No Good News Here

Built between 1743 and 1745, Augustus Lutheran Church is known as the shrine of American Lutheranism.
Built between 1743 and 1745, Augustus Lutheran Church is known as the shrine of American Lutheranism.

Let me begin today by saying that, though I have some familiarity with the workings of my particular denomination, I am certainly no expert when it comes to the mainline Protestant church in the U.S. I grew up in the United Methodist tradition and have been a member of an ELCA Lutheran church for many years now. I went through the ELCA candidacy process (or at least the process as it was altered to fit my unique situation) and gained some exposure to the denomination, at least in my synod. I have served in a variety of ways in my local congregation as well as a few other ELCA churches, and will be serving in a short-term capacity as a supply pastor this winter in a rural congregation in central Indiana.

It has been my experience considering ordination and dealing with two congregations needing pastors that has raised my concern for the decline of my denomination. And then I read the following report: The Supply and Demand for Clergy in the ELCA, and realized that the situation is truly critical.

Here are some of the things I found. These figures represent statistics from the years 2005-2014.

  • Between 2005 and 2014, the number of congregations in the ELCA decreased 11 percent, from 10,549 to 9,392 (‐1,157).
  • Not only did the number of congregations decline, but in the churches that remain, the number of baptized members declined by 22 percent, and the number of worship attendees declined by 29 percent.
  • About half of ELCA congregations are in rural areas or in small towns with a population of fewer than 10,000. Nearly 75% of ELCA congregations are in locations with 250,000 people or fewer.
  • Between 2005 and 2014, the income of a typical congregation in the ELCA declined by 23 percent.
  • In 2014, 6,192 single‐point congregations could afford to call a first-call pastor [the lowest level of remuneration], and 1,941 single‐point congregations could not. The median level of defined compensation those congregations were paying pastors was $26,000.
  • In 2005, there were 9,105 clergy serving congregations. In 2014, there were 6,868.
  • Seventy‐seven percent of the pastors serving under a congregational call in the ELCA are solo pastors serving a single congregation. Nine percent serve a single congregation as part of a team.
  • Enrollments in ELCA M.Div. programs have decreased from 1,252 in the 2004‐2005 academic year to 735 in the 2015‐ 2016 academic year. This represents a 41 percent decline.
  • In 1988, the average age on the active clergy roster was just above 46 years old. At that time, just over 9 percent of active clergy were above 60 years old. By 2013, the average age of clergy had increased to 54 years old, with 32 percent of active clergy above 60.

There is, simply, no good news in this report.

On the ground here in Indiana, I am a member of a church for which the synod has been unable to find an interim pastor. It’s a newer congregation (about 20 years old) with a solid core of people, great facilities, an excellent location, and a setting in a relatively wealthy community. Yet, apparently, no options exist at this point for someone to come in even in an interim role. This astounds me.

The other church, the one I will be serving this winter, has not had an official ELCA pastor for a dozen years now. They had an “interim,” an Episcopalian who served them for ten years, and then a retired ELCA pastor who was their supply pastor for the past two. I’m the only option they apparently have at this point for the short-term fix they need over the winter (one who has not been ordained according to Lutheran standards), and they’re talking about becoming a shared parish with another congregation to ensure their future.

In an article in the ELCA’s magazine, The Living Lutheran, which references this study, here is the conclusion they draw:

While the number of ELCA congregations that can afford a full-time minister has dropped steadily since 2005, there still aren’t enough pastors. …In short, the ELCA has fewer congregations, fewer members, fewer leaders and fewer financial resources.

…The ELCA is on pace to experience a major shortfall in full-time clergy. Parish pastors are retiring in record numbers, according to current data and projections from ELCA Research and Evaluation. This, coupled with decreased seminary enrollment, means there aren’t likely to be enough pastors for the number of open calls.

Jonathan Strandjord, ELCA program director for seminaries, calls it a “retirement tsunami,” stressing the shortfall isn’t a future problem. “It’s here,” he added. “We’re in the middle of it, and that clergy gap will continue to widen. In fact, the gap is wider than it has ever been.”

105 thoughts on “No Good News Here

  1. This is a question I ponder as well. And how effectively can churches blunder right past this possible opportunity?

    Given their past track record, VERY effectively.


  2. “The 21 Copts are unavailable for comment.”

    That’s become pretty much my standard response to First World Problems Persecution panics.


  3. Unfortunately, I have participated in groups where people thought there was no head pastor and members exercised what they sincerely believed to be spiritual gifts.

    Chaos worthy of Discord with everybody pulling in a different One True Direction?


  4. My parish is going through some major repairs and restoration. Building is 50+ years old and was overdue for an major overhaul. Pastor had an uphill fight with the diocesan treasurer to swing it.


  5. This was very true of the Southern Baptist situation when the seismic shift took place in the late 80 and the President and appointed board members decided they would reverse the creeping move towards a more liberal theology.

    Oh, they reversed it; overthrew those Liberals in a Coup from Within.
    Then the Young, Restless, and TRULY Reformed overthrew THEM in another Coup.
    And the SBC now preaches the Word of CALVIN.


  6. No comment was made about the legitimacy of ‘liberal social movements’ above. The question was the content of sermons, and what relationship that content has to such movements.

    As I said already, I don’t think either “side” of church spectrum is doing a very good job with “welcoming the outsider” or other troublesome imperatives.

    Re: “the current social order” — there is a lot I would criticize. But here’s the problem. I doubt we fine “current social order” the same way.


  7. Don’t you think that the financial crisis in 08-09 hae a lot to do with declining numbers of people in semenaries? I’m sure there are a number of other reasons, but I suspect this has a lot to do with it.

    And all of the remote country churches in my area were viable 100 years ago, before many people had cars. It’s a different world in do many ways, except that there will always be people living in the remote areas who often hsve to drive quite a distance to get to much of anything, whether it’s grocery stores, drugstores or churches.


