United Methodist Clergy Trends: Fewer, Older
By Thomas Lambrecht
Lovett Weems of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership has released his annual report on the state of UM clergy, particularly focusing on the number of young clergy (under age 35). This has been a particular area of concern for the denomination, sparking a number of initiatives designed to increase the number of younger clergy. His report allows us to make a number of observations about the state of United Methodist clergy as of the end of 2022.
Accelerating decline in the number of clergy
The first thing to notice is that the total number of clergy is declining at a faster rate. The number of elders has gone from over 21,500 in 1990 to just over 10,000 in 2023. This decline of over 50 percent has paralleled a similar decline in UM church membership and number of congregations during that same time. In 1990, there were over 8.8 million United Methodists in the U.S., which number has declined to about 5.7 million at the end of 2021. However, the membership drop is only 35 percent in that time, compared to a 53 percent drop in elders, who are the main group of clergy serving as pastors of local churches.
While a much smaller group, deacons also experienced accelerating decline. From a high of over 1,000 deacons in 2019, there are now just over 900. Full-time and part-time licensed local pastors also experienced a faster decline. From a high of nearly 7,500 local pastors in 2020, there are now just over 6,100 just three years later.
There appear to be at least two factors involved in the decline of the total number of clergy. The Covid pandemic saw an uptick in the number of elders leaving. In the ten years before the pandemic, the annual average decline in the number of elders was between 455 and 480. In 2021, however, 839 elders left the ministry, followed by over 600 in 2022. For local pastors, the numbers were increasing or holding steady up through 2020. In 2021, there was a drop of 232, followed by a drop of 323 in 2022. The hardships of the pandemic and ministry challenges during that period may have caused more clergy to retire or leave ministry.
The other factor causing an overall decline in clergy could be denominational conflict and disaffiliation. The number of elders in 2023 was 1,158 fewer, up from 603 the year before. Local pastors experienced 816 fewer in 2023, compared with 323 fewer in 2022. This sudden jump of over 1,000 in the number of clergy leaving UM ministry could reflect pastors who withdrew as their congregations disaffiliated. There were just over 1,800 congregations that disaffiliated in 2022, and a significant number of the clergy serving those churches may have withdrawn. With close to 5,000 congregations disaffiliating in 2023, there will undoubtedly be another significant jump in the clergy decline.
A changing mix of clergy
Another trend that stands out is the shift from mainly elders as pastors of local churches to the inclusion of a significant number of local pastors, who typically do not have seminary degrees and often are second-career pastors. They receive training through yearly classes at a Five-Year Course of Study (which is usually completed in more like seven years). They can receive this training while serving full-time in ministry, rather than taking three or four years away at seminary.
In 1985, local pastors made up just 15 percent of all clergy. That means there were 5.6 elders for every local pastor. In 2023, local pastors made up 38 percent of all clergy. There were therefore 1.6 elders for every local pastor. Our denomination has increasingly relied on local pastors. One reason may be that they are paid less than elders and so more “affordable” for a local church. Or it could be that more of those feeling called into ministry, especially if they are second-career and have a family, are not able or willing to move away to seminary and invest tens of thousands of dollars in a seminary degree when another path for ministry training is available. Local pastors also offer more flexibility to the denomination because they are not guaranteed a job, as elders are.
Another trend has to do with the growing presence of women elders and local pastors. The report only contains data beginning in 2020 regarding gender, but even in that short period, there has been growth in the percentage of women in ministry.
For elders, the general rule is that older generations have a higher percentage of men. For example, in 2020 elders over age 55 were 69 percent male, while elders under age 35 percent were 62 percent male. But even within each age cohort, the number of women elders has grown over the past three years. In 2020, 31 percent of elders over age 55 were women, while in 2023 it was 34 percent. The growth in the percentage of women over three years was uniformly 3 percentage points in each age cohort.
For licensed local pastors, the trend was the same (growing numbers of women), but the age experience was the opposite. The older age cohorts have a higher percentage of women than the younger age cohorts. In 2020, 36 percent of the local pastors over age 55 were women, while only 24 percent of those under 35 were women. This dramatic difference could be due to life stages, where younger women are forming families and having children, then entering ministry when the children are mostly grown. This could be due to the second-career nature of local pastors. One could speculate that women elders may be prioritizing a ministry career over other factors, such as family. The important point is that women local pastors also grew over the past three years, by 3 to 5 percentage points in each age cohort.
