New study shows forces driving church growth & loss

CLICK THE COVER and visit the book’s Amazon page.CHURCH GROWTH is the hottest topic among church leaders nationwide, because they know the hard truth: The survival of their congregations depends on growth. That’s a central goal at ReadTheSpirit: Week after week, we bring readers important voices and promising ideas to form healthy communities. (We started 2013 by reporting on the way Lincoln-related themes will draw crowds.)

As journalists, we carefully watch the horizon. When we find a new book like Leadership That Fits Your Church and a scholar-author like Cynthia Woolever, we introduce them to our readers. (ALSO TODAY, sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker begins a 5-part OurValues series discussing this study. OurValues, Part 1: How does the Obama family fit these patterns?)

WHAT IS THE “U.S. CONGREGATIONAL LIFE SURVEY”? “The largest and most representative profile of worshipers and their congregations ever developed in the U.S.” More than half a million people answered the main questionaire. To deepen the study, additional specialized surveys were conducted (one zeroed in on congregational leaders, for example). The greatest strength is the study’s focus on people in the pew in average-sized churches. Most other new books on church life focus on large congregations and the viewpoints of clergy.

WHO ARE CYNTHIA WOOLEVER and DEBORAH BRUCE? Cynthia holds a doctorate in sociology and is the study’s lead researcher. Deborah, a psychologist who died in 2012, was manager of the survey and co-author of their four books.


The study busts quite a few myths! Read the team’s findings and you’ll discover—
Churches …
Are smaller than we think:
An average church is attended by fewer than 100 people.
Don’t depend on young families:
Less than half of active church people have children at home.
Are full of smart people:
In today’s interview, which ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm conducted with Dr. Cynthia Woolever, you’ll learn much more about this.


DAVID: Let’s start with the surprising levels of education in American churches.

CYNTHIA: There’s an impression that people of faith are ignorant but nothing could be further from the truth. People always are surprised when I tell them that people in the pews, as a group, are better educated than the U.S. population. Half of the people who attend worship regularly are college educated—compared with only about 27 percent of the American population. What’s more, the educational level in churches has increased since 2001, when only about 38 percent of regular worshipers were college educated.

DAVID: That is a remarkable finding. Church attendance patterns have changed over the past decade or so. Attendance is dipping. Even regular churchgoers are attending less frequently, as you report in your books.

CYNTHIA: But the college-educated people are hanging in there. One reason is that their lives are more stable. They’re not moving as much. When the economy takes a downturn, people with lower incomes and lower educational levels are most affected. They tend to move more. Congregations now are older, too. There are many factors.

DAVID: We’ve been reporting for years that Americans are distinctive in the world because of the strength of their faith, overall, coupled with the strength of their insistence on self expression. That has changed the power dynamics in congregations—as your new book points out repeatedly. Churchgoers now expect that they can question their clergy. Relations between the pulpit and the pew no longer depend on the pastor being the smartest person in the room.

CYNTHIA: People who are active in churches approach their congregations with a higher skill set than ever before. In many cases, they may have higher skill sets than their pastors. That can be good; and it can be bad. People who have a lot of experience in their workplace—let’s say they manage a company—may come into church with the expectation that they can run the church as they would a business. They may not fully appreciate the differences in running a church and in working with a pastor.


DAVID: If you could give one word of advice to pastors, based on this vast study, what would it be?

CYNTHIA: (laughs) I only get to say one thing? Well, one thing I would advise is: stability. Stay—stay long enough. We have all sorts of evidence that clergy turnover is detrimental to churches. So, to pastors I would say: “Stay for the long haul. Stay for 10 years.”

Then, if I could say another thing: Pastors should reflect on their own ministry, think about how many parishes they have served. The average is about three to five parishes over a whole lifetime of commitment to ministry. So, the question for the pastor is: What decade of my ministry am I in right now? What parish is this in my lifetime of service? They need to reflect on this because they are not the same person they were in their first decade or their first church. What impresses me most about pastors is their resiliency and their ability to grow throughout their lives. Pastors in their first decade or their first church are struggling with different issues than those in their later decades. For pastors, that’s something very important to know about yourself.

DAVID: And to congregations? What’s most important to say to people in the pews?

CYNTHIA: I would mention the negative consequence of clergy turnover to them, as well. They have a role to play in making that relationship work. One of the biggest problems in churches is conflict—and a lot of church people want to fix conflict by bringing in a new pastor. That’s not fair. And it’s not good for the church. A new pastor can’t fix everything. The pastor they have right now—it’s better if they can make that work. And, I think it’s a good idea for people in the pew to pray for their pastor.

DAVID: Are you saying that, even if there’s conflict in a church, the people shouldn’t oust the pastor?

CYNTHIA: Yes, I do think that. The statistics are something like 1 in 10 pastors across the country are leaving each year.

DAVID: Are there things congregations can do to improve their pastors’ longevity?

CYNTHIA: People don’t tend to think about what brings their pastors joy. That’s something churches rarely talk about. It’s worth considering because all pastors experience stress—but if you have high satisfaction in ministry, that balances out the stress. Congregations may focus on reducing stress, but that’s only one half of the equation. We also should identify what brings our pastors joy.

DAVID: Overall, you do find that clergy are satisfied.

CYNTHIA: That’s true. Clergy actually are very satisfied. Most pastors score very high compared with the general population That may seem contradictory when we talk about stress and conflict in congregations, but we’re not talking about just a job, here. We’re talking about a calling. Pastors can experience great stress but also great satisfaction.


DAVID: You point out in your book that computers, the Internet and social media are changing congregations—and their roles in their larger communities. You write that: “Now every savvy pastor must adapt to new social media and worship technology … The explosion of innovative communication technologies strains the budgets and the imaginations of many congregations and their leaders. It also raises new boundary and ethical issues for leaders to navigate.”

CYNTHIA: Yes, the mastering of current technology is a part of the required skillset for pastors—and they’re fooling themselves, now, if they think it isn’t. That’s one reason younger clergy have a huge advantage. Younger pastors use Twitter, they email, they text, they use Facebook.

When I was doing interviews with pastors, I would have to contact them to set up these interviews. I quickly discovered that anyone under 45 would reply to me within 10 minutes and we’d get the interview set up right away. Older pastors—they might not even have an email account. We would have to call the church office where a secretary would screen calls. I might not be able to reach the pastor for days. That’s a problem for people in the congregation if they can’t reach their pastor in the ways they communicate with everyone else.

But things are changing. I remember back in 2001, we would beg churches to get a website. We would say: “If you don’t have a website, anyone under 45 doesn’t think you exist.” Now we don’t have to make that argument anymore. Most churches at least have static communication like a website—but most churches still haven’t gone into more interactive technology. Churches need to explore what’s possible today and what their worshipers are using all the time. After all, the people in the pew expect these things as they communicate with each other. And, the people in the pew are a highly educated group of people.

Care to read more from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey?

The team has published three earlier books: A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations, Who’s Going Where and Why? And: Places of Promise, Finding Strength in Your Congregation’s Location. And also: Beyond the Ordinary, Ten Strengths of U.S. Congregations.

You’ll also enjoy the project’s own website: U.S. Congregations.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email