Congregational Age and Impact on Vitality

Linda Bobbitt, a researcher for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), has done some extensive work in the area of congregational vitality. I’m pleased to share with you a short piece she wrote for ELCA church and denominational leaders on the age of congregations and the impact of this factor on vitality. In the piece below, she provides an overview of two major studies conducted in this area and offers her own commentary on what the findings mean for congregations. I’ll be sharing my own thoughts and responding to this article in terms of UCC contexts in a post later this month, so keep your eyes peeled for that piece.

Congregational Age and Impact on Vitality by Linda Bobbitt

What is the relationship between the age of a congregation and its vitality? Are younger congregations more vital than older ones? Here is what some of the research says:

Hannan (1998 in American Journal of Sociology) looked at the development of organizations to better understand the relationship between age and mortality. He found that age is not directly related to vitality (older are not necessarily less or more vital than younger). Rather it is complex and depends on the following things:

  1. Endowments (financial and social),
  2. Imprinting (patterns/of behaviors that get imprinted within the organization’s structure based on a particular place and time – usually earlier in their life),
  3. Inertia (the inability to change imprinted behaviors when conditions change),
  4. Capability (the efficiency with which an organization performs it’s function. If “encrustation” or “internal friction” becomes too high eventually it is too “expensive” socially and financially to keep going.), and
  5. Position (how an organization stands in its environment – reputation, market share, relationship with local community, relationship with government, etc.).

Here is what he concludes: “A radically different idea about aging lies at the heart of much of the theory and research on the determinants of organizational mortality. This is the idea that aging per se does not affect the hazard of mortality; instead, age tracks the fit between an organization and its environment” (p. 158). He goes on to add that an organization’s vitality may be fragile or robust from the onset. If fragile from its founding (based on initial endowments and imprinting as well as the establishment of a weak position), then it is more likely to have an earlier death. While robust organizations take longer to establish (and may look less healthy in the short term), they tend to last longer.

What this means for congregations?  How we begin congregations and move them to maturity matters. Taking the time to create healthy cultures with adequate resources that are well established as active members within their local context is critical to a long lasting congregation. Congregations that lack any of these things or that develop unhealthy habits early in life are more likely to struggle later and close sooner.

The second article is by Dougherty (2008 in Review of Religious Research) and used Hannan’s work (and others) to look at impact of age of congregations and age of members on congregational mortality. He makes the case for using an organizational life cycle (rather than organic).

Using PCUSA and Church of the Nazarene data, Dougherty found that there are two critical times in an organization’s life: shortly after inception (first few years), and late in life. The first ​several years are the most vulnerable in a congregation’s life. They need to build up enough resources and establish healthy patterns. (Size and budget aren’t distinguishing factors among congregations that close during this time.) Once they make it to 10 years they have a good chance to last 30-40 more.

In later years (around 40 years and again around 75 years) it is about keeping the energy going and remaining relevant ​as the founders die off. This happens the first time around 40-50 years as the first generation is fading. If they can navigate the transition to the second generation then things go well. The second time is when the second generation that is fading and there is a need for a third generation to step in. This is more difficult as the influence of the first generation is mostly gone and the outside environment has likely changed considerably. In summary, if the congregation was built by and for the founders and imprinted with their patterns, it generally does not remain relevant as the environment shifts. The more out of sync, the more difficult it is to maintain – the higher the cost (emotional, physical, financial) and the higher the mortality. Since congregations become more and more out of sync over time, there is increased mortality with age.

Dougherty also found that congregations need about 30-35 people in regular worship attendance in order to remain viable. Finances were a less reliable way of determining sustainability.

What this means for congregations? Congregations need extra care and support both early and late in life. The principles of endowment, imprinting and position play key roles as organizations grow old because they determine the degree of inertia. To cut down on inertia, congregations need to pay special attention to how they transition leadership between generations. This should be done in such a way that each generation owns the vision and identity of the congregation (they aren’t just doing it for their parents).

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4 thoughts on “Congregational Age and Impact on Vitality

  1. Pingback: Thoughts: Congregational Age and Impact on Vitality | Vital Signs and Statistics

  2. The vocabulary in this message is so professional and up-to-date that it leaves my 92 year old mind puzzled about what it says but I’m not sure that is important for the future of the church.

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    • Hello LaVerne,
      My 68 year old brain found it a bit less clear than I’d like. Also, in both UCC churches I attend (one with LaVerne!), there effectively is no second generation — newer members are seldom off-spring of founding members. The need to remain relevant, change with the times and make sure newer members “own the vision and identity of the congregation” certainly applies. Glad you’re still keeping up with all this, LaVerne!

      Lynn Bauer

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      • I found your comment very appropriate. The next generation of the church member is very likely to living in a distant community, and even if close it is the culture that has changed so becoming independent of your parents in social, economic and religious ways is more important than tradition. The Christian values can be kept without expressing them in the same ways but this does dilute the church stream. Of my three children raised in the UCC, one is Quaker, another is an active Methodist, and the other left organized religion before he left our home.

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