The Research and Evaluation Department of the ELCA released a report in March exploring future trends for supply and demand for clergy in 2016.

You can download the full report here.

The report explores data regarding baptized members, congregations, and pastors in the ELCA between 2005 and 2014.

Here are a few numbers from the report:

Between 2005 and 2014:

  • the number of congregations in ELCA has decreased from 10,549 to 9,392
  • baptized membership has gone from 4.85 million to 3.78 million
  • median size of congregation has gone from 296 baptized members to 247 baptized
  • median worship attendees on a Sunday declined from 91 to 70
  • the number of congregations with 350 or more in worship has gone down from 676 to 376
  • the proportion of congregations in rural or small town areas has not changed much – about  48%
  • median income for a congregation has decreased from $151,000 to $117,000.
  • the number of clergy serving congregations has declined from 9,105 to 6,868
  • ELCA M.Div graduates at ELCA seminaries went down from 245 to 209
  • first year enrollments in ELCA seminaries decreased from 310 to 214

retirement trend

In 1988 the average age on the clergy roster was 46-year-old & only 9 % of active clergy were over 60.  In 2013 the average had increased to 54 with 32% active clergy over 60.75 to 80 % of seminary graduates have a geographical preference.



The study concludes:

In 2019, we believe that about three‐fourths of ELCA congregations will be able to afford a first‐call, full time pastor and of these congregations, nearly 20 percent will be in pastor sharing relationships. There will be just over 2,000 congregations that will not be able to do so and since the vast majority of these congregations will remain open, their alternatives for pastoral leadership are fairly straightforward. Either these congregations will become part of sharing relationships or they will find supply, part‐time or lay licensed pastors. In places where there is ready access to a significant number of retired pastors, an alternative is to use this pool of clergy. If not, another alternative is to find local people who are willing to become authorized/licensed lay ministers or who are willing to complete a certificate process such as TEEM.

The church needs more persons who will consider ordained ministry and become ordained pastors. Clearly, those concerned about the future of the church should seek out and encourage people they believe might be good pastors and open to the call. Programs to do so should be encouraged and supported by the church.







Join the conversation! 18 Comments

  1. Maybe more would consider ministry if they saw the clergy not being treated so poorly.

    • I thought the same thing. I’m blessed to serve loving congregations, but I know there is a lot of dysfunction in our congregations that needs to be addressed in a loving but truthful manner.

    • With incivility on the rise, increasing anxiety regarding decline, and the bullying of pastors (not an issue we take too seriously) this is a most excellent and relevant point.

  2. Where is all that was promised with ELW? The simplification, weakening, and corruption of the liturgy has led directly to a lesser regard for the Sacraments, and so why would we expect vocations to increase, or even remain stable?

    (For what it’s worth, I’m a young millennial, socially liberal, and all for ordaining anyone God calls, whether male or female, gay or straight, cis or trans. I just can’t believe how easy it has been for the ELCA to lose its liturgical roots.)

  3. Let’s concern ourselves with helping our current group of new clergy pay down their massive student debt before recruiting more people to share their burden.

  4. I seriously considered seminary as I felt the call to ministry and met with my synod. If you don’t have the cash to pay for undergrad and seminary they discourage attending due to the overwhelming debt of student loans on top of struggling financially due to a low-paying first call. So now we don’t have enough Pastors because not enough people are going to Seminary. So am I the only one seeing a disconnect here? I am sure I am not the only one in this situation. Praise God for the Lutheran Deaconess Association as they have entrusted me to find my own way financially and will equip me for ministry as I am called. This is another avenue I have chosen in which to become a theologically trained.

  5. By my calculations, we are losing appx. 800 congregations every 9 years, about 90 a year close. At that rate, in a little over 80 years, the ELCA will cease to exist as it is orginized today. We need to begin casting our nets on the other side of the boat or we are going to continue to catch no fish…aka, we will die as a movement. I do believe that we need to re-center ourselves around the means of Grace and tell God’s story in more bold and meaningful ways which relate to the 21st century. (I am a 29 yo 1st call pastor serving a congregation that is struggling.)

    • Amen and amen. Again I say Amen! We need to boldly re-imagine ourselves with an honest look at where we are now.

    • Movemental church growth has tended to be exponential and likewise decline will occur the same way. It won’t be a gradual slip, but will nose over like a plane that lost its propeller. Like all reforming movements, the seeds for change won’t be found inside the institution, but outside amid fruitful risk takers. They are out there.

