of other congregations have declined in the last five years in terms of attendance. There are likely several reasons for this. One of the main reasons is simple demographic shifts within the U.S. So as the Latino population increases, as other minoritized populations increase, there will likely be growth in congregations.  

Same with the decline in terms of congregations that are declining. Many of them are Euro American congregations. That is because of demographics. There are other factors such as secularization and those sorts of things that take place. Latino congregations are an increasingly vibrant aspect of congregational life in the U.S., and they trend younger than other congregations as a whole too, which is another demographic piece.  

Jessica Anschutz: I found that really interesting. Not only the growth, but the reality that they’re younger and are doing a better job of using technology.  

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi: The median age of majority Latino congregations is much younger than other congregations. These congregations use more informal means of communication such as social media, email (perhaps not even emails but sometimes emails), and texting apps such as WhatsApp. These were shown to be used at higher rates and more frequently with Latino congregations than other congregations. More formal means of communication like newsletters, for example, were used less frequently in Latino congregations. I do think there is something there with age and the informality of communication versus the more formal ways that congregations have historically communicated with members.  

Jessica Anschutz: I appreciate you highlighting that. I found the age difference surprising and enlightening. I think it makes a lot of sense, but it also makes me think that non-Latino congregations have a lot to learn from Latino congregations as far as reaching younger generations and younger people.  

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi: Absolutely. At the same time, I always want to say to other congregations and congregations that trend older that it’s not your fault. Demographics play a huge role in this. So, Latinos as a whole trend younger than Euro American populations because of the increase in new immigration and younger families over the last decade alone, which are huge factors. Other congregations tend to place the burden on themselves asking, “why don’t we have more young people?” Sometimes there’s just not a ton of young people to be had in certain areas and demographics.  

Jessica Anschutz: I want to jump into the affiliation of the Latino congregations, because some of that data really surprised me. Seven out of 10 majority Latino congregations are evangelical Protestant. What surprised me was that only 12.8% were Catholic and Orthodox and 15% were mainline Protestant, and Catholic churches are home to 33.8% of all Latino congregational worshipers. So, they have a higher percentage of worshipers in a smaller percentage of congregations. Mainline Protestant churches are home to only 4.4% of worshipers with evangelical Protestant churches being home to 61.7% of Latino congregation worshipers. What does this tell us about majority Latino congregations?  

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi: What this means is that evangelical congregations have a larger share of the total participants among these congregations and an over representation above the percentage of those congregations that exist. Even though they are only 12.8% of congregations as a whole, Catholic and Orthodox parishes have a third of all participants, which means that they’re larger. Many Catholic parishes tend to be larger and have several masses and types of services. This is also true for evangelical congregations who constitute seven out of 10 total congregations for Latinos.  

What it means for mainline Protestant churches then is that they are smaller. They are smaller overall than these other two types of congregations because they only have 4% of the share of total participants, even though they’re 15% of the total number of congregations.  

So, it’s just a different way to look at size and how that plays out in terms of participants. Evangelical Protestant is a big tent that includes Southern Baptists and certain denominations that identify within the evangelical tradition.  

Jessica Anschutz: Thank you for helping us understand those numbers. As we’re talking about Latino congregations, geographically speaking, where are they located in the United States?  

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi: Overall, I would say that the patterns match the regions of the country that are more churched in general. There are some nuances to that with majority Latino churches, but six out of 10 majority Latino congregations are in the South. About half of all other congregations are in the south as well.  

You see this concentration in an area where it is heavily churched. But when you look at states like Florida that have a lot of Latinos, this makes sense as well. The West is less churched and only two out of 10 Latino congregations are in the Western U.S. There are large concentrations of Latinos in California and Arizona, so a greater percentage of Latino faith communities are found in these places than non-Latino faith communities. So, there are some patterns that we see with churches overall, but really some nuances there. A lot of Latinos in those regions go to church, so there’s a greater percentage of Latino congregations in these areas than other congregations.  

Jessica Anschutz: As we think about congregations, that also makes me think about property. I found it interesting that Latino congregations are half as likely to own their own facilities and three times more likely to worship in the same building as other congregations. Talk to us a little bit about this, what this means, what this looks like.  

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi: I’m just speculating, but there are a lot of factors and reasons for this to be the case. The data showed that the median founding date of majority Latino congregations is 1991. That is 50 years later than the median of all other congregations. So not having had time to build resources or capital, is perhaps one factor.  

Another factor is because the Latino population is also a significantly immigrant population and a huge part of our growth is from other countries, so there has not yet been time to build generational wealth. I suspect that that will change as we move forward, and this affects congregations in lots of different ways. This means that Latino churches are renting facilities from other congregations and meeting in the building of more established churches. Some of them are not paying rent at all. Others are even meeting in homes or other spaces that aren’t congregations.  

There’s a wide variety of ways that folks are meeting and coming together. Of course, there are congregations that own their own facilities or their denomination or their tradition owns their own facilities, which is true of dioceses in the Catholic tradition. It’s just all very fascinating because there’s opportunity for partnership, for learning, especially if a Latino congregation is meeting in someone else’s building or a space that has become shared.  

Jessica Anschutz: Let’s talk a little bit about pastoral leadership. In many traditions, we are seeing an increase in bivocational ministers. What I found interesting about the research is that many more Latino pastors are bivocational.   