  8. “The 21 Copts are unavailable for comment.”
    But it’s THEIR ‘voice’ we can really hear, loud and clear, and it cannot be silenced by death. Their blood calls out in witness to Christ in Whom they placed their souls’ care. You cannot silence something like that.

    The whining and complaining of fundamentalist/evangelicals is no witness to Christ, no. They shame themselves in their shallowness and pettiness.


  9. ” mainline liberal protestantism is progressive politics with a whiff of God-talk

    A common assertion, but I doubt this is real.”

    Maybe not progressive politics per se, but certainly cultural trends. Being pro-gay and pro abortion, may not be political in the most crass sense, but is a reflection of the culture at large, one which the Church had rejected for most of it’s history. On the Conservative side people are leaving in droves because they consider hard core adherence to the doctrines to be antiquated folk religion with no relevance. On the progressive side many are leaving because the traditional doctrines and stances are being challenged or jettisoned. Didn’t Jesus say something about ‘We played the flute and you did not dance, we sang a dirge and you did not weep?’


  10. To those who maintain that the liberal social movements are closer to Christ’s concern for the poor and dispossessed I have to ask: “Is there ANYTHING that you consider anathema in the current social order?”

    Blindness can afflict those on the left side of the political spectrum as well as the right. To constantly rag on “the right” without turning your gaze closer to home is to be just as flawed as the ones you are criticizing.

    There is, proportionally, more criticism leveled on the right side on this site, and precious little said about how compromised and Christ less thereligious left has become.


  11. Can we please have a Catholic guest-write a post on what is happening in the Catholic church for the hat trick?Every Catholic parish I’ve ever attended was stuffed to the gun’les with Catholics, yet to be honest, there doesn’t seem to be much left of the Catholicism I was warned against as a dutiful Dutch Reformed boy growing up in the ethnic enclave of my tribe. Loraine Boettner and all that.

    My limited experience with Rome is that it is the largest and best preserved mainline Protestant denomination out there. Everything I heard from Roman pulpits was standard SJW stuff except for one married Anglican-use priest who preached on the Blessed Sacrament.

    I’d like a Catholic to explain what’s going on.


  12. A CONCURRENT ISSUE that may relate –

    The death of the lodge.

    Masons, Elks, Moose, Oddfellows, Shriners – where did they go and does their passing have anything to say about the concurrent decline of the church in America?


  13. Unfortunately, I have participated in groups where people thought there was no head pastor and members exercised what they sincerely believed to be spiritual gifts.

    Been there done that washed my car with the T-shirt and argued with my wife about it this morning.

    I’ll take a rain check. My coat and hat, please?


  14. >> Perhaps we need to dump the whole idea and get back to small communities of neighbors without all the overhead.

    I can attest that this works for me and my situation, but it likely won’t work for all. Factors that cause problems:

    1) People are habituated to think a church is a dedicated building, ideally with a steeple.
    2) People are habituated to think a meeting requires a seminary trained pastor to preside.
    3) People are habituated to think only ordained clergy can provide communion.
    4) People are habituated to think you have to do music.

    I also attend an Episcopal church once a month when they have a spoken service without music. I attend mainly for communion. The church is in the same trouble as all of the above, too few people, a building to maintain, and unable to get permanent part-time clergy. Last time I attended there was no priest, and thus no communion. Members of the congregation handled the whole service with no problem but couldn’t consecrate the bread and wine. What’s wrong with this picture? If Paul told Timothy to appoint leaders in each small group, presumably not requiring a graduate degree, why won’t this work today? Why can’t small groups select their own presiders?


  15. The reason it took us so long to make the change is also partly due to the fact that we met in the Episcopal Church, and both have great fondness for its Prayerbook tradition and liturgies. It was a hard decision.


  16. That spike may have resulted in congregations leaving and declining memberships, but it doesn’t change the demographic problems, and doesn’t really explain the graying of the clergy and the severe drop in seminary students. The mainline denominational model and inability to adapt outside of their historical/ethnic identity is the deeper problem. As was said earlier, they don’t have the organizational tools in the box.


  17. Bob,
    My wife is employed at the ELCA parish as musician, and that’s where we’ve spent our Sundays and Festival days for the last eight year anyway. The precipitating factor was that, during my wife’s recent surgery and recovery in the Spring, we received much communal support from our Lutheran parish.


  18. Please, some of you remember, I’m not the first to say this. Lutherans, and mainliners in general, had a moment. Perhaps they can recapture it. I’m talking about having Evangelicals come into their fellowship. It would take some understanding of where the Evangelicals ( who are leaving) are coming from.
    Perhaps the best way I can explain this is by referencing James Davison Hunter’s position that the traditional conservative churches( and most evangelicals) assumed a resistance against culture. The mainliners tried to be relevant to culture. And the Anabaptist position has been purity from culture. So therefore, it would behoove mainline churches to change strategy- to a much better Christian position of faithful presence. If there is one unifying way to get the evangelical “dones” into a mainline fellowship, this would be it. That would attract me. But alas, it doesn’t seem to be on PCUSA, TEC, ELCA, or UMC radar( I hear the same call to being relevant even on sites like Patheos( and my favorite…Jesus Creed).
    I encourage Chaplain Mike to experiment with faithful presence this winter as the topic. I mean what more can an ELCA fellowship lose? Just maybe talk will spill outside that this is worthwhile.


  19. My experience with the conservative Evangelical Church. You’re not going to vote for the party pushing abortion.


  20. Not that I know of. One difference is that the 60s was before the Big Sort. The LCMS has always trended conservative, and the predecessor bodies to the ELCA liberal, but there used to be a lot of overlap. A liberal(ish) LCMS congregation was not all that weird. The LCMS and the pre-ELCA bodies were even working on a joint liturgy and hymnal. Then in the 1970s the right wing of the LCMS seized control and undertook a purge. You can google on “Seminex” if you want to learn more, but we have seen the same story in other church bodies since, and the tune is always the same. The collaborating came to a stop.

