by David Briggs
Americans find it difficult to stay in one place, even if that place is a house of worship.
The Portraits of American Life Study (PALS) found that among those Americans affiliated with religious congregations a third switched houses of worship between the 2006 and 2012 waves of the project.
Nearly six in 10 of the people who switched said it had nothing to do with either being dissatisfied with their old congregation, or attracted to a new congregation. Rather, for many it was that they had moved, or what study researchers Michael Emerson and Laura Essenburg of Rice University called “good old American mobility.”
About one in 10 said it was because members of their family switched congregations and they followed. Other reasons included that their congregation had moved or closed.
But there also were other reasons more related to congregational life that caused people to leave one congregation for another.
The reason most frequently cited by people who left because they were unhappy with their former congregation was the clergy, with 58 percent of those respondents dissatisfied with the spiritual leadership. More than half also cited dissatisfaction with the political and social views of the congregation, and more than four in 10 had theological issues or poor relationships with others in the congregation.
When asked what was the single most important reason they left, however, respondents said that the theology and religious beliefs of their former congregation was No. 1, followed by issues with the clergy.
If religious leadership was a key reason people left, it was also overwhelmingly a major reason people were attracted to a new congregation, the study found,
Eighty-four percent of people who said they were primarily motivated to switch because of their attraction to a new congregation cited the clergy. Some two-thirds cited the liturgy and style of worship in the new congregation, and more than six in 10 cited the programming, theology and the sense of a “bright future” in the new congregation as motivating factors.
But other motivations “pale to the clergy reason,” Emerson and Essenburg reported.
So what characteristics of congregations predict healthy relationships with clergy?
U.S. Congregational Life Survey researchers Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce provide important insights in their book, “Leadership that Fits Your Church: What Kind of Pastor for What Kind of Congregation.”
In analyzing US CLS data, Woolever and Bruce found the congregational strengths associated with a good pastor-congregation match include:
- Meaningful liturgies where many worshipers experience God’s presence, joy and inspiration and feel worship helps them with everyday life.
- Congregations where many worshipers have a strong sense of belongingand say most of their closest friends attend the same congregation.
- Empowering leadership that inspires others to action and takes into account worshipers’ ideas.
- Churches where many worshipers are committed to the congregation’s vision and are excited about the future.
It is harder to retain congregants in an age of individualism when old ties such as denominational affiliation or geographical proximity are far less likely to keep people in place.
The upside is that providing meaningful spiritual experiences in a nurturing atmosphere appear to be more valued than ever, and much more likely to lead both worshipers and congregations toward a bright future.