Friday, January 22, 2021

Clergy vs. Laity Membership Numbers

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Following up on comments that Bob Harman has made on previous blogs, I constructed a table of lay membership and clergy numbers by annual conference for the last three quadrennium. Per Bob’s suggestion, this was an attempt to get a different perspective on the rates of growth and decline in the church in various countries.

The full data set is linked above for those who are interested. Rather than try to put that table into this blog (which is a formatting nightmare), I will instead share three reflections on what I have seen in the data as I have reviewed it.

Clergy Membership Data Is Not Necessarily More Reliable that Lay Membership Data
Membership data has a number of notorious problems: different definitions of membership, non-active members on membership rolls, out-of-date membership numbers, difficulty in assessing membership numbers in remote areas, etc. For a variety of reasons, problems with membership data tend to be especially (but not exclusively) present in the central conferences.

When looking over membership numbers, then, there can be sudden and (to the outside observer unfamiliar with a local context) confusing jumps in membership (up or down) or missing data for some annual conferences for a quadrennium.

For these reasons, it would be nice if clergy numbers gave a more consistent story. However, it does not appear that they do so in all cases.

There is still plenty of instances in which clergy numbers are missing for an annual conference for a quadrennium. There are still instances in which clergy numbers suddenly jump significantly up or down for reasons that are not clear to outside observers. It seems possible that different annual conferences may be using different methods of calculating clergy numbers. (More on that in a minute.)

For all these reasons, clergy numbers are not a perfect dataset that one can use to help sort out questions raised by lay membership.

The Roles (and Perhaps Definitions) of Clergy Are Very Different in Different Contexts
When one compares the ratio of laity to clergy in different areas of the world, it allows one to see just how different that role is in different locations. Having one clergyperson for every 16 lay members (as in Northwest Russia in 2014) is a very different model of church than having one clergyperson for every 5507 lay members (as in Cote d’Ivoire in the same year).

There are a lot of factors that could be behind such variation: average congregational size, number of congregations served per clergyperson, number of clergypersons in extension ministry, number of congregations served by lay leaders or others not included in the category of clergy.

It is also quite possible that there is some variation around the world in terms of who is included in the category of “clergy.” While one might presume that this category includes ordained, active clergy, The United Methodist Church is notoriously fuzzy in terms of who counts as clergy: What about people who are commissioned but not ordained? What about associate members of conference? What about licensed local pastors? What about retirees serving part-time? The list goes on.

Even differences in one or two of these categories for defining who is included in the count could lead to significant differences across contexts in the number of clergypersons counted.

Still, differences in definition aside, clergypersons in parts of Africa are clearly serving many more lay people than clergypersons elsewhere in the connection. This difference probably stems from both greater demands on clergy in these parts of Africa (again, more on that in a minute) and greater lay leadership of the church there.

Tracking Clergy Membership Is Important
In The United Methodist Church, there is a lot of attention paid to lay membership numbers as an indicator of denominational health: where membership is increasing, where it is decreasing, etc. At times, this focus on lay membership can seem like a bit of an obsession even.

At the same time as all this attention is paid to lay membership, relatively little attention is paid to clergy membership. The attention that is paid tends to be focused on clergy membership as an indicator of justice: The ratio of women to men, the presence of clergy of various races, nationalities, and ages.

This focus on clergy membership as an indicator of justice is good and appropriate. But I think that the UMC should also pay more attention to clergy membership and the ratio of laity to clergy as indicators of denominational health, rather than focusing exclusively on lay membership for that purpose.

Here are three examples of what attention to clergy numbers and the ration of laity to clergy can tell us about the health of the denomination in various places:

It can tell us about the membership stability of the church. Areas where there is significant growth in lay membership should be accompanied, sooner or later, by an increase in the number of clergy. Otherwise, there is a real risk that the increased lay membership will not remain in the UMC, if people feel neglected or ignored by the leadership of the church. Even in instances of flat lay membership, a drop in the number of clergy may spell impending declines in lay membership as well.

It can tell us about the financial stability of the church. In much of the United States, there has been a decline in both lay and clergy membership. But the two rates of decline are not always equal. Thus, over the past three quadrennium, there are fewer lay people per clergy person. This means fewer people giving towards the support of clergy salaries (along with buildings and connectional ministries). Ultimately, this means that the dominant current model of full-time clergy serving single point charges is becoming less financially sustainable.

It can tell us about the health and well-being of clergy. When clergy are asked to do ever more and serve ever more members, or when clergy are left struggling to make budgets meet every year, that can take a toll on clergy health and well-being. Thus, there are risks for clergy burn-out both in areas where the church is growing and in areas where it is declining, even while those are not the same.

Clergy, however, are one of the church’s most important resources. I am a proud lay person, and I believe in lay leadership in the church, but I also recognize that a healthy denomination requires healthy clergypersons to help lead it.

In the early days of Methodism as a revival movement led by John Wesley, Methodism was not defined by the number of laity connected to it. It was defined as by the group of preachers in connection with Wesley, preachers who supported each other in the work of spreading the revival.

I do not want to go back to a clergy-dominated model, nor do I want to understate the vital role of lay leadership in forwarding the Wesleyan revival. Still, I think there is an insight there worth recovering: Healthy movements have healthy leadership.

In focusing on the health of our denomination, the health of our clergy leaders must be a central part of that conversation. Paying more attention to data trends about clergy numbers is one way to help engage in that conversation.


  1. Thanks David for this treatment of the UMC laity and clergy membership data by conference. In spite of data deficiencies you have moved beyond the fascination with membership numbers as solely sufficient for predicting denominational health. And you have approached my theory that a reliable indicator of church vitality might be found in a positive correlation between the numbers of growing congregations and increasing clergy members in full connection within a conference to serve them. The African conferences make ample use of evangelists to enlist members and start growing congregations that produce positive results in annual conference statistical reports. But they are most likely to become sustainable when supplied by full time pastors trained to nurture members in the faith and cultivate institutional strength. You indicate how the various categories of clergy leadership are not distinguishable in the annual reporting thus eliminating any opportunity for a finely tuned analysis. And, as more conferences rely on categories of clergy or lay leadership that are less than full time yet prove effective in strengthening congregations, I have had to reconsider my assumption that the service of full conference elders is the only indicator worthy of study. Your data production and discussion of implications of the clergy to laity ratios helpfully utilizes the available general membership data and discloses the need for further research to be done at regional or local levels utilizing survey instruments and case defined approaches.

    1. Thanks for that affirmation. And thank you for the idea! I wouldn't have looked into this without your prompting.

  2. Thank you for compiling this helpful snapshot. Quick observation. In early American Methodism through 1820, the healthy ratio between the number of itinerates, circuits, and membership was 1:2:500. When American Methodism settled down and stopped acting like a missionary movement, the focus switched from circuits to churches. As a consequence, there was an increase in clergy but a much slower increase in numbers. Today, the African conferences show the same type of growth pattern as early American Methodism. The Western Jurisdiction shows what will become of American United Methodism. Its brand of church does not grow with any population. American United Methodism has largely lost the missionary zeal that characterized early American Methodism and characterizes the African connection.