Members Down, Clergy Up: Putting a Tuxedo on a Turkey

This piece (“Mainline decline? Depends on what you’re counting“) in the Religion News Service (RNS) provides some interesting data about church and clergy membership over the last half-century. Churches that belong to the so-called “mainline” lost nearly one third of their total membership in the last four decades, declining from about 15% of the population in the mid 20th century to about 6% of the much larger population in recent years. As the author puts it, mainline churches have lost about 60% of their “market share” in the general population. At the same time, the raw number of clergy in these denominations has nearly doubled. The rise in the ratio of clergy to laity is even more pronounced, going from 1 to over 400 to 1 to fewer than 200.

The author looks on the bright side of life.

Churches are more than members. In the parlance of economics, they are firms that provide goods and services. The lower number of members does not mean that mainline churches are less able to provide for its members. The decline in members has not resulted in a drying up funding. On the contrary, there are more clergy per member today than during the “rise of the mainline.”

We often think of religions as vibrant if they have more members. But quantity isn’t always the same as quality. Indeed, in other organizations we often value a low staff-to-client ratio. Schools brag about their low faculty-to-student ratio. Social service agencies complain that they don’t have the staff to give people enough attention. The low clergy-to-member ratio in mainline churches likely means that these churches are better able to provide for their members than in years past—more programs for youth and the elderly, more social services, and more local pastors.

That’s a very optitimistic way to look at it, but I think there may be some other forces at work. All of these extra clergy may not exist simply to provide better services to church members.

The decline in membership has not been accompanied by an equivalent decline in the number of congregational units (although many have closed their doors).

Methodism, for example, had a brilliant strategy in the 19th and early 20th centuries: plant a lot of churches. We put congregations at nearly every crossroads across the country (or at least across the south where I lived). In the days when most of the population lived on farms and walked or took the buggy to church, it worked like a charm. Now, people drive past the little country church to the big suburban church miles away. The members of these sometimes tiny remnants of our 19th century strategy deserve the church’s love and respect. Maintaining declining congregations, however, continues to require clergy support of some sort, even as congregations enter their twilight years.

Additionally, mainline churches love bureaucracy. How many new boards, agencies, and other institutional requirements have the mainline churches generated over the past several decades? What percent of clergy work in church institutions, now, instead of local churches?

Finally, mainline churches have decided that clergy ought to be out serving and changing society, not just leading the church. As an elder in an extension ministry, I would be the last to disparage ministry beyond the church walls. Army chaplains lead congregations, preside at worship, preach and teach the Bible, administer the sacraments, conduct weddings and funerals, make new disciples, organize and equip the laity for ministry and perform most of the other functions of a local pastor, only in a military setting.

Some clergy jobs, however, appear to be more tangentially related to a pastor’s core calling. I often see the title “Reverend” and the clergy collar in places where it appears only to serve as a religious imprimatur for an essentially secular cause or vocation. Ordination adds nothing to the task except, perhaps, a veneer of religiosity.

The basic purpose of the clergy is to lead the church. I wonder how many clergy today are involved in other tasks, compared to 50 years ago.

So perhaps the rise in the number of clergy is not solely or primarily related to churches adding staff to better serve their constituents. Perhaps it is related to the need to maintain churches established in a different missional era, while simultaneously adding new administrative and institutional requirements and expanding the scope of the kinds of jobs that justify ordination.

The basic facts remain. Mainline churches are declining in membership. Nearly doubling the number of ordained clergy did not change that. In fact, one might wonder if the disproportionate clergy growth is part of a more fundamental change in the mainline churches’ self-understanding, one that has contributed to their numerical decline.

There are many reasons for the mainline church’s declining numbers, and some of them are beyond the current churches’ control. The trajectory of American culture and Protestantism’s peculiar history as an American institution have played a major role. However, some of the decline lies at the feet of mainline church leaders – including that mushrooming cadre of clergy. Fragmenting self-understanding, abandoning historic faith commitments and detours into bizarre theological pathways are surely part of the problem.

I, for one, am not terribly interested in chasing numbers. I’m more concerned that the church to which I belong understands who it is, what its mission in the world is, and that we live faithfully, peacefully and joyfully in our beliefs. Let the rest of the God’s people take responsibility for their vision of the Christian life and church order; we should happily take responsibility for ours and invite others to join us as they feel led. Even small congregations – and small denominations – can make a big impact for God.

To pretend, however, that the declining numbers are somehow hiding a good thing in the increased clergy-to-laity ratio is curious. RNS has a discernible pro-mainline (“progressive”) orientation, so its putting a tuxedo on this turkey is understandable.