    So in a sense, those congregations leaving the ELCA over teh gay is the completion of the Big Sort of the early 1970s. The difference is that the conservative congregations were not purged, nor were they forced to do anything they didn’t want to do. If they don’t want a gay minister, they simply don’t call one. But they are unwilling to belong to a church body with gay clergy, so there it is.

    Lutherans and blacks: There is a long tradition of having a non-threateningly small sprinkling of black families among the membership. My father’s home town in Pennsylvania included a middle class black family who had been there forever and were considered thoroughly respectable (though I doubt this would mean you would let your sister marry one of them). Families like that, particularly in places without a large enough black population to have black churches, would naturally end up in one of the white churches, unless that church freaked out at the idea. This was not a particular hang-up of German-Americans. You also saw (and still see) a handful predominantly black Lutheran churches in northern cities.

    There have been black Lutheran clergy since before the Civil War. Presumably they primarily served black congregations, which in turn were of non-threateningly small numbers. The result is that the idea was not new or startling in the 1960s. A black minister called to a predominantly white congregation might be, but there were plenty of other congregations to choose from, for those for whom this was an issue. This never rose to the level of squeamishness such that any significant number couldn’t live with having a sign out front similar to the sign out front of a different church with one of the Those People as pastor.


  21. Doesn’t yesterday’s post, “Exodus from US Religion,” go a long way to explaining the critical state of so many denominations? As I read many of the comment here, I think of that old saying about rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs.


  22. “40 hours a week sermon prep”
    So they don’t want to do pastoral work – visiting orphans and widows in their distress – either?


  23. Was there a similar dropoff back in the 60s for civil rights? Was ‘mixed’ clergy ever an issue in the mainlines, or was there always a “Black ELCA” equivalent?


  24. The ELCA pastor at the little church I attended for a year and a half before it closed was provisional, in that he could do all the pastor stuff but was still going to seminary and not yet ordained. His main gripe was with what he called the “fundamentalists” in the synod and seminary. He was the only one in the church beside me who knew who Nadia Bolz-Weber and Phyllis Tickle are, tho I think the presiding bishop of the denomination might have made three of us. He was a good pastor and when he shared communion, he was sharing the Spirit of Jesus. He also served the sister church, it too in decline, five miles away. Before being forced to close, the church I was attending ran him off because he wanted them to spend their endowment on the community instead of maintaining a separate building for ten people a Sunday a few more years, and he is now selling real estate to pay off his student loan with no ordination. He was replaced in the sister church with an ordained business manager from the synodical heirarchy who knows how to read out of the liturgical book and to promote programs designed to increase attendance. What’s wrong with this picture?


  25. > city populations are growing, and getting younger. Furthermore, I think there are genuine
    > signs of interest among some of the younger set in traditional liturgical worship. How
    > large a trend this will be–a boom or a blip–I have no idea

    This is a question I ponder as well. And how effectively can churches blunder right past this possible opportunity?

    > The problem is that we Lutherans absolutely suck at evangelism

    Heh. You are better than some! AFAIK, at least here, I haven’t seen a Lutheran church crap on the residents of its own neighborhood – this seems to be a thing for more than a few churches.


  26. I have to wonder though, how many aspiring ministers were talked out of it by family members or jaded clergy? That happened to at least one person I know. Another observation is that the current crop of 50 somethings may have been drawn to the field during the revival of the 60s and 70s. We may be overdue for another one, or perhaps churches are doing a poor job of noticing who might have a heart for such a thankless task.Third would be, do we really need to put our pastors out to pasture the minute they turn 65? Some would be happy to participate at a reduced level as long as their strenght holds out.

    On the other hand, the house church movement really intrigues me. Perhaps we need to dump the whole idea and get back to small communities of neighbors without all the overhead. Maybe it’s time to admit that the sermon has been overemphasized.


  27. Maybe you have never been part of a church group where there was no head pastor and the meetings functioned as the members shared and operated in the spiritual gifts.


  28. One more note on the numbers Chaplain Mike cited. About 60% of the decline in congregations in the ELCA was their leaving in response to the decision to ordain gay clergy. However you feel about that decision, that was a one-off event. The ELCA took the hit, and it is largely over with. We need to keep this in mind when discussing the long-term trends.


  29. My take: the ELCA in particular, and mainlines in general, aren’t going to go away, but there will be a massive retrenchment.

    Your small rural congregations pretty much have to go. There is no reason other than inertia for them to exist since the invention of the automobile. My county is old Pennsylvania German farm country. There are these small Lutheran churches scattered across the countryside, which made perfect sense in horse and buggy days. They are all dying. In the meantime the congregation in the county seat is doing very well (stipulating that we are talking straight numbers here: I go elsewhere for a reason). Those country churches all own real property, and in particular many of them have graveyards. That last in particular makes them tough to close. People will hang on well beyond the point of reason when it comes to the graveyard. But it is becoming essentially impossible to get clergy, even on a circuit-riding basis. I foresee mergers and sales of property, with the farmland churches merging into the small town churches. This will do wonders for the short-term finances. Whether it is merely a band-aid will depend on where the membership numbers stabilize.

    The urban churches are a more interesting question. They are similarly overbuilt, in the sense that a city that used to be about half German, many of them Lutheran, is now a typical generic Northeastern city, with no cultural affinity to those old Lutheran churches. Hence the three dozen people in a sanctuary built for two or three hundred. Mergers and property sales are certainly one option. In some ways it is a more attractive option than in the rural parishes. Graveyards are less of an issue, while the real estate values are vastly higher.

    On the other hand, city populations are growing, and getting younger. Furthermore, I think there are genuine signs of interest among some of the younger set in traditional liturgical worship. How large a trend this will be–a boom or a blip–I have no idea. This might be an opportunity for revival in these urban churches. The problem is that we Lutherans absolutely suck at evangelism. We have absolutely no idea how to go about it. So we will see.

