Lack of money will leave more churches without pastors, Presbyterians predict

April 21, 2011


Most Presbyterians expect that financial hardship will prevent an increasing number of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations to be led by full-time installed pastors.

Instead, hard-pressed churches will rely more on commissioned lay pastors, supply pastors, informal pastoral leaders, or no pastoral leaders, instead of by ordained ministers serving as full-time, installed pastors.

According to the November 2010 Presbyterian Panel survey on congregational leadership, most Presbyterian members and elders have this expectation even though they believe every congregation should have a full-time, installed pastor.

Eighty-two percent of members and 72 percent of elders who have an opinion “strongly agree” or “agree” that it is important for every congregation to have such pastoral leadership.

However, only about two in five ministers ― 43 percent of pastors and 36 percent of non-pastoral ministers ― feel the same way.

Currently, less than half of PC(USA) congregations have a full-time, installed pastor.

“Presbyterians in the pews want every church to have a full-time pastor, but they think fewer congregations will be able to afford one in the future,” said Perry Chang, administrator of the Presbyterian Panel. “Ministers, on the other hand, are more open to different pastoral leadership arrangements.”

Almost all members (93 percent), elders (93 percent), pastors (98 percent), and non-parish ministers (95 percent) who have an opinion “strongly agree” or “agree” that, in the future, fewer congregations will be able to afford an ordained minister who serves as a full-time, installed pastor.

About two-thirds of members (69 percent) and elders (69 percent) and 87 percent of pastors and 82 percent of non-parish ministers believe that congregations’ inability to pay salary and benefits currently accounts “a great deal” or “quite a bit” for why some congregations don’t have ordained ministers serving as installed pastors.

About one-quarter of Presbyterians “strongly agree” or “agree” that congregations lack installed pastors because they are able to find people who are not ordained PC(USA) ministers, such as commissioned lay pastors or ministers from other denominations, to serve.

Majorities of panelists in each group believe it is good that congregations have the option of calling as a pastoral leader a temporary pastor, a person who is also employed in work outside of parish ministry (a tentmaker or bi-vocational pastor), or a commissioned lay pastor.

More members (36 percent) and elders (35 percent) than pastors (9 percent) and non-parish ministers (7 percent) believe congregations lack installed pastors because seminaries are graduating too few people.

More pastors (45 percent) and non-parish ministers (41 percent) than members (29 percent) and elders (29 percent) believe some congregations are without installed pastors because they are located in areas where the spouse of a potential pastor might have difficulty finding a job.

Every three years the PC(USA)’s Research Services assembles representative samples of Presbyterian church members, elders and ministers who respond to questions on different topics quarterly.  Known as the Presbyterian Panel, these randomly chosen respondents provide a way for church leaders to learn the opinions of rank-and-file Presbyterians.

For more information about this survey or the Presbyterian Panel in general, contact Perry Chang in Research Services by email or by phone at (502) 569-5071. 

  1. The combined memberships of the UPCUSA and the PCUS peaked at 4,249,765 in 1965, not 6 million.

    by Jack Marcum

    April 26, 2011

  2. PCUSA members seem to be voting with their feet and their bank accounts, and their votes seem to be saying that PCUSA is a less attractive place to be and to support. Does that have anything to do with the PCUSA's drift away from Scripture as the source of its guidance, its meaning, its inspiration? The alarms are ringing - is anybody listening?

