Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine. Photo by Paul VanDerWerf via Flickr creative commons.

Mainline decline? Depends on what you're counting

America's mainline churches, once a vibrant part of American religion, have been in a state of decline for decades. At least that's the story that's often told. But it's only half-true. Yes, the Protestant establishment churches have seen a drop in membership. But the churches---as institutions---remain strong with more clergy today than ever before.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.


During the first half of the 20th Century, the mainline was on the rise. In raw numbers, these churches nearly doubled in size from from the 1930s to 1960s. After leveling off during the 1960s, membership in mainline churches began to decline.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

The decline in membership becomes more stark when compared to the national population. The "rise" seen in the first graph is better understood as a plateau. As a share of the population, the mainline churches retained the same percentage of the population (around 15 percent, though see Geek Note below). As the population continues to rise and membership numbers decline, the relative size of the mainline sinks. The mainline's share of the "religious market" is now 60% lower than it was in 1970.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

But the drop in membership does not mean that the mainline churches are necessarily in decline. As institutions, as organizations, these churches have grown. We can see this in the number of clergy in mainline denominations. Data for clergy can be tracked consistently since 1950. Over the last half of the 20th Century the number of mainline clergy increased year after year. It has only been over the past decade or so that the number of clergy has leveled off.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

The rising clergy and declining membership means that there are more clergy per member. Before the 1970s, there was one clergy member for around 350 members. This ratio is roughly half that.

Put another way: Mainline churches can employ twice the number of clergy than they could before their so-called decline.

Churches are more than members. In the parlance of economics, they are firms that provide goods and services. The lower number of members does not mean that mainline churches are less able to provide for its members. The decline in members has not resulted in a drying up funding. On the contrary, there are more clergy per member today than during the "rise of the mainline."

We often think of religions as vibrant if they have more members. But quantity isn't always the same as quality. Indeed, in other organizations we often value a low staff-to-client ratio. Schools brag about their low faculty-to-student ratio. Social service agencies complain that they don't have the staff to give people enough attention. The low clergy-to-member ratio in mainline churches likely means that these churches are better able to provide for their members than in years past---more programs for youth and the elderly, more social services, and more local pastors.

There are many metrics to gauge religion. Membership is one. Clergy and organizational capacity is another. Some measures show a decline in the mainline, but others show that the mainline are institutions that may be better able to serve its members (and society) than ever before.

Geek Note on Data

In this post, mainline churches are the denominations that represent the major Protestant groups in the United States. These are the churches of the establishment. In my analysis I look at data on seven denominations:

  • Episcopal Church
  • Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
  • United Church of Christ
  • United Methodist Church
  • Disciples of Christ
  • American Baptist Churches U.S.A.

Some would add additional churches. Some would quibble with the inclusion of all seven. But these seven groups capture the major Protestant groups that have worked together as part of an ecumenical movement in the United States. These churches Many of these denominations are relatively new mergers of other churches; for those churches I used data from the previous churches.

A word on the validity of the data: The membership data for any year may not be accurate because churches vary in their ability to count active members. But for tracking changes over time, this bias is not important. As long as churches over/under report membership every year then we can make comparisons across years. Similarly, the percentage of population calculations are also not perfect. Ideally, we would compare the membership to the adult population, but the overall population. But again, this is less of a problem because I'm less concerned with an accurate figure for one year than with a valid comparison across years. For example, 15 percent may be an underestimate for 1930, but that's okay if we're trying to compare it another year that is equally underestimated.

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  1. People are increasingly becoming a ‘church unto themselves’. With easy accessibility to study the Bible and numerous resources available online, Bible study has become easier and more convenient than ever.
    People who still go to church are those “avon” sales ladies peddling their wares inside their church. 😉 Sad but true.

