Study Methodology

The research conducted for The New Church Leaders:  Lay Ministry Professionals in the United Methodist Church was conducted over a two-year period from mid-2009 through mid-2011.  Generally, the data on attendance and funding dates to the 2008 conference year.  The inquiry employed a number of different research methods to assess the extent and character of lay staff ministry in United Methodist churches in the United States.

Website profiles

An initial research step involved visiting church websites.   This began with the simple goal of collecting staff email addresses to distribute an online survey.   But it quickly became apparent that church websites reveal a wealth of information about staffing patterns.  Detailed study of the staff listings on approximately 400 congregational websites yielded an extensive database profiling the number of lay staff employed by each church, the areas of ministry in which they serve, the gender make up each church’s lay staff, and the ratio of lay staff to clergy.

The first phase of this website research focused on the largest churches in the denomination, those with worship attendance over 1,000.  These large congregations typically employ sizable lays staffs, making them a “target rich” research pool.   The churches in this size category were examined comprehensively, and over 90 percent are represented in the web profile portion of the research.  The remaining ten percent or so of these larger churches could not be included because their web presence was inadequate or inaccessible.  For example, several non-English speaking congregations could not be studied.

Although it was not possible to study churches in other size categories as comprehensively, similar work was done with representative samples of churches with average attendance in the following ranges:  750 to 999; 500 to 749, 350 to 499, and 200 to 349.

This work yielded a fascinating snapshot of church staffing patterns.  But it is important to acknowledge a number of ways in which the image viewed through this lens is imperfect and incomplete.  First, there are inconsistencies in how churches present their staffs on their websites.  Some churches clearly list every single employee on their webpage, while others limit the listing to those in more senior or visible roles.  Therefore, the estimates of total numbers of church staff based on this information are probably skewed on the low side.  They are not less than or at least figures.  This is particularly true in certain staff categories, such as those who work with facilities and maintenance.

For the same reason, figures based on website staff listing probably over represent staff in more senior and visible roles and others with an office presence and email address.  Those in non-office jobs maybe underrepresented, whether they are non-office support staff or part-time program staff without a nine-to-five presence, such as music, worship, or youth leaders.

Another limitation is that the data derived from web listings do not distinguish between full-time and part-time employees.  For this reason, it is difficult to draw meaningful correlations between the staff numbers determined in this manner and other variables, such as church size or budget.  A church with seven staff members may have a
“bigger” staff than one with twelve, if full-time equivalency is taken into account.

Additionally, as work progressed to the smaller size tiers, this approach to gauging staff patterns began to break down.  Within the sample of churches with average attendance of 200 to 349, a much higher percentage of congregations had no web presence, only a rudimentary web presence, or no staff listed on their websites.  And it was difficult to judge whether the absence of a staff listing reflected an incomplete website or the absence of paid staff.  For this reason, the information collected on churches in this size range was not used in comparison with the information collected for other size tiers or as the basis for estimating the total number of staff within churches in that size range.  Still, a fair number of churches in this size category were examined and some general observations can be gleaned from that work.  Because of the sheer numbers of churches with average attendance less than 200, examining even a representative sample of these churches was too labor intensive.

Despite these limitations, the web profiles afforded a very valuable angle of vision contributing to an overall portrait of the contours of lay staff ministry, particularly in large and mid-size congregations.  Other information sources were used to approximate staff totals for smaller congregations.

Survey Research

The second component of this research involved online questionnaires.  Using a rather extensive database of email addresses collected while visiting the websites of churches in the categories described above, an online survey was administered to all lay staff members for whom an email address was listed.  Almost 3,800 lay staff members from churches with worship attendance of 1,000 or more received the survey.  About 1,000 others representing church in other size tiers also received the survey.  The same survey was administered separately to each size tier to facilitate comparisons between the tiers.  In total, about 750 surveys were completed, a response rate of about fifteen percent.

The first set of questions on the survey was designed to learn about the people working as church staffers – their gender, age, marital status, educational and professional background, their motivations for working in the church, and their future career plans.  Other questions sought information about their congregations and about the survey respondents’ specific job responsibilities and terms of employment.  Open-ended questions asked about the challenges and opportunities associated with being a lay person working in a ministry setting, what they found satisfying and unsatisfying, how they understood their theological self identity, and what kinds of information or support could help them minister more effectively.

A different survey was sent to some of the senior pastors of the churches studied.  More limited in purpose and scope, this survey sought input from a selected group of pastors on how staffing levels or patterns have changed in their church.   Open-ended questions sought their opinions on the reasons for the increase in church staffs and the factors that come into play in deciding to staff a particular ministry with a lay or ordained person.

Financial Data

There are few denominational statistics that shed light on the mstate of lay staff ministry.  The primary point of denominational affiliation in United Methodism, the annual conference, is fundamentally an association of clergy.  Non-clergy staffing is considered a matter of congregational prerogative rather than a connectional concern.   The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church has only a single section (Paragraph 258) addressing local church staffing.  It gives broad authority to the local church to determine its own staffing needs.  In many ways, lay staff are beneath the radar screen of denominational concern.

Beginning in 1989, however, congregations were asked to report the aggregate amount spent on “other compensation,” meaning non-clergy compensation.  Prior to that time, funds spent to compensate staff where scattered among other budget categories making them difficult to isolate or track.

This research examined non-clergy compensation statistics since 1989 as an aggregate measure of the growth in lay staff and in connection with other data to illuminate lay staffing trends.

Factors beyond the scope of this inquiry

Other potentially relevant avenues of inquiry were not part of this research due to the constraints of time and limited access to relevant information.  For example, the initial design of the project envisioned interviews and focus groups.  But time simply did not permit this.  However this blog creates an alternate forum for this type of input.

Pension and benefit records are another potential source of information on church staff members, since some lay employees participate in the pension plan sponsored by the United Methodist Church.  But participation by lay employees, particularly part-time employees, is by no means universal.  Slightly less than half of the pastors who completed the research survey indicated that their lay staff participate in the United Methodist pension system.  However, examination of pension statistics may be a fruitful next step for future research on lay persons in ministry.

Congregations with average worship attendance of less the 200 were not examined in depth as part of this project.  The research focused intentionally on large and mid-size congregations – not only because they typically have larger lay staffs, but also because the methods of inquiry employed simply were not replicable as a way of examining the vast number of small membership churches, many of which have little or no paid staff.  Therefore, it is very important to keep in mind that the patterns, trends, and observations gleaned from this research cannot be generalized to apply denomination wide.   Additional research is needed to uncover staffing patterns in these smaller churches.

Finally, this inquiry focused only on lay persons employed in congregational settings.  Many other lay ministry practitioners work in settings beyond the local church – on the mission field, in ministries of community service, in parachurch organizations, in denominational agencies and programs, in theological education, and as certified lay ministers, deaconesses, and lay missioners in a variety of settings.  And thousands upon thousands of lay persons have serious commitments to unpaid or volunteer ministries.  This project’s focus on lay church staff is but the tip of the iceberg in gauging how many lay persons have serious ministry commitments.

Despite these limitations and cautions, this research is an important first step in understanding of the nature and scope of lay professional ministry in the United Methodist Church.

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