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Study: Clergy changes parallel membership decline

A UMNS Report
By Vicki Brown*
July 31, 2007

The Rev. Mary Ann Moman

The number of elders in The United Methodist Church dropped 2.25 percent from 2000 to 2005, even as the number of local pastors and deacons increased, according to a new study by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

An analysis of church membership numbers and clergy data shows 754 fewer elders, while the number of deacons increased 28 percent from 964 to 1,237, and the number of local pastors rose 31 percent from 5,088 to 6,660.

"The study shows the dramatic changes that have taken place in The United Methodist Church in its clergy leadership," said the Rev. Mary Ann Moman, an executive with the Division of Ordained Ministry of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

The study is based on an analysis of annual conference membership numbers provided by the United Methodist Council on Finance and Administration. The analysis was provided by Michelle Fugate, the board's director of research and data management.

Back to circuits?

"The continuing decline in the number of elders and the increase in the numbers of local pastors is a clear sign of the change in clergy demographics of our annual conferences," said Moman.

The numbers, she said, suggest that the denomination may need to consider returning to a circuit system - in which a group of clergy share responsibility to serve a group of churches - even though many small churches want their own pastor.

"Local pastors have filled a critical need for leadership in many of our small-membership churches," she said. "It may be time for the church to look at teams of pastors assigned to circuits. This could mean a local pastor would be assigned to a particular church, but there would also be an elder and possibly a deacon on a circuit ministry team. The elder would be responsible for training, support, supervision and would have sacramental responsibility for the membership churches."

“The continuing decline in the number of elders and the increase in the numbers of local pastors is a clear sign of the change in clergy demographics of our annual conferences.”
–The Rev. Mary Ann Moman

With more congregations being served by local pastors who do not have Master of Divinity degrees, Moman said the church must ask whether it still holds the degree as the standard. "Do we believe that level of education is necessary?" she asked.

Fugate found that while the number of churches and membership declined, the number of clergy actually increased during the same time period, with the increase largely due to full-time and part-time local pastors. Membership in U.S. churches dipped just below
8 million in 2005, while the number of churches decreased 3.5 percent from 2000 to 2005.

Total annual conference clergy membership increased from 44,118 in 2000 to 45,148 in 2005, or 2.3 percent. Nearly 15 percent of all annual conference members in 2005 were full-time or part-time local pastors. Of the 1,572 new local pastors, nearly half were in the Southeastern Jurisdiction and 22 percent were in the South Central Jurisdiction.

If local pastors are excluded, the number of clergy who are annual conference members actually declined from 39,030 to 38,488, or 1 percent.

Other repercussions

Fugate also looked at the number of districts. The number has decreased in all jurisdictions, from 518 districts in 2000 to 488 in 2005. That means there are 32 fewer district superintendents.

"That has implications for the church, too, since fewer districts mean district superintendents supervise more churches," Moman said.

The increase in the number of deacons has implications as well. "Again, we might look at circuit deacons who could serve a group of churches and their communities," Moman said.

"A lack of an appropriate support structure for deacons has caused many problems in the appointment system," Moman said. "The present system hasn't helped the church get deacons to the places where they are needed most. The statistics show that most deacons' primary appointment is to a congregation. It is much more difficult to negotiate a ministry setting outside of the congregation."

She said part of the difficulty is gaining approval within the denominational structure. "If the bishops and district superintendents were more involved in this process, we might find many more creative ways to appoint deacons," Moman said.

"After Katrina, The United Methodist Church could have deployed deacons to New Orleans and surrounding areas to set up community Sunday schools, provide medical care, offer legal support and provide safe child care. We have deacons who are trained in all of these areas."

Moman said the analysis should prove useful as the Study of Ministry Commission prepares its recommendations for the 2008 General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking body.

To read the full report, go to: http://www.gbhem.org/ResourceLibrary/ChangeChurchClergy.pdf

*Brown is an associate editor and writer in the Office of Interpretation, United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

News media contact: Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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