By Cynthia Woolever
Pastors serve a congregation, on average, about five years before leaving for another call. The amount of time pastors remain in any single position varies greatly by their denominational affiliation, career stage, theological training, and church setting. Because the U.S. Congregational Life Survey included congregations that participated in the national study in 2001 and again in 2008, we can explore the congregational consequences of a change in pastoral leadership.
About half of the congregations experienced a pastoral transition between 2001 and 2008. Conservative Protestant churches were the least likely to experience a pastor turnover—only 29% of these churches welcomed a new senior or solo pastor during the past eight years. Relatively few Catholic parishes experienced priest turnover—only 36% of these parishes welcomed a different priest (senior pastor) in that period. The biggest clergy turnover occurred among mainline Protestant churches. Two-third of these churches received a new senior or solo pastor during the past eight years.
Clergy turnover is associated with numerical decline for mainline Protestant churches. Many mainline Protestant churches that experienced a pastoral transition during the eight-year period (2001 to 2008) also declined in size. Mainline Protestant churches that lost their 2001 pastor lost an average (median) of about 16 people in worship between 2001 and 2008. On the other hand, those mainline Protestant churches that retained their pastor reported almost no change in worship attendance. About seven out of ten churches with new pastors in 2008 reported a decline in worship attendance. In contrast, about half of churches with the same pastor reported worship attendance declines.
The relationship between clergy turnover and growth or decline is less clear in conservative Protestant churches. However, conservative Protestant churches that lost their 2001 pastor actually increased their worship attendance by an average of almost 18 attendees. Those conservative Protestant congregations that retained their pastor declined slightly in size. Their average worship attendance declined by about five attendees. Nevertheless, two-thirds of conservative Protestant churches with the same pastor declined in worship attendance between 2001 and 2008. In contrast, only four in ten conservative Protestant churches headed by a different pastor in 2008 also reported worship attendance declines.
Pastoral turnover is unrelated to growth or decline in Catholic parishes. In Catholic parishes, a change in the leadership was not related to any change in worship attendance. About 86% of Catholic parishes were smaller in 2008 compared to 2001 regardless of whether there was a change in the head priest.
Do pastoral turnovers create numerical decline? Well, it’s complicated. Many factors play a role in decreasing or increasing worship attendance and diminishing or growing church vitality. Research indicates that longer tenures give pastors more time to build relationships, lead through a period of change, and resolve long-standing conflict. The time between the departure of one pastor and the arrival of the next can be a “down-time” when mission and programs grind to a halt. It can take a new pastor several years to reinvigorate members’ energy and investment in congregational life after such a period. Sometimes the numerical decline precedes the pastor’s departure. Clergy often leave congregations when conflict, resistance to change, and diminished ministry opportunities discourage them. Finally, the picture above does not capture the quality of pastoral leadership. The consequences for the congregation are quite different when an effective leader departs versus when an ineffective pastor leaves for a new call.