When it comes to deacons, the situation is different. Women make up a disproportionate number of deacons, and that percentage is staying relatively constant. In 2020, women made up 68 to 77 percent of deacons, depending upon age cohort. In 2023, women made up 72 to 76 percent of deacons. Due to the smaller number of deacons, the percentages can fluctuate more from year to year, but there does not appear to be an overall trend one way or the other.
While women make up half of the population and nearly two-thirds of church members, they still are underrepresented in the ministry. The highest percentage of women is 41 percent of elders under age 35 and 40 percent of local pastors over age 55. Deacons, who normally do not serve as pastors of local churches, have a consistently far greater percentage of women.
The primary concern of the Lewis Center report is with the number of people under age 35 in ministry. The current trajectory is declining numbers of young people in ministry in the UM Church.
In 1985, there were over 3,200 elders under age 35, which represented 15 percent of the total. That number declined to 850 in 2005, which was 5 percent of the total. Various initiatives boosted the number of young elders in succeeding years, so that by 2015 there were 986 young elders, which was 7 percent of the total. Then decline set in, and since 2021 each year has represented a record low number of elders under age 35. In 2023, there are only 449 young elders, which is only 4 percent of the total number of elders. It is mind-boggling that the number of young elders has decreased by 85 percent since 1985!
A similar trajectory is apparent for licensed local pastors. The number of young local pastors has grown substantially since 1985 because the number of local pastors has grown substantially during that time. In 1985, there were only 130 local pastors under age 35, which was 3 percent of the total. That number grew to a high of 654 young local pastors in 2020, 9 percent of the total, but it has declined since then. In 2023, there are only 416 local pastors under age 35, which is still 7 percent of the total.
The situation is the same for deacons. Deacons under age 35 reached a high of 124 in 2017-2018, at 12 percent of the total. Since then, the number of young deacons has declined to 74 in 2023, which is 8 percent of the total.
We spoke above about factors influencing the drop in the total number of clergy in the UM Church. These factors undoubtedly influenced the drop in young clergy, as well. But as one can see with the percentage of young clergy dropping, they have been disproportionately affected by decline.
Why would young clergy decline faster than older cohorts? In a private email, Weems hypothesizes that “the issue may not be so much young elders leaving as when young elders age out of the young elder cohort, they are not being replaced with new candidates.” Factors that could account for this are: a tight job market that offers more (and more lucrative) secular job alternatives for young people; uncertainty whether there will be enough churches needing pastors that will provide opportunities for young clergy, especially with the drop in congregations due to disaffiliation; the increasing number of churches that can only afford a part-time pastor; and a reluctance to stake a career on a denomination torn by theological and ecclesiastical conflict. These factors may be discouraging young people from considering ministry in the UM Church. One would hope that, once the disaffiliation wave has passed and the denomination has set its course for the future, there will be more certainty about the need for pastors and the opportunities for ministry. Other mainline denominations have stabilized after their schisms, but they have continued to decline in numbers, meaning there may well be shrinking opportunities for pastors in the UM Church in the decade to come.
The challenges facing the UM Church in the years ahead include “right-sizing” the number of clergy for the churches that will be available. Congregations are increasingly using part-time clergy, meaning there will be need for more linking of churches to share a pastor or using tent-making clergy who don’t derive all their income from the church. At the same time, clergy have to invest in theological training, which leads some clergy to graduate from seminary with huge student debt, which in turn may not be sustainable on a low or part-time salary. (That is another reason why clergy may choose the local pastor route, which is a less expensive alternative to a full seminary degree.)
All denominations face challenges with matching clergy supply and demand. It is a more acute challenge in those denominations that have guaranteed appointments, such as the UM Church. The GM Church in some areas faces the challenge of not enough clergy. Independent congregations may face the same challenge of finding a qualified pastor willing or able to work for what the church can afford to pay. It will be interesting to follow these clergy trends across denominations in the years ahead.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.