Congregational life has very few reliable metrics, and when we think we’ve found one, we all seize upon it, grateful for some measure of certainty in an otherwise murky world.
For example, it seems as if we’ve been talking forever about family, pastor, and program. Even without any additional information, you’ve probably already recognized that these are categories of congregational size based on worship attendance. Family-sized congregations see an average of 1-50 in church, pastor-sized congregations see 50-150, and program-sized congregations see 150-250. Family-sized congregations are usually gathered around a matriarch, pastor-sized congregations around a pastor, and program-sized around a pastor plus a few very part-time staff plus a host of volunteers, all of whom are usually exhausted.
Another congregational size metric in common use is 100-150, the average number of people in worship on Sunday for whom one FTE (full-time equivalent) program person (e.g. pastor, Christian educator, or youth director) is required. The inference, of course, is that a congregation with less than 100 in worship may not require a full-time person.
Again, we’ve been talking about this ratio for a long time. Our easy use, however, is increasingly challenged by the changing behavior of contemporary believers. For example:
- Attendance patterns are shifting as people across age ranges, geographic regions, and types of community (rural, urban, suburban, exurban) attend church or synagogue less frequently than previous generations
- Worship is no longer limited to a particular day, so now we have to count average attendance across a variety of worship days and times
- Worship in the congregation’s building is no longer the singular, job-defining characteristic of a congregation’s life – pastoral job expectations may now include running a community-based food pantry in the church building or conducting Bible studies at a variety of off-site locations to avid students who may never enter the sanctuary for worship
The net effect of these kinds of behavior changes is that lower average worship attendance, perhaps 80-130, may now be a more appropriate measure for a full-time pastoral position.
All of these kinds of numbers are helpful because they function as a kind of congregational shorthand – a quick, numerical way of saying something useful about a congregation’s behavior.
What seems increasingly clear to me, however, is that direction matters as much as size – congregational behavior is different depending on whether you’re growing or declining. If we understand growth to be a persistent upward trajectory over time and decline to be a persistent downward trajectory over time, then a growing congregation exhibits different kinds of behavior and different anxieties than does a declining congregation, even if they are both currently the same size.
A growing congregation with 100 in worship, for example, could be said to be characterized by reaching. Everyone, including the pastor and most of the members, is trying to build something new, so there tend to be more task forces and groups, more meetings, more potential confusion about roles and responsibilities as new activities and programs crowd the schedule, more need to communicate well, more financial stress, and more excitement as a new and different expression of the congregation’s deep identity emerges. There also tends to be more exhaustion, because the congregation is building something that is beyond what its current assets – dollars, staff, and volunteers – can easily support.
A declining congregation with 100 in worship, on the other hand, could be said to be characterized by grasping. There is actually less for the pastor and members to do, although they may be reluctant to admit it or unable to see it yet. Financial stress exists, then, not because they are trying to build something new but because, as size changes but self-understanding doesn’t, they can’t quite afford what they are convinced they still need. Unable to let go of formerly necessary staff positions or the people that occupy them, the congregation freezes in place. Excitement and energy tend to be low, and exhaustion is common because members and staff don’t know how to stop doing the programs and processes they’ve always done but there is no one new to “step up” and take their place.
A growing congregation also exhibits a common set of anxieties that are different than those of a declining congregation, even in the midst of all the excitement about growth. For example, some members fear the congregation’s growth because it feels as if “we’re not one big family anymore,” or “those new people are not like us!” Some members will likely be angry because “the pastor’s not paying enough attention to me and my people anymore,” and a few may feel sadness that “the congregation I love is disappearing.”
A declining congregation, on the other hand, may feel deep but often unexpressed shame that they are failing to sustain the institution that their predecessors, and sometimes literally their grandparents and great-grandparents, created. Many will turn shame to anger, usually directed at the pastor whose inadequacies must surely be the reason that the congregation is declining. And of course many will feel sadness that “the congregation I love is disappearing.”
Is there such a thing as a stable congregation – one that shows a persistently flat trajectory over time? In theory, yes, especially if the congregation is in a neighborhood or community that is itself relatively stable. However, it is difficult to maintain a stable congregation. In order to remain stable at a certain size, a congregation must add members, if only to replace those members who die or move to live nearer to family. If the congregation is good at adding members, it could very well grow. If it is not good at adding members, it will decline.
The good news is that, in all of these congregations, members support each other, pray for each other, give generously, teach children, value their older members, and serve others in the community in a thousand different ways. Any of these congregations is capable of extraordinary ministry, whether they are growing, declining, or staying the same…as long as they don’t let their anxieties get in the way.
Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.