Research on Closed Churches and Their Pastors

Over the last couple of months, our office has been working with the Center for Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology to gather data on UCC churches that closed between 2010 and 2012, in addition to gathering information about the pastors who led those churches at the time of their closings.

Dr. Gail Cafferata, the primary researcher for this project, previously served as an Episcopal priest and led a California congregation through the process of closing its doors and ending its ministry within the community. A sociologist as well as a minister, Gail wanted to explore the experiences of other mainline pastors who had guided congregations through the process of closing. Here is the complete abstract for the project:

Protestant churches are declining at about one to two percent per year but in some mainline denominations nearly twice as many churches are closing than opening, creating financial and other challenges for congregations and judicatories. In this context, what is the role of the pastor in closing a church and how does closing a church affect a pastor? While resources have appeared about pastoral ways to close a church, no one has studied how clergy talk about God and live the Gospel during this process, or how closing churches affect pastoral identity. We know little about how judicatories, denominations and others do (and might) support clergy in their vocations and ministry. This mixed methods (in-depth interviews and written questionnaire) study of a national sample of ELCA, PCUSA, UCC and UMC clergy will show how pastors navigate their pastoral ministries and vocational paths as well as what social and spiritual supports help them respond to challenges and sustain well-being. The cost of not responding to these questions is that the dignity and well-being of clergy, congregations and judicatories as they move through church closures will continue to be at risk because we know little about their challenges and who or what supports them in this process.

Through this data gathering process, we discovered a few basic (but new) insights about some of the UCC’s closed churches (2010-2012) and their ministers at the time of closing. It is important to note that these figures do not include or represent all churches that closed within this time period; the statistics only represent closed congregations that listed a pastor in the Yearbook for the year they closed. Although our records are not as complete as we would like them to be, here’s what we found so far:

● Of the churches that listed a pastor in the UCC Yearbook at the time of closing, 60% were led by a male pastor, 33% were led by a female pastor, and 7% did not indicate the gender of the pastor.

● Of closed churches with pastors listed, 25% were Open and Affirming congregations.

● 7 out of every 10 closed churches with pastors listed were designated as primarily White/Euro-American congregations. This statistic is fairly consistent with the overall number of White/Euro-American congregations in the UCC (88% of all congregations).

● 75% of pastors began serving the closed church after the year 2000. Interestingly, 10% began serving their churches in 2009; and 12.5% began serving their churches in 2006. This tells us that these pastors were not serving the majority of these congregations in long-term capacities.

● The current settings / specializations of pastors who closed churches from 2010 to 2012 varies, as shown in the figure below. (Note: Ministers that are Unclassified have not reported a specific ministry to their Association / Conference of standing.)

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● To help shed some light on the number of ministers who are Unclassified / Leave of Absence in the chart above, 17% of ministers who closed churches are now listed as inactive. Nearly 10% have no UCC authorization, which means they were serving as lay pastors or as ordained pastors from another denomination not affiliated with the UCC. 66% of closed church pastors maintain full standing as ordained ministers, and 6% are listed as licensed ministers.

While there are many other statistics that we can mine from the data, this is just a beginning to what we will be analyzing in the coming months. In addition, Dr. Cafferata’s findings will assist UCC Conferences, Associations, and other pastors in supporting congregations and ministers who are involved in the process of closing church doors. We will keep you posted on her research findings as they become available.

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3 thoughts on “Research on Closed Churches and Their Pastors

  1. I think this is a really interesting study. I was particularly interested in the statistic regarding new church starts. In an effort to see this as an opportunity, how can we better equip those pastors called to open new churches? What resources did they not have that the UCC can offer? Thanks Kristina and all of the CARD team for your good work!

  2. Having been the pastor of a church that has closed, the wife of the pastor of another church that has closed, a paid consultant to a third church that closed and a new church planter that has worked with new churches that have both thrived or closed – this is a topic close to my heart. I look forward to seeing more insights come out of this study.

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