An invisible army of 40,000-plus church workers

Over the past two years, I have been researching lay staffing patterns in United Methodist Churches.  I have studied in depth the staff configuration of about 400 churches and surveyed hundreds of lay staffers and clergy.  (See the Methodology and Findings pages for more details.)

My research reveals that the preferred model of staffing in many churches has moved away from the traditional emphasis on full-time ordained clergy toward a larger number of lay staff.  Over the past several decades, this trend has been fuel by a number of factors:

  • the influence of the megachurch model of ministry
  • a changing culture of volunteerism
  • the demand for specialized programmatic ministries
  • a shift away from clergy generalists in favor of lay specialists, many of whom are part-time
  • a preference for lay hires because of their lower salaries and the control local churches can exercise in their hiring.

Denomination-wide, the percentage of total church expenditures spent on non-clergy compensation has grown consistently over the past two decades.   In 2008, the denominational average was 19.4 percent.  In every size category studied, and in the denomination as a whole, that percentage had grown consistently since 1989 when records were first kept.

Using staff totals derived by analyzing the staff listings on church websites together with statistics on non-clergy compensation in churches of different sizes, I was able to estimate that there are at least 40,000 part-time and full-time lay personnel in United Methodist churches. Roughly half work in churches with average attendance of 350 or more and half in smaller churches.

These co-laborers in the vineyard often go to unnoticed by agencies and institutions beyond the local church – annual conferences, denominational agencies, and theological seminaries.  Yet they are the front line of ministry in an increasing number of churches.  They constitute on “invisible army” dedicated to the work of providing Christian nurture to our children, counseling our youth, leading the ministries that engage others in Christian formation, education, and outreach, offering worship, and ordering the life of the church in a myriad of vital ways.   Over the past several decades, their work has become increasingly important to many congregations, especially larger churches, but not exclusively in larger churches.

I have tried to learn who these servants are, what they do, and how they understand themselves and their ministries.


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