Rethinking the myths of church staffing

My research on staffing patterns in United Methodist Churches casts new light on some commonly held myths about church staffing.

MYTH ONEMost lay staff work in administrative and support roles.  In the churches studied, 35 to 39 percent of lay staff work in administrative, operational, and support roles.  This means, of course, that almost two-thirds of lay staff work in other areas of ministry, such as children and youth, music and worship, and other programmatic ministries. It is no longer the case that church staffers can be dismissed merely as functionaries.     While my research focused on larger churches, there is direct and indirect evidence to suggest that smaller churches increasingly rely on lay staff in programmatic roles as well.

MYTH TWO:  Most lay staff work in very large churches. While it is true that very large churches tend to have very large staffs, their staffs do not constitute the majority of lay staff in the denomination.  My research suggests that only about 12 percent of an estimated 40,000 or more lay church employees work in the largest churches (those with average attendance of 1,000 or more.)   More lay persons are employed by churches with attendance of 350 to 499 than by those with average attendance over 1,000.  And there are more employees in churches with attendance below 350 than above.

MYTH THREE:  Mega churches are more heavily staffed than other churches.  Another common perception is that there is something about the scale of operations or the model of ministry in very large churches that requires them to be more heavily staffed than other churches.  One of the most surprising findings of this research is that the ratio of lay staff to worship attendance actually decreases as churches get larger.  Churches with average attendance of 1000 or more have an average of one lay staff person for every 55 worshipers while churches in the 350 to 500 attendance range have one for every 40 worshipers.  While the amount of non-clergy compensation per worshipper is higher in larger churches due to higher pay scales and the presence of more full-time staff, they also have substantially fewer clergy per worshiper.  So the total compensation – clergy and non-clergy together – appears to be less in the largest churches.  Additional research on clergy staffing in large churches is necessary to confirm this suspicion.  But it calls into question the notion that the large church staffing model is inherently inefficient.

Indeed, one of the major learnings of my research is that there is a great deal of consistency in the patterns of staffing across the size tiers studied.   Staffs are larger, more diversified, and more specialized in the largest churches, but in board terms, the pattern is generally “more of the same.”    The smaller churches studied tend to have staff in many of the same areas as large churches, but their staff is more likely to be working on a part-time or very-part-time basis.

MYTH FOUR: Lay staffs are almost exclusively female.  This project found that lay staffs in the congregations studied are preponderantly, but by no means exclusively, female.  Overall, the percentage of female staff in the churches studied is about 70 percent and the percentage falls to 65 percent in the very largest churches (attendance over 2,000) were a higher percentage of staff is full-time.  While men are in the minority, to overlook the ministry of men who serve as  lay staff  would be just as egregious as ignoring the 25 percent of ordained elders who are women.

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