I was once talking with a colleague who mentioned that very often churches experience decline in attendance at worship services during the first few years of a new leader’s tenure, before recovering to experience growth, or declining even more. Our conversation moved on to cover possible solutions, or whether attendance fluctuation in congregational life was just an inevitable part of ministry. One wonders whether there is an optimum length of time Christian clergy should serve, and how the length of tenure affects growth or decline in church life. Does the newness and enthusiasm of a newly-appointed pastor assist in attracting people to church? Are attenders more comfortable with the long-term pastor, vicar or priest who knows everyone and maintains stability?
In a brief article in a publication about church statistics in the United Kingdom, Peter Brierley (2014), formerly the director of Christian Research UK, addresses such questions. Brierley uses data from the English Church Censuses, conducted in 1989 and 1998, to examine the length of service of clergy in Anglican churches in England, specifically around issues of numerical growth. “Growth” in this context refers to a ten per cent or more increase in the total number of people attending a church service on a Sunday, during the nine years between Censuses. “Decline” refers to a decrease of ten per cent or more in attendance figures, while “static” refers to an increase or decrease of ten per cent or less. While an increase in overall attendance of roughly one per cent per year is hardly strong growth, it is pointed out that just 22 per cent of the churches included in the study had grown, 14 per cent had remained static, and 64 per cent had declined during that period.
In one analysis of the data, Brierley found that of those churches which had grown, decline occurred after a minister had been there for 10 years, and many more churches declined after a minster had been there more than 13 years.
Long-term ministries can be very successful: Brierley lists 20 examples of successful appointments in the UK of 24 to 52 years! If done successfully, leadership planning can maintain the momentum of a ministry during and after changes in personnel. In contrast, the example of Robert Schuller, who built the Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles, is cited. When Schuller retired after 51 years, his son was unable to keep the ministry going, and consequently the church and site were sold to the Catholic Church to offset bankruptcy.
Brierley notes that, in England, the average length of service in larger Anglican churches (that is, where the Sunday congregation is 350 or more people) is about double that of those serving in smaller churches. If this is indicative of the Australian context, one wonders what might be the impact of that turnover of clergy in smaller churches, many of which are in rural settings. And what are the implications for congregational life in local communities?
In English Anglican churches, according to the analysis, some decline is likely at the beginning of a new ministry, but the likelihood of further decline is less during the minister’s fourth, fifth and sixth years. Likelihood of decline is least after a minister has served for between 10 and 13 years. Decline in attendance is most likely when a minister has been in the role for 14 years or more. This has significant implications for short-term ministries. It is a reminder that it often takes leaders time to get established before they see growth in attendance.
Figure 1 presents the percentage of English Anglican churches which had grown more than ten per cent between 1989 and 1998, by the length of service of the minister (at the time of the Church Census). The graph shows that almost three-quarters (73%) of the churches which had grown had minsters who had been there for between 3 and 13 years. However, growth also occurred in some churches where ministers had only recently commenced their tenure (12 per cent had been there less than 3 years), and in churches where ministers had been there for a considerable length of time (16 per cent had been there more than 13 years.
Brierley also briefly looks at leadership in other settings, and questions if the findings of the research into church leadership can be applied to leadership in non-church Christian organisations, of which there are some 5,000 across the UK. Using circumstantial evidence from the UK Christian Handbook (a directory of Christian organisations in the UK) he found that some of the agencies that had closed, or were closing, had only been in existence for between 10 and 25 years, and many had never had a CEO other than the original founder. This, Brierley states, reinforces the importance of having a well thought out succession plan.
Can a leader serve successfully for 20 years or more? Brierley suggests that in order for that to occur, a leader must have a goal, target or vision at which to aim, and after 10 years that vision needs to be renewed. He also suggests that for some leaders this is most certainly possible. However, Brierley warns, for whatever reasons, other leaders may be unable or unsuited for such long-term ministry positions, and would do well to move on to other positions.
While there would be many other aspects to examine if one was to research this topic in depth (i.e. personality of clergy, location of church, historical setting), many of the findings in this short article are important for leaders in local churches or other Christian organisations. The issues discussed have just as much relevance in the Australian context as they do within the UK.
If growth is important, leaders of local churches, parishes or other organisations would do well to rephrase Brierley’s findings as questions about their own ministry:
• If leaders are most likely to see decline in the few years of ministry, how can churches be proactive in seeking to limit that decline and encourage growth during those years?
• If leaders staying for between 3 and 9 years are most likely to see growth, how can churches ensure that a strong foundation for growth is being laid during and beyond this period?
• If leaders staying longer than 13 years are likely to see decline (or decline after growth), how can churches renew the vision of the church or organisation so that there is future growth?
• If leaders who serve larger churches are likely to serve longer than clergy in smaller churches, what impact does that have on the current congregation or membership?
The research findings emphasise the need for careful succession planning and the renewal of vision and leadership to ensure the momentum of ministry.
Brierley, P. (2014) UK Church Statistics 2: 2010-2020, Tonbridge: ADBC Publishers.
This article was originally published in Pointers Vol.25, no.1, March 2015. pp. 9-10.