    In the meantime, my church is, with majestic inertia (assisted by a stable interim situation) undertaking the call process. This brought to my attention the collapse of the seminary pipeline. This is new. The last time I looked was about fifteen years ago. They weren’t overfilled back then, but the supply of and demand for clergy was about even. The received wisdom was that the Episcopalians had a surplus. I don’t know if this is still true, but if so, it points to the short-term solution.


  30. I refer to this kind of thing as “arealism”.

    “””when Jesus is really the only Shepherd, the entire Body will be healthy and operate as God actually intended all along. … Pray that the Church will return to a New Testament model as God originally intended”””

    There is really nothing helpful in this line of thinking. It answers real problems with platitudes.


  31. My father was a US Navy chaplain for 27 years. This was back in the LCA days. He was credentialed by the LCA, but effectively outside the organization for day to day stuff other than the occasional supply work. Once he retired from the Navy he transitioned smoothly into a parish, in a military town where he understood them and they him. He had a deal with the synod president: he wouldn’t tell the president how to run the synod so long as the president didn’t tell him how to run his congregation. We were far enough away from the center of things for this to be a happy arrangement all around.


  32. Regarding LCMS and big cities, it is a matter of demographics. The “Missouri” in LCMS is somewhat vestigial, but it is there for a reason. The modern Lutheran church bodies are the end result of a long history of regional bodies merging and splitting and mixing and matching. The LCMS membership descends from a wave of German immigration into the midwest in the mid-19th and into the early 20th century. Why this wave occurred, and how this affects the LCMS, is an interesting story, but a bit much for a blog comment. The earlier 18th century wave of Germans settled, stereotypically, in and around Pennsylvania. They ended up in the ELCA, as did the Scandinavians in the upper midwest. After WWII the population of the west coast ballooned, and the various church bodies moved in. The upshot is that there are vast swathes of the country with only scattered LCMS congregations, e.g. the Northeast, some parts where the default Lutheran congregation is LCMS, e.g., yes, Missouri, and some parts with a mix, e.g. California.

    You don’t find many LCMS in New York or Philadelphia because of where they are. Los Angeles has its share, though you will find more ELCA because the ELCA started with a larger base east of the Rockies. But look in St. Louis and you find find no shortage of urban LCMS churches.


  33. I agree. Of course, this conversation gets complicated when your have inherited a gigantic, historic building.

    Number of inexpensive renovation projects in old buildings: z-e-r-o. They come in three flavors: expensive; very expensive; and don’t ask.

    Oh, and then there’s the organ. Oh my, that organ. I love listening to it, but that is one expensive puppy.


  34. I grew up in a family that voted Republican. My first presidential election old enough to vote, I voted for Reagan’s reelection. Then the family spread out geographically, and didn’t talk politics when we got together. Then at some point many years later the subject arose, and it turned out that we had almost unanimously turned into Democrats.


  35. The classic bad ELCA sermon isn’t progressive politics with a whiff of God-talk. It is a lecture on the topic of being nice, with a whiff of God-talk. I figured this out about thirty years ago. Those sermons send me into a catatonic state. Fortunately they rarely last more than fifteen minutes. Once I figured out the pattern, it became pretty easy to spot quickly, which was a useful skill when church-shopping after a move. The task was to find the church that wasn’t like that. This led to my two years in an LCMS congregation (quasi-bootleg: it accepted a letter of transfer from my old ELCA congregation, and sent one to my new one after I moved; I never asked, but I suspect the hierarchy would not have approved, had they known). Even weirder was my membership in an ultra-conservative congregation, right at the tail end of the period when such things could still be found in the ELCA. The pastor and I (a) disagreed about nearly everything, and (b) personally liked each other a great deal. It was an interesting period. I might disagree with everything he said in a sermon, but I wasn’t experiencing catatonia.


  36. > people will give if there is a visible project.

    I am a bit on the opposite side; infrastructure is something, among many things, a church should invest in. Churches are citizens of their community – and their facility is part of that. Buildings, or the campus, are value statements. A great building is a way of saying “we are here, and we intend to be here for a long time”. How you position a building on a lot says “welcome” or “this is for us, go away”.

    On the other hand – yes, don’t be stupid, live within your means.

    Aside – providing a venue to the community not only makes you are part of the community – it can generate revenue! Churches should not feel ashamed of making smart investments.


  37. I have never understood why churches get into building expensive infrastructure. But I have been told that people will give if there is a visible project.

    Seems to me a very strange thing.


  38. The housing allowances are not taxed on the income level, but they are still taxed the 15.3% for social security. So if you report 30,000 for income and 20,000 for housing allowance, you are still paying 15.3% on 50,000. And if you live in parsonage you have to pay social security tax on the fair rental value of your parsonage. There are a lot of ways to get around income tax, but there’s no getting around the social security tax


  39. “Decent wage” as in Keeping up with The Furticks?

    And “40 hours a week sermon prep”? Don’t forget those instant pre-written sermon sites (like the ones selling pre-written term papers) to free up more time for The Big Time — the Best-seller and Conference circuit.


  40. And all those plans and programs that look so good at HQ have this way of not working all that great when they get to the field.

    Just ask a younger Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.


  41. And with Devil’s Holiday coinciding with Election Season followed by War on Christmas Season, we’re going to hear a lot of “PERSECUTION!!!!!” over the next three months.

    The 21 Copts are unavailable for comment.


  42. The men seem incredibly naive about what it costs to live and how much money a church of 150 members can pay them.

    What are they expecting? A Mega with a Furtick Mansion?


