Many clergy are leaving or considering leaving ministry. Last March, Barna Research reported that 42 percent of pastors had considered quitting full-time ministry in the past year, compared with 21 percent in January 2021. The Washington Post, Sojourners, NPR, and Christianity Today have all published articles on the phenomenon. Denominations need to understand the reasons for this change and make supporting ministers a top priority.
While forty years of major mergers in American Protestantism ended in the 1980s, in recent decades nearly all major US denominations have declined. From the Episcopal Church to the Southern Baptist Convention, membership numbers and denominational loyalty have diminished across the theological spectrum. But as national denominational connections have frayed, congregations’ local and regional ties are surging. Affiliation patterns are changing.
In several parts of my life, I feel a sense of letting go—as I transition into a new professional role, let go of some things in my personal life and identity, and shake off this reluctant Minnesota winter that won’t quite let me go. As a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church, I sense that we have now entered a season of letting go, as our time of denominational separation has arrived.
Many congregations belong to and support denominations, both financially and through their leaders’ service on denominational boards, committees, and teams. The identity of many congregations remains rooted in denominational affiliation: Methodists still feel a strong tie to John Wesley; Presbyterians to the basic principles of Calvinism, and so on. But denominations have become less important to congregations and their leaders, and face declining revenue as a result. How might regional and national bodies become more effective in the future?
At last week’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), conversations often turned to the question: “Is the end near for our denomination?” Each year the number of affirmative answers seems to increase. I don’t agree. I don’t think mainline denominations are in danger of dying any time soon.
The dramatic decline in denominational affiliation and loyalty in the U.S. the last half century has prompted many to ask, “Do denominations (and their regional bodies) matter?” When there is often more variation in belief and practices within a given denomination than between denominations, what does it mean to identify as a Presbyterian or Methodist, or as part of the Conservative or Reform movement in Judaism?
One of the greatest joys of my new role as District Superintendent (and part-time congregational consultant) is that I am learning so many new and exciting things. In recent years my denomination has placed a strong emphasis on starting new churches. Clearly, congregations that are growing in vitality are the ones who best engage their immediate communities and this is the essence of what a new church start is all about.