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi: The Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey, and I think the EPIC surveys, don’t use the word bivocational specifically. But they ask leaders, “do you have other kinds of paid employment outside of your congregation?” Over one third of pastors of majority Latino congregations say that they have paid employment elsewhere regardless of whether their roles are full-time or part-time, and regardless of whether their pastoral roles are paid or unpaid.  

So, two in 10 pastors of these churches are unpaid in their current roles. This was the case for some of the local case studies that I’ve done, and that my team has done, in the Denver region. There’s one pastor of a Presbyterian church who doesn’t get paid for their role as the pastor of the church. They have a full-time job, but they are the pastor of this Spanish speaking new church start. So, there are lots of different configurations, but the incidences of bivocationality or multivocationality are certainly higher in majority Latino congregations than other congregations.  

I keep saying majority Latino congregations because that was the way that I analyzed the data. Congregations that had at least 50% or more of their participants identified as Latino were included in the survey. That could mean that there were other ethnicities, other racial identifications within those congregations.  

That kind of translates into the findings that we found about the racial identities of the leaders themselves. So, only four in 10 key leaders of these Latino congregations are Latino themselves. Four in 10 were identified as white, which is very interesting and fascinating. There’s a lot of diversity within these congregations and within the leadership. What are the dynamics of a white leader in a majority Latino congregation? What about an African or Afro Caribbean leader of a congregation? They may actually represent other ethnicities or nationalities present in the congregation too.  

Jessica Anschutz: It’s so interesting, and I think there’s such great diversity that isn’t apparent in the numbers and the terminology that we use. Based on the research, what would you say is needed for greater vitality in Latino congregations?  

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi: I don’t know at this point because these congregations also report greater vitality than other congregations. Vitality is defined in the surveys in lots of ways: do they have a clear sense of mission and purpose? Are they willing to meet new challenges? Are they good at incorporating new members? What is their level of involvement in their local community? Those are all markers of what we would look for in terms of the survey data. Do they say they’re more spiritually vital and alive? These congregations do over and above other congregations. So, the question of vitality really has to do with sustainability. That is a different question, and has to do with property, finances, staffing, and what will it take for these ministries to continue. So, I would break it down a little bit in terms of vitality versus sustainability.  

Jessica Anschutz: Latino congregations did report greater financial difficulties and a decrease in giving both pre-lockdown, pre-COVID. You were talking about the vitality of congregations, and it was striking to me that only one in 10, or 10.9%, of Latino congregations experienced major conflict. [It was also striking] that conflict tends to impact Latino congregations less severely overall when they are compared with majority non-Latino congregations. Why might this be the case?  

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi: Part of me wonders, is it the case that it’s underreported? Is it a reporting bias that people don’t want to report that there’s conflict? Is it a question of what is considered conflict? If it’s not open conflict, is it actually conflict? There might be some cultural differences for how conflict is understood. So that’s all part of survey bias questions. But overall, I haven’t drawn these correlations, and I don’t know if this is statistically accurate, but because a large percentage of these congregations are either stable or growing, that might be a reason for having less conflict.  

That’s not to say that stable and growing congregations don’t have conflict at all because they certainly do. Growth, especially if there’s an established group of people in the congregation, brings new people who often bring new ways of doing things, but also bring conflict. Because these are newer congregations, perhaps there hasn’t been the level of conflict that you might have with a more established group and newer people coming in. So that might also be a reason for these fewer percentages of conflict in Latino congregations.  

Jessica Anschutz: I could also see it being the case since they trend younger, you don’t have some of the generational conflicts that come in other contexts.  

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi: Yes, absolutely.  

Jessica Anschutz: I would like to give you an opportunity to share with our listeners where folks can find this report.  

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi: There are two places that you can find this report, and we have versions both in English and in Spanish. They can be found on the websites of both studies:  Faith Communities Today Study or the FACT study, and the EPIC study, Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations. These are free downloadable reports. There are a number of really interesting reports coming out of the EPIC project around impacts on mental wellness of clergy after COVID 19, and studies on technology use after COVID 19. There’s a lot there.  

They’re in the process of doing another round of surveys among religious bodies, and getting ready to do one related to the faith communities today’s study. There are lots of reports on that website as well, if you’re interested in these national surveys of religious life and congregational life.  

Jessica Anschutz: Thank you, Kristina, for taking the time to talk with me today. As we draw to a close, I invite you to share your hope for Latino congregations as we move into the future.  

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi: My hope would be increased financial stability and the ability to find stable spaces and places for worship and service in their local communities. My hope alongside that is that denominations and religious bodies can direct financial resources and properties the way of Latino congregations, particularly those denominations that have those resources and as certain other populations decline, that those resources get redistributed in equitable ways.  

Read Latino Congregations report onlineRead Latino Congregations: Trends from the Faith Communities Today (FACT) and Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC) Studies online.

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About Author

Kristina Lizardy Hajbi

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi is assistant professor of leadership and formation and faculty director of the Office of Professional Formation at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, where she also co-directs the Doctor of Ministry in Prophetic Leadership and coordinates the Certificate in Latinx Studies for the Iliff/University of Denver joint Ph.D. in the Study of Religion. She is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and author of Latino Congregations: Trends from the Faith Communities Today (FACT) and Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC) Studies.

Dr. Jessica Anschutz

Jessica L. Anschutz is the Assistant Director of the Lewis Center and co-editor of Leading Ideas. She teaches in the Doctor of Ministry program at Wesley Theological Seminary and is an elder in the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Jessica participated in the Lewis Fellows program, the Lewis Center's leadership development program for young clergy. She is also the co-editor with Doug Powe of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024).

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