  43. Miguel, I’ve thought the same for a long, long while! Preachers & church members complaining about the national debt & government inefficiency while their church is thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for whatever new thing they “stepped out in faith” to buy. Depends on who’s on is being gored…


  44. Hi SUZANNE,

    I read your comment, this: “Many Christians in this country like to holler about religious persecution, but to me, it’s really more a cry for attention. ”

    and I thought that it made a lot of sense . . . . . I have thought that, having harassed and bullied and bad-mouthed so many groups on the margins (Muslims, LBGT folk, etc.),
    society had begun to take pity on those groups and saw them as being persecuted by fundamentalist/evangelical Christians big-time. So shouting ‘we are the ones being persecuted’ is a way of diffusing the criticism and bringing the focus back on themselves as they interpret the pushback of their stridency as ‘persecution’.

    Being the ‘center of attention’ in the first case was unpleasant for these Christians;
    so they attempted to exchange places with those they had tormented and these “christians” then began to holler ‘WE are the ones being persecuted’. So self-serving. So shallow.
    What an insult to those in the Church who today are REALLY facing persecution and martyrdom in witness to Christ.


  45. > their notion of how life should be lived is incredibly parochial

    Oy. Recently we had a little dust up where the city re-striped a street in front of a church. They added a bike lane. This removed some parking spaces. The pastor had a fit, went to the city council, demanded the street be returned to its previous configuration.

    Talk about winning friends and influencing people – not. There is a numerous multiple of people, mostly younger, who are members of the local bicycle coalition than are members of this guys congregation. Yet….

    Something like this seems to play out a couple times a year. You just want to bang you head against the desk. And these are mostly urban congregations; I can only imagine what gets done and said elsewhere.


  46. Yes, they do pay taxes specifically on their income, but even if the church doesn’t provided a manse, pastors are allowed housing expenses that are not taxed. This provides some relief to offset that 15.3% we self-employed people have to pay to Social Security.



  47. > just be the effect of America becoming more international?

    Or America becoming – finally – American. I mean, at some point, most people are 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc… American. Like me; my great grand-parents and a couple grand parents were Finnish – but, really, I’m American. Any ethnic identity is a historic novelty.

    Also, among Millennial, by some measures approaching ~20% of marriages are inter-racial [lots of weeds in how you count that]. That makes for a very different generation, concerning where they may *feel* comfortable.


  48. A lot of churches are closing and deserve to close.

    I know that’s a very harsh sounding thing, because many churches are hurting who deserve better, too.

    But I’ve yet to see a congregation that was not over-leveraged by pork-barrel spending. It’s nothing short of ironic how congregations, especially those full of political conservatives, will tolerate in the management of the church affairs principles and practices at which they scream bloody murder when it happens in the government. The Fed needs to tighten the screws and tune up the ship, but our church needs to pander and spend on whatever oils the squeaky wheels.

    It takes guts and real leadership to stand up to established local tradition (the most sacred of all kinds) and say, “Just because you like this and we used to do it a lot doesn’t mean we can still sustain it. Here’s what we got to work with. We have to use it wisely for our purpose in this community, not merely to replicate our personal nostalgia.” Where this happens, the church has hope. Where the leaders cower in fear, a decline and close is inevitable.

    By and large, the church is not wise with the managing of her affairs. Good business practices are not put into effect. Business run like a typical church don’t usually last long, either. So many people sitting in the pews are reluctant to give when they see how stupidly it gets used. I’ve watched leadership appeal for giving by declaring how well the money is being put to good use, but anybody who spent five minutes behind the scene knew it simply was not true.

    A smart business downsizes when funding and clientele reduce. In the case of the ELCA, a church that cannot support a pastor has to consider one of three things: Step up personal giving (a congregation of 15 families has little excuse to not afford one pastor, IMO), merge with another congregation, or close the doors and go join another congregation who would probably benefit from your support. For too many, a lack of willingness to consider the latter is hurting other good churches in the community who could make better use of their assets and resources. It’s ok to let the institution die. Use whatever is left in it to help the church outside your four walls.


  49. > out-of-work pastors and unemployed seminary graduates

    I can attest that no small number become trainers in the corporate sector. That seems to be an exit profession for pastors.


  50. I gonna walk back a previous comment of mine. Mainline denominations are perceived, by the likes of me, to hold to a progressive view of life; they end up tending to follow the culture of the day.

    But the reality probably is; the people in the PEWS are not particularly progressive, it is the denominational leaders who, as politicians do, engage in the art of compromise and end up pushing a more progressive agenda then what the average pew sitter would endorse.

    This was very true of the Southern Baptist situation when the seismic shift took place in the late 80 and the President and appointed board members decided they would reverse the creeping move towards a more liberal theology.

    I’m going to guess that is probably true of all denominational leadership. A) They are politicians and will therefore compromise. B) The people in the pews don’t necessarily agree but they will not fight “city hall” for long.

    So, for all I know, the ELCA membership may actually be relatively conservative, just like my congregation


  51. Sure, quarterly payments are normal for the self-employed. On the other hand if the pastor is smart he can claim a *lot* of expenses – if he is bringing in less than $50K his tax rate should be ridiculously low…. unless he or his accountant are fiscally incompetent.

    That is part of being independently employed – you need to mind your store.


  52. Naive, yes. But speaking as someone in very, very close proximity to a seminary and has lived with seminary students in the past, many of them have a massive chip on their shoulder that all they should have to do is pastor/theological work, and they deeply resent having to pick up a second job or do anything that’s not 40 hours a week sermon prep. And they will do all they can to ‘game the system’ (similar to the so-called welfare queens) to get all the free perks and benefits and comped meals and rent they can.

    Not all, but a good number. Some seem to rapidly become bitter and angry when they are turned down over and over by churches for pastorship at what they consider a decent wage.


  53. Could a lot of this just be the effect of America becoming more international? I’m not Swedish or a Baptist, so I’m sorta out at the local Swedish Baptist church made up of second generation immigrants, as an example. A lot of churches don’t seem to die because they’ve basically become a small spot of the “old world” to it’s congregants.

    Where you came from and how long you’ve been here have to be huge factors in choosing. I doubt it comes down to theology all that often.


  54. ommunities like this, especially as they go into decline, tend to be closed circles. How do you “get in” when there’s no place you go to “sign up to be ‘in’?”