    by John

    April 25, 2011

  3. Caveat: I write as a lifelong Presbyterian, member of many small/medium congregations in rural and urban settings and as a pastor who has only served small churches. :) What an opportunity for our denomination! While small churches may struggle to pay salaries, they often serve in the most underserved neighborhoods and communities. Small towns have lost doctors, banks, schools, even grocery stores, yet small town (often small church) pastors stand with residents in their grief and their joy. Urban neighborhoods suffer abandonment at every turn yet small churches are not only providing sanctuary, but are centers for community based organizing, neighborhood resources, and provide a beacon of hope for their neighbors. It would seem that these small churches are the very places our denomination ought to be pouring resources. Here are just a few ideas. 1. We could use more programs like "For Such a Time as This" which provide funding and resources that encourage new pastors to serve in these areas. Why not figure out how to put our experienced pastors in these settings. These settings are where we need the brightest and best who have learned have some ideas already about what works and what doesn't. 2. What about encouraging partnerships within presbyteries. Partnerships that link tall steeple churches with small congregations. This could provide energy and excitement in the larger congregations as well as shared ministries bloom and grow. 3. Encourage small church leaders by giving them a voice at the national tables where conversations like these are taking place. Work for a "small steeple" GA leadership, subsidize attendance (in the form of scholarships just for small church pastors) at "next church", "big tent" and other events/conversations. 4. Pay attention to what, as a denomination, we are already willing to subsidize/pay for. Wise stewardship speakers for years have been saying to congregation members and churches: "Look at your checkbook. It will show you what you care about." Perhaps we need to do that at the national level, too. If we truly do care about the ministry of small churches, our churchwide checkbook ought to clearly show that. It's not enough to say: We have a website; we have GA/PCUSA staff providing materials; we have seminaries and presbyteries. How happy I will be (as a small/medium steeple pastor) when I can see the vision, purpose and infrastructure of our denomination reoriented/reimagined so that we are truly serving the "least of these" among our own congregations. I look forward to how my beloved PCUSA will respond to this ministry opportunity, bringing not only our best minds, but our best resurrection hopes as the Spirit moves!

    by Debra Avery

    April 23, 2011

  4. Several years ago I regularly saw a number published which represented the minimum annual income a congregation needed to provide for adequate program needs and also support a pastor. Sometimes this was expressed in terms of the number of members, assuming average annual giving. Of course, these numbers needed to be adjusted for location. I'm sure some office in Louisville and most presbyteries have such numbers today. And I believe that we need to make an honest effort to explain these realities to congregations who fall below the minimum. Tentmakers, CLPs and multiple church parishes are all valid options. Federated churches with congregations of other denominations who find themselves in similar circumstances can also work well. But what we should not do is let small congregations simply decline unaided until closing is their only option.

    by J. Heckerman

    April 22, 2011

  5. How do I get a copy of the comment that I just sent? I tried to print it, but it failed to print! Harry

    by Harry Bolick

    April 22, 2011

  6. Perhaps one way to address this is to look at more flexible ways of pastoring. My wife and I serve as the co-pastors at 2 churches, one a 400 member congregation where we are a little less than full-time each and the other a 40 member congregation where we share a 20 hour per week stated supply. This allows the smaller congregation to have "more" pastoral leadership (their words, not mine) than they have had for a while. We've found that working with two congregations in very different stages of their congregational life has been challenging in a good way, forcing us to be more creative and to be much more aware of each congregation's situation.

    by Mitch Trigger

    April 22, 2011

  7. There's a major perceptual disconnect here: Number of pastor candidates being graduated and available for a call. I believe it is true that there are significant candidates available for "Teaching Elders" to fill pastoral positions at individual parishes. The truism is to a significant degree driven by available fiscal resources. This conundrum cannot be viewed in isolation without honestly addressing the overall significant declines in membership. When we all begin to face up to the drivers that are causing that result, we likely solve the fiscal issue. There are, in my view, two principal drivers involved: 1. Demographics. Our average age of worshiper in the pew jumped 2 years in just one year. 2. Many are voting with their feet on the frustrations of actions (especially constantly re-visiting the ordination issue. We've now lost members of our congregations that have openly stated "enough"; we're going to find a church that adheres to "THE WORD OF THE LORD". It was only a couple generations ago we had 6 million communicant members, we're headed rapidly to dropping below 2 million communicant members. The longer term implications of that data does not portend well for many fine retired (and soon to be retired) pastors that depend on the existing retirement program.

    by Dana Gilmour

    April 22, 2011