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This is the fifth in a series of personal reflections on the State of the Church in 2024.


What are the impacts, then, on churches?

There are the trends we are well acquainted with by now.  Declines in church membership, attendance, and participation.  Drastic cuts to denominational budgets, staffing, and programs.  Churches closing, particularly small and rural ones.  Experiments with new models.

At the UCC Senior Minister’s retreat last January, one of the breakout sessions discussed the declines in volunteer participation.  I learned there that many churches who implemented team models of ministry a decade or so ago are now streamlining even further.  The new model operates on the reality that most people want a clearly defined and limited task, so these churches now employ volunteer coordinators.

The leading churches in our denomination also spoke of how they rely more and more upon their databases, apps, and text messaging to coordinate and communicate quickly and easily.  I had hoped to visit Cathedral of Hope in Dallas this year to see their process in action.  They use what they call discipleship paths, managed through their database, with automated steps and messages.  For example a first time visitor is entered upon a path that will hopefully result in becoming involved in the church, and it’s built in as to what they are invited to and what messages they receive on a schedule, etc.

Record numbers of clergy are leaving the profession.  Denominations are experiencing a shortage of ministers. Churches in search and call report a lack of qualified candidates.  There was much discussion earlier this year when a Presbyterian minister blogged about all the reasons why he was leaving the profession, though the reasons he gave were not especially new.  Toxic politics, lack of autonomy, too many demands, unrealistic expectations, low pay, post-Covid exhaustion, etc.  Ninety percent of clergy leave the profession before having served twenty years (I’m now at 22 years of full-time parish ministry and almost 27 since my ordination).  

Katie Miller last year said something that I hadn’t thought of before.  She said that a future Senior Minister of First Central will not be able to live in my house.  For one, they won’t be able to afford it.  The income won’t cover buying the house at its current or future value.  But the main reason they won’t be able to buy the house is because they won’t be able to get a mortgage because of the heavy burden of student loans they will be carrying.  Katie pointed out that denominations and churches are not realizing this radical shift that is coming.

One positive shift I see is around gender.  When I entered the profession a quarter of a century ago, it was still dominated by men.  This year it’s become clear to me that by the time I retire the profession (at least in its Mainline Protestant version) will be dominated by women.  Every single local church we have a regular partnership with is currently pastored by a woman, except one.  At a recent clergy meeting, the women assured me that I was welcome and that they believed in the ordination of men.

What has also become clearer to me in the last year is how fragile the entire system is, some of which I’ve highlighted already in these reflections.  I don’t believe we will be able sustain the structures of ministry we had even seven years ago into the far future.  For a while there have been those predicting that small churches with very simple ministries and very large churches will be able to handle these trends and changes the easiest.  The small churches because they just won’t try to do all the things they once did, and the biggest churches because they will still have the resources (and will gain from transfers of membership and other church closures) to keep doing what they’ve been doing longer.

So, the moment calls for creativity, ingenuity, imagination, innovation, flexibility, openness, courage, and wisdom to discern the specifics of how to fulfill our ministry.  Fortunately churches are experimenting and trying all sorts of new models, so one thing we can do is observe what they are doing.  And we need, enthusiastically, to try things ourselves.


421 South 36th Street, Omaha Nebraska, 68131
(Located at the corner of 36th and Harney Streets)






First Central Congregational Church