    > Decline tends also to make the committed core grip even more tightly to turf


    > I’m still unsure what it would take to shift focus from the insular focus
    > to an external one. How do you convince a community to…

    That seems to be the question of the age; not just for churches.

    I think the answer is good old fashioned Leadership. But where to find those leaders when you have a shallow pool?

    > I wonder if we can do it?

    I am pessimistically hopeful. 🙂


  55. No, I don’t think its a teaching issue. It’s the side-show.

    The longer I am in an ethnic Lutheran church, the more convinced I am that the problem is that the go-to box of organizational tools isn’t suitable for the job.

    For example, I think a lot of ethnic churches were able to rely for so long on the fact that ethnic identity would bring people together for church. In my church — a German congregation in a major city — there has always, until recently, been an influx of German immigrants who would naturally swing into its orbit. It never really had to evangelize. It just had to be the place for Germans to go.

    One reason I hang around is that I’m veteran of a consumer-driven, enterprising movement that doesn’t talk very well about community. So in churches like this, I see community. I am convinced that this collective memory that says, “we should really all get together and do things as a group” is a helpful instinct.

    But the problem is that communities like this, especially as they go into decline, tend to be closed circles. How do you “get in” when there’s no place you go to “sign up to be ‘in’?”

    Decline tends also to make the committed core grip even more tightly to turf and even more hyper about change, which makes them really want new people — but not at the price of losing control. This can lead to odd situations.

    The really weird thing about this is that its mostly unintended. Problem is, I’m still unsure what it would take to shift focus from the insular focus to an external one. How do you convince a community to remain tight but open itself up?

    There’s some positive effort like this, but overall there needs to be a huge course correction. And we’re pretty far into the spiral. I wonder if we can do it? Or are we just not doing it because, deep down, its not wanted?


  56. There is also the legitimate doctrine of the theology of the cross — when things look worst, God is most present.

    I think it’s important not to over-theologize here – this is about institutional change and decline.


  57. Ha! This question interests me too.

    But I am also laughing because it would be so very Lutheran to respond to news about declining numbers and certain doom with a very long discussion of inside baseball.


  58. I once had a long conversation with a family member, where they expressed a great deal of concern about spiritual and moral questions as they pertained to me. About abandoning “values.” About the possibility of my having drifted, etc.

    I responded to this earnestly, because I assumed they were talking about big questions — which I have been navigating for a long time.

    It turned out, that the only thing this person meant was that I had voted for a Democrat in the previous election.

    I wasn’t sure whether to be really disappointed or really happy to be off the hook.


  59. I don’t mean for this remark in any way to be sarcastic. Our good Chaplain made an extremely wise move when he shifted from a church pastoral vocation to that of chaplain. If nothing else, being a hospice chaplain has job security. Whatever else happens on our societal ride in the handbasket, people are going to continue dying. And so are churches. It seems like a no-brainer to me, and I don’t mean to imply that financial considerations should be primary. But you do have to eat, and if you have a family it helps to have a roof over your head other than the roof of your car.

    And hospice work is not the only choice as chaplain. There is a military career available for those so inclined, and bigger cities have police chaplains. Bigger hospitals have dedicated chaplains, and even cutting edge businesses are waking up and smelling the coffee. The whole doctrinal fiasco is avoided as a chaplain, and in fact you are usually required to avoid it. Much closer to being ecumenical and non-denominational in fact, as most non-denominational churches are not, and the problems dealt with are real human problems, not business or managerial problems.

    There is still the problem of certification, which involves further education, likely with debt, and some kind of affiliation. I don’t know the ins and outs of that, but I suspect there are ways and means to minimize the hassle and expense. If I were a pastor today other than John Piper, I would seriously consider following CM into this lifeboat as the ship slowly sinks. If I were a seminary student, I would seriously start out in this direction. Would be interesting to know the statistics for this vocation. I suppose at some point there could be a glut from all the out-of-work pastors and unemployed seminary graduates. I would guess most people, including many pastors, would not be cut out for the job.


  60. From your pew, where? It sounds like characterization made by outsiders to the tradition in question.

    There’s an element of truth to your statement. In all quarters, the church is in continual danger of letting the tail wag the dog. Still, I haven’t heard that many messages that were primarily political, with a bit of theology drizzled on top. Which is what you’re suggesting. I have heard a lot of messages that are community-oriented. God has a message for us, together; we are called to a certain kind of social witness; we need to welcome the outsider, even though it may be difficult for us. And so on. Admittedly, this kind of preaching does tend to co-travel with a moderate-to-liberal politic.

    But some push-back here: if “welcome the outsider” and “we need to live the kingdom among us right now” always reads like liberal messaging to evangelical observers, is that a bad sign for the “liberals”? Or a bad sign that more conservative or ‘evangelical’ quarters have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage?

    My strong suspicion is that liberal and conservative churches are too often similar in the fact they don’t really know how to live out these imperatives. And that’s on all of us.


  61. My experience is mostly with the Missouri Synod Lutherans and I’d guess that the majority of their churches are in rural areas and have membership of less than 300. I could be wrong, but if I look in their online directory, I don’t see many churches in places like New York City, Philadelphia, LA, etc. But look at rural Midwest, and there are many!

    When I go to a place like New York City or Chicago, I am always struck with how irrelevant the discussions at my rural church are to the bigger, broader world. Why? Mainly because, I think, many of the people in my neck of the woods have so little experience with the bigger, broader world. Their view of the world is bunch of scary “others” out there; their notion of how life should be lived is incredibly parochial and narrow and limited to thoughts of how the world should work like it did when they were growing up. But the world doesn’t work that way and likely never will again. Life has changed, the world has become interconnected in ways we couldn’t imagine 50 years ago, cultures have intermingled, and the church, by and large, has not made the adjustment. We can either embrace the “others” and learn from each other or we can reject them and hunker down in our own little bunkers until our bunkers become empty tombs.