  6. It is the natural approach to name the problem first and then propose ways to fix it. This approach, however, while statisticaly interesting and useful in ways only begins to probe what underlies the slimming down of ELCA membership and leadership shortage. We must stand outside of ourselves if we are to see ourselves. Many of our forms of gathering and infrastructure is constrained by an ELCA worldview. It is difficult to look at these facts and to see any way out. Because there are some congregations that are adding members, some rapidly and because there are clergy and lay leaders who defy the trends, we see them as signs of hope as opposed to exceptions to the rule. The ELCA as a whole is not strong in practices. That is not a case for a despair. Rather, the heart of the message of Christ, as I grasp it at all, is that Truth and Reality reign eternal, while forms of the church change and sometimes pass away. Death is real and creating illusions or avoidance while difficult simply does not help. There is no formula for getting at the heart of the matter except through common honest conversation about the core values of the perspective on life called Christian, Lutheran and ELCA Lutheran. We need to both build on the gifts we have, but also to visit again at every level and in every function the foundations of Word and Sacrament. Those who choose that will both have direction and know what kind of participation and leadership will take the church forward. It has the promise of death to non-essentials and birth that at this point can only be imagined. There are tools to have this conversation and ways to engage everyone in it.

    • You are absolutely right, but I would take this thought in another direction. The ELCA is hardly the first institution to face this type of leadership issue. So let’s take a look outside our walls at organizations/institutions/industries that have brought about successful resolution and model what they’ve done around a paradigm of grace and finding people with the gifts and call for missional leadership.

      Recruiting is the heart of the issue in my mind – do we really believe that God has gifted a church of 5 million with approximately 300 Word and Sacrament leaders per year? That’s unacceptable. So how do we find them? Search beyond our walls for models of effective recruiting and adapt them around our theology of call and discernment.

      We do not need to re-create the wheel here, nor should we. As an on-leave from call pastor with a Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology, I can tell you that a treasure trove of information is out there. We just need to be intentional about seeking it and open to how it challenges us and moves us in the direction of viable change.

      • Why do we not share rosters with interchangeable leaders in the Episcopal Church USA, United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church USA, and our other denominational partners? We have all of these intercommunion agreements that are wonderful theologically but bankrupt in practicality.

  7. Why does the ELCA not develop a program to help small congratulations like ours to pair with like churches to share a pastor? We are left to our own devices to find some solution and it is very difficult. Sometimes I think the Methodist Church has a better approach.

  8. No matter what you may have heard, nobody ever attends or pastors a church because of the coffee, the hugs, or the social activism. Starbucks and Oprah beat you out of those markets years ago. People attend and/or pastor a church when God brings them there to experience His Word and Spirit, and thereby to put sin to death and create new lives. Anything else is an empty promise, as all the ELCA statistics have shown. Wake up and smell your own coffee, my dears.

  9. well I suspect the social activism on the part of the ELCA ie support for gay marriage.ordaining gays support for abortions etc. is also a determining factor in people leaving the ELCA for other places ie lcmc,NALC etc. which are growing in #’s both in members, churches and clergy

  10. I believe that the great ELCA “clergy shortage” is over exagerated tremendously. Until I see a report from the denomination’s Secretary outlining the total number of rostered leaders in the ELCA, how many are in the call process, how many are awaiting call, how many are unemployed, how many have given up to pursue other careers but would be open to call, how many congregations are seeking full/half/part time calls, how many viable congregations are available for multiple point charges and how many rostered leaders are bi-vocational, I will not subscribe to baseless assumptions in a broken call system that has been failing on a large scale for years now despite updates to the RLP process. I do not think many of the Assistants to the Bishops for call are equipped or trained for this task. I don’t think the call process has received any attention. I don’t support the recommendations for the new lay roster. All that aside, I am quite happy in my rostered leadership calls but I know too many others left out. While I am very excited about the new venture of faith in unifying the seminaries, I do not, for one instant, believe in the great clergy shortage myth and I wish they would complete a true assessment of the mobility in our denomination because I am sure they would find that by intelligently mobilizing available clergy, we would fill all our needs appropriately.

    • I agree with Paul W. Benjamin. Furthermore, ageism exists. I found it difficult to find a full time call after I reached age 60. There is no clergy shortage….just a shortage of churches than can or are willing pay a full time pastor.


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About The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson

The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson has been Director for Evangelical Mission, ELCA for the Northeastern Iowa Synod since late 2013. Part of her job description is to help leaders and congregations use social media and other digital means for outreach and mission. She writes and edits this blog as well as runs the social media accounts for the synod.