At a meeting of our Conference’s Church and Ministry Council last week, we were looking at the newly released Fall 2016 Statistical Profile of the United Church of Christ. It has some graphs that should look very familiar by now, showing a denomination that continues to grow smaller. One of our younger clergy on the Council said, “For years we’ve been hearing that there is going to be a clergy shortage. Now I’m wondering if there is going to be a church shortage!” Although I have less time to serve until retirement than she, I’ve found myself wondering the same thing. Trying to predict the future is always risky. But, this blog is about statistics, so let’s look at some numbers.
The assumption that there will be a clergy shortage in the United Church of Christ is based on the increasing age of our clergy. According to the profile, of those currently serving churches, 47.2% are over 60. Nearly another 33% are between the ages of 50 and 59. This does not factor in the ages of interim or supply pastors (see page 16). The number of ordinations taking place each year has also decreased from an average of 180 in 2006-2010 to an average of 160 from 2011-2015. However, those numbers tend to fluctuate, and it’s hard to say whether that decrease will continue (p. 20). In just six years, only 1539 of our current clergy may be serving churches. We may add as many as 960 more through ordination, giving us just under 2500 clergy. That’s the same conclusion reached by Futuring the United Church of Christ: Thirty Year Projections.
How many churches will we have in just six years? That same set of projections by CARD looks to be around 4700 congregations. That would be a serious clergy shortage. But, it’s more complicated than that. The projections are for the number of members in the UCC to decline at a faster rate than the number of congregations. What might that mean? It means smaller churches and potentially more part time pastors. According to the Fall 2015 Statistical Profile, UCC congregations are getting smaller. Between 2004 and 2014, congregations with 100 members or less, grew from 35% of all congregations to 43% of all congregations. It seems likely that the percentage of small churches will continue to increase over the next six years. If 53% of our churches remain full time and even a small number are multi-staff, there will be just about the right number of clergy for our full time openings.
The question is, where will the other 47% of our congregations, those who cannot pay for a full time pastor, find leadership? That’s where the shortage will be, at least in the foreseeable future. In fact, in my Conference, that shortage is already here. Half our openings right now are for part time pastors, and those positions are hard to fill.
There’s one more side to this future cast that I haven’t yet mentioned. What about the new churches we will be planting and adopting in the United Church of Christ? Think about the creative new ministries that may be coming into being. As I look at the young clergy and Members In Discernment here in the Philadelphia Association, I know they have the gifts and the graces to not simply steward the congregations that are here now, but to figure out what new things our still speaking God has in mind. Statistics are interesting but they don’t factor in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit may change this picture in all kinds of surprising ways. We’ll just have to pray, to listen and to pay attention.
Rev. Beth Lyon is Pastor of Glenside United Church of Christ in Glenside, Pennsylvania. She has been an Ordained Minister since 1986, serving congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.