    Many Christians in this country like to holler about religious persecution, but to me, it’s really more a cry for attention. And let’s face it, nobody wants to be around a screaming toddler.


  62. But the pick-up hasn’t happened – yet, anyway. Why?

    If my Lutheran experience is any indication:

    1. Insufficient numbers of pastors, an aging pastorate, and generally ineffective pastoral leadership.

    2. Inability to think outside traditional Lutheran categories and to translate the gifts of the Lutheran tradition to others. Outside of someone like Nadia Bolz-Weber, the denomination does a relatively poor job of communicating with the public outside its own community. They had one of the best radio programs/podcasts on the air several years ago, with Peter Marty, but pulled it for financial reasons.

    3. With 75% of their churches in relatively small communities, they are not on the radar of many millennials and don’t have the cultural visibility of the non-denoms.

    There’s a few thoughts, anyway.


  63. > One would think that millennials, for example, would be attracted to more
    > open and inclusive teaching and practices

    Ditto. And many of those crusty old mainlines are in the right location – at the destination ends of the population migrations we see dominant among the Millennials. But the pick-up hasn’t happened – yet, anyway. Why? – That is a relevant and interesting question [*1].

    > The evangelical church growth movement,

    I give the growth movement a portion of the credit – but the church growth movement seems to have faded out at about the same time that the related migrations faded out. In hindsight I think they will end up looking VERY much like the history of the mainlines – who benefited from swelling immigrant communities and then began a long gradual decline. History provides plenty of examples of someone doing something that appears very successful but upon further analysis looks to be an impact less related to the “doing” than to right-time-right-place.. Not that Doing can’t amplify right-place-right-time.

    [*1] It might still, sadly, be at least in part a race problem 😦 The urban mainlines in my corner of the world – seeing 18% population growth! – are still astonishingly White.


  64. So now you’re a Lutheran! Who knew? You’re probably more the German flavor where you are than the Swedish flavor where I am. Swedes invented lutefisk and the Christmas wreath, tho Norwegians might argue.


  65. People don’t want to deal with reality or see the big picture. It’s against human nature. People would rather die than change, and so they do, along with their church, a long and painful death. Fingers in ears, la la la la la!

    The last UMC congregation we attended is the living exemplar of this mindset. They will cling to their 1950’s WASP cultural bubble until they all die off and there aren’t enough congregants left to pay the bills.


  66. I also think the overall reason for mainline decline is demographics and the inability of these groups to adapt as society changed. The evangelical church growth movement, on the other hand, took advantage of those changes. And it is an institutional problem we’re talking about, and a failure to adjust the “business model,” if you will. I don’t think the “progressive” teaching is the problem. One would think that millennials, for example, would be attracted to more open and inclusive teaching and practices.


  67. OMG! I have always assumed that Seminary was a heavily scholarship’d kind of thing; once you got the initial generic degree.

    Only if you’re from a congregation/attend a seminary with a TON of endowments. Otherwise, you are on. Your. Own.

    Perhaps beyond the $26K they have a top-shelf benefits package?

    Churches and denominations don’t have the financial clout to swing affordable health benefits packages. So, no to that too.

    How on earth are these people intended to ‘float’ financially?

    Divine intervention?


  68. >> Every church council should have a seat for a Designated Curmudgeon. Seriously.

    Adam, that’s funny, and absolutely true, tho it wouldn’t do any good. People don’t want to deal with reality or see the big picture. It’s against human nature. People would rather die than change, and so they do, along with their church, a long and painful death. Fingers in ears, la la la la la! At least you have articulated for me what my apparent vocation in life is, tho there are no job openings available. All my life I have been wondering what I want to be when I grow up, and now I know: Designated Curmudgeon. It’s a lonely and thankless task, unless you’re The Church Curmudgeon, and apparently there can only be one of those, and admittedly he’s the best. Well, I can do this interim gig here, but the pay is terrible.


  69. > going into debt to attend Seminary

    OMG! I have always assumed that Seminary was a heavily scholarship’d kind of thing; once you got the initial generic degree.

    > It’s really not a sustainable model.

    Putting it kindly; one could argue it is immoral. How on earth are these people intended to ‘float’ financially?

    Perhaps beyond the $26K they have a top-shelf benefits package? That can make-up for low pay, especially these days.


  70. Robert F, do you mind sharing some of your story on the reasons for shifting from ECUSA to ELCA. I was thinking the BCP liturgy would be so much richer than an ELCA one, unless the reason is relational difficulties.


  71. Yes, there is that cost of living thing. I have known a few pastors-in-training as a Lutheran seminary is in this area of the state. The men seem incredibly naive about what it costs to live and how much money a church of 150 members can pay them. That, and they seem to have large families and are going into debt to attend Seminary. It’s really not a sustainable model.


  72. My understanding of mainline churches is that they don’t require full agreement on theology and practice to be in full communion, just a decent amount of agreement. The very reasons they find it easier to be in full communion, the things they hold more loosely than really uptight traditions, also make institutional merger at that point more difficult. I’m not bashing on them, but I think it means a merger would make more people leave over those thing than if they had less people they were in full communion with, but more fully matching relationships with them.

    I might be wrong, I’m looking at this as an outsider.


  73. I was just going to say something similar, Robert. I’ve been told far too often that a Christian must vote Republican. There is no other option.


  74. > The reason evangelicalism is not yet as moribund… consumerist

    Disagree. Location and age. Their birth rate began steady decline in the late 80’s.
    Religion is extremely generational; Evangelicalism, last stat I saw, retains about ~60% from adolescence into adulthood. Meaning they need a birth-rate of ~3.3 to hold the line; and they are nowhere near that. They might pick up a few souls if other denominations start to shutter at a significant rate – but they are only further back on the curve.

    If Evangelicals were thinking clearly they would scoop up vacated urban churches and take a fiercely pro-immigration immigrant-friendly stance. They still have time to bend up their curve. But I wouldn’t wager on that happening.


