Three and a half years after the start of the covid pandemic, churches have smaller congregations and more money in the collection plates. Despite their struggles, many are optimistic about the future, even when it’s becoming harder to retain leaders. Clergy dissatisfaction, on the other hand, remains on the rise.
Those are among the key findings of the latest report from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research as part of a five-year study of the impact of the pandemic on American churches.
“It is apparent that congregational dynamics are still in a state of flux,” said Scott Thumma, director of the study. “Churches, and especially clergy, continue in a recovery phase. Even though aspects of church life are rebounding, the destiny of many faith communities is still uncertain,” he concluded.
Religion News Service reports the study surveyed 4,809 congregations from 58 denominational groups. It found median church attendance had fallen by 9%. About a third (30%) of churches said they’d experienced significant decline while 22% had enjoyed significant growth. 16% of current churchgoers are new church members, while giving surged by 42% since the return of in-person services.
The study reported that with the average age of both congregations (65+) and leaders (52) steadily skewing much older, churches are struggling to attract younger people into the pews and the pulpits. The percentage of clergy who have thought about leaving both their church and the ministry altogether has risen since 2020. In 2021, 79% said they had never thought about leaving their current church, while 13% said they thought often about leaving. In 2023, the number who never thought about leaving had dropped to 62%, while 29% said they thought about it often.
A new Barna study found it’s not easy to find mature young Christians willing to take over churches. Three quarters of pastors agreed that it’s becoming much harder to implement a succession plan. Almost the same number expressed concern about “the quality of future Christian leaders.”
With only 16% of pastors aged 40 or younger, Barna noted that churches face a “real crisis,’ if the issue is not addressed. Other recent surveys have found church leaders ‘burning out’ from the pressures of the job at a rapid rate. The Christian Post reports that nearly 40% of them were considering other careers.