    Matthew 21:13

  2. Sounds like Academia, where the ratio of (highly paid) administrators to faculty has tripled. So there are more clergy, pushing paper and going to clergy get-togethers. At the same time, what hasn’t increased is infrastructure: church buildings are closed, derelict, or sold off and gutted to make restaurants or condos.

    This isn’t a sign of health. And, really, how often does the average church-goer need, or want, contact with clergy? Churchgoers need buildings and services. And with all the clergy, most churches can’t afford to maintain decent music programs any more and a struggling to maintain buildings.

  3. The big unanswered question here is where they get their money if the population is falling off but clergy numbers are growing (or stable or only recently plunged). Are the mainlines highly reliant on endowments or do they have other investments that provide for a stabilization of clergy even as congregant numbers plunge?

  4. Re: Thecla, while it’s true that many people only come to church for the Sunday morning show, clergy do a lot of hospital visits, counseling, and community work. Given that mainline churches tend to (a) have older congregants and (b) be located in strategic locations, such as Main Street, there’s a whole lot of this work going on, serving members and non-members.

    Re: Greg, the money is a big problem. Smaller mainline churches are increasingly relying on part-time clergy, who may be retired or have other paying work, and who may or may not have a Master’s of Divinity degree. It would useful to track not just the number of people in these denominations who can be labeled “clergy” but the number of full-time-equivalent clergy.

  5. This is a laughable argument.

    What good are zillions of clergy if they’re ministering to fewer and fewer people?

    The increase in clergy only serves to underscore the problem.

  6. Pastors are part of the problem. Unlike a generation ago, few are truly challenging — spiritually, morally, or intellectually. Too many are a bunch of teddy bears.

    Who needs that?

    It’s worse in the mainline churches, but evangelical churches are moving that way, too.

  7. Someone has to run the various church investments, real estate, public relations efforts, head up administrative functions. In many cases clergy are making up the middle to upper management. The academia parallel is pretty close.

  8. I’m curious why “this comment has been marked as low quality by the editors.” Conscious or automated decision? Criteria?

  9. The “comment” is not actually a comment — it is a pingback — and was marked as low quality to spare the eyeballs of commenters.

  10. Wait, now. For this statistic to have any validity whatsoever, it has to consist of the number of members of the clergy EMPLOYED BY CHURCHES (preferably on a full-time basis) compared to the number of members of the denomination. I’m not sure that’s what the quoted statistic shows. Otherwise, it doesn’t show the health of the denomination. It shows the overpopulation of very likely unemployed clergy. As an example, my own PCUSA church (which I think is surely in decline from its past glories) is just about to receive its new co-pastors, who will replace a single pastor, and share the one salary. It will also keep on, likely on an hourly basis, as a parish associate, the soon-to-be-retired former interim minister. Three ministers where once was one, but all participating in not much more than the single salary. I don’t think that says anything about the health of the denomination.

  11. So if the ratio H = C/M (number of clergy over the number of members) is an indicator of denominational health, does that mean at the limit as M => 0, and C is fixed or gorwing, then H => infinity? In other words, as the mainline membership collapses, their health gets infinitely great? As a member of one of the oldlines, I can’t believe that this author has missed what we see every day…an excess of new M. Divs. unable to find to find jobs with churches who can afford them (inflexible wages!) and instead accepting non-congregational calls; churches eating away at precious endowments built up during the heydays, and so forth. And the statement “The low clergy-to-member ratio in mainline churches likely means that these churches are better able to provide for their members than in years past—more programs for youth and the elderly, more social services, and more local pastors” is naive…it’s not clergy who make vacation bible schools or teen sleepovers happen or pay for their…

  12. I disagree with the argument here. A growing clergy and a shrinking membership is not a sign of strength. Quite the opposite. It’s also almost certainly unsustainable. More mouths to feed and fewer people paying into the pot.

  13. If there are fewer members, there is less money available to employ the increased number of clergy. My church can now afford to employ One fulltime pastor. 25 years ago, when we had more members, we employed Three.

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