  75. Merging institutions will also always have collateral loss – some people will be displeased with the merger or merger-process and they will disaffiliate. Merging will be a death-spiral maneuver.

    > it will be too little, too late

    We are likely already past the red-line, IMNSHO. Look at the above stats – they don’t need to “stop the bleeding”, they need blood donors.

    But that doesn’t mean something cannot be salvaged. Many of these churches are where churches should be – centrally located in architecture that makes a values statement – almost any church in those facilities is better than no church. Churches can serve important roles for the community at large.

    On the other hand, especially in terms of the seminaries, this will vacate some great locations and architecture for re-purposing. Perhaps now is the time to start assembling a group of investors…


  76. The reason evangelicalism is not yet as moribund as the mainlines and Catholicism in America is because much of it has conformed to the consumerist and entertainment models of our contemporary society, not because of fidelity to Christ or authentic Christian teaching. But that is changing too, as evangelical churches have started to decline in membership in the last decade. The rise of the Nones is catching up with them.


  77. Although I’ve heard no public discussion about it, at some point denominations with full communion will likely have to attempt institutional merger. And, after all, why keep separate institutions, including expensive to maintain buildings and seminary systems, when you are in full agreement on theology and practice? In lean times, when it’s become a matter of survival, change or die, a desire to keep your own particular denominational tradition’s emphasis of certain non-essentials is not an adequate reason. But I think when the institutional merger gambit is attempted, or even seriously entertained as a possibility, it will be too little, too late. At best, it would only postpone the inevitable demise of the mainlines.


  78. “””The median level of defined compensation those congregations were paying pastors was $26,000.”””

    OUCH! You want someone with a college education for $26K?

    Even assuming the guy pays effectively no taxes… that’s $2,000/mo. .. I mean – if he has to provide his own housing and transportation [H+T], the guy is screwed. He’s going to have to find housing for something like ~$400/mo. Maybe that is possible in rural Indiana… but… yikes.


  79. > I would say there are REASONS for all this decline in the Church,

    Of course there are reasons. But many of them may be raw demographics. Most mainline churches or of a quasi-ethnic [or at least linguistic group] origin, and they never significantly expanded beyond those groups except at the fringes. As those groups decline… there is much less conversion/evangelism than many people believe. Most ‘conversions’ are, in truth, “boomerangs” – return to closer to a point of origin.

    > mainline liberal protestantism is progressive politics with a whiff of God-talk

    A common assertion, but I doubt this is real. Almost the entire shift can be explained in-the-numbers. The “generational cohort”, to use fancy speak. Some Evangelical groups, so far, appear to be more insulated from these shifts due to the fact that they are younger. Mainlines are rooted in the communities of immigrants – urban & rural – while Evangelical groups are heavily rooted in suburban communities that appeared in the 50s-80s. The clock is ticking for them too [*1], they merely started later.

    [*1] Hubris is apparently a very real thing. Nobody seems to believe the Clock will come for them – until they hear the gong. Every church council should have a seat for a Designated Curmudgeon. Seriously.

    In any case the mainines have already beat the odds. Anything past three generations is a robust life span for any institution – its rare! If you take family owned businesses – 3% [3 out of 100] – of those that reach the third generation survive to the forth. Let’s give the mainlines a little credit just for being around for us to tsck tsck at.


  80. There is full union between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church (ECUSA), which means that that parishes may share clergy as well as sacraments, and congregants may transfer parish membership across the two denominations easily and without needing to be “received” (as my wife and I recently did, from ECUSA to ELCA); but when both institutions are dying on the same schedule, it does nothing to promote the longevity or viability of either. It’s theologically important, but doesn’t provide much life-support.


  81. Yikes. These are some dark statistics. Pulling out of that fall would be miraculous.

    I know it is insensitive but it is hard not to ask – how did we get here? “”””average age of clergy had increased to 54 years old, with 32 percent of active clergy above 60″”””, arrival here was only simple arithmetic; if the institution is important to someone they should have been in a panic a decade ago [perhaps they were?]

    Recently I talked to someone who works at a successful small company where there isn’t an employee under 50… it “just happened”. Mmmmm… sort of.

    Does the ELCA or the UMC have a contingency plan?


  82. “Too often, mainline liberal protestantism is progressive politics with a whiff of God-talk.”

    [ It appears that way from my pew. ]


  83. “I would say there are REASONS for all this decline in the Church, and those reasons are going to be difficult to face honestly and to overcome, but this must happen because it IS the Church and it cannot die.”

    Since reading Philip Jenkins’ profoundly interesting and deeply disturbing book, “The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died,” I’ve come to think that churches–big ones, even–do indeed die. (By “churches” here, I’m referring to denominational entities.) This is why I found the book disturbing and unsettling.

    Too often, mainline liberal protestantism is progressive politics with a whiff of God-talk. It’s the modern equivalent of the bubonic plague you mention (for which thanks, by the way; I ddin’t know that).


  84. or maybe they experience a season of loss . . . . . in the time of the bubonic plague (called the Black Death) in Europe, over 90% of all clergy died

    but the plague passed and a new season came

    I would say there are REASONS for all this decline in the Church, and those reasons are going to be difficult to face honestly and to overcome, but this must happen because it IS the Church and it cannot die

    my own belief is that political involvement by many in the Church has created a great sense of cynicism among believers, especially among the young, and this may be one of the most important reasons why we see these declines at this time . . . . . there are ways that the Church can help communities and the common good without becoming a ‘friendly church’ to a major political party whose economic policies afflict those at the margins of our communities . . . . . maybe something can be learned here that will help the Church to return to its first love and if this happens, maybe this season of loss is not for nothing after all.


  85. How does the fact that the ELCA is in fellowship (not sure if that’s the right term) with some of the other mainline denoms, like UMC and such? Does that make any difference? Or can pastors in those denoms. switch easily if they wanted to? Or do these other denoms. have the same issues?


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