Key Facts about Lay Staff in the UMC

The growth of lay staff in the United Methodist Church is a significant trend shaping the way congregations engage in ministry and the way people experience church on the front lines of local ministry.  Although much more research is needed to understand this trend fully, analysis of church website staff listings and a survey of lay staff and clergy revealed some important aspects of the changing profile of church staffing.

  • 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; and a shift away from clergy generalists in favor of lay specialists, many of whom are part-time.  Additionally, many churches prefer 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.
  • It is likely 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.  This estimate was achieved using staff totals derived by analyzing the staff listings on church websites together with statistics on non-clergy compensation in churches of different sizes.
  • The common perception that most lay staff work for very large churches is unsustainable.  While it is true that very large churches tend to have very large staffs, the lay employees of churches with attendance over 1000 probably account for only about 12 percent of lay employees denomination wide.
  • Larger churches do not seem to be staffed more heavily than smaller churches.  Churches with more than 1000 in worship have fewer lay staff and fewer clergy per worshiper than in other size categories studied.   While their pay scales are higher and they have more full-time staff, the overall ratio of lay and clergy staff to the number of worshipers calls into question the common assumption that there is something inefficient in the large church staffing model.
  • Five specific categories of ministry generally account for the highest percentage of lay workers – children’s ministry, office administration, music, facilities, and youth.  In churches with more than 500 in worship, children’s ministry and office administration top the list, each accounting for just under 20 percent of total staff.  In smaller churches, music personnel are usually the largest category.
  • Most lay staff in the churches studied are not support staff.  All office administration, operations, and support staff functions together account for 35 to 39 percent of lay staff in the churches studied while children and youth together accounted for around 25 percent.  These percentages were consistent across the size ranges studied.  In churches with attendance over 1000, about a quarter of lay staff work in other programmatic ministries and about 15 percent in music and worship.  In church with attendance of 500 or less, those percentages are reversed.
  • The use of laity to staff children’s ministry is virtually ubiquitous in the larger and mid-size churches studied.  Laity work as youth ministers in a smaller, but still very sizable percentage of these churches.
  • 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 broad terms, the pattern is generally more of the same.
  • One notable difference in churches with attendance over 1000 is the percentage of staff working full-time.  Based on survey responses, 74 percent of staff are full-time in the largest churches compared to around 45 to 50 percent in other churches with attendance above 350.
  • Church staffs are preponderantly but by no means exclusively female.  Women generally make up about 70 percent of lay staff overall. However in churches with average attendance over 2000 where 65 percent of the staff is female.  Women are much more likely than men to work part-time, particularly in larger churches.
  • About 60 percent of lay staff were members of the congregation they served before being hired.  Seventy to 85 percent report that they currently are members.
  • The salaries of most full-time lay staff fall in the range of $30,000 to $50,000 a year.  The pay scale is notably higher in churches with average attendance above 1000, where 31 percent make more than $50,000.
  • Most lay staff do not have graduate-level theology degrees.  However, many have other types of religious education or certification.
  • Most lay staff chose church work because of their desire to serve God.   About ninety percent see their work as a calling.  They value the opportunity to be engaged in Godly, spiritually rewarding, creative work.  And the majority plan to devote the rest of their career to the service of the church.
  • Many lay staff experience ambiguities and tensions related to their identity in ministry.  Some seem to play a special role in straddling the divide between clergy and laity in the congregation.  They are able to relate to and support clergy in a way that is different from the average person in the pew.  And they are able to relate to and support the average person in the pew differently than clergy would.

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