“I don’t know why anyone would come to our church.” The pastor’s voice faltered as he tried to control his emotions. “The music is terrible, sometimes there is no one there who even plays an instrument. People visit and they don’t come back.”It was 1995 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was interviewing pastors as part of my Ph.D. research. I had called this pastor several times, but he refused to meet with me in person. I think he was too ashamed. He could not understand how anyone could be interested in doing research in his church. He had 30 older people attending, and he knew his church was dying. He was convinced it was his fault. A few days later, I spoke to another pastor of a much larger church in the same denomination who supported that view. “He has no clue what to do with that church”, he stated emphatically.
I felt the grief of this pastor of the dying church. He was at his wit’s end. He knew he needed younger families, better music, and maybe even better preaching to attract new people, but he couldn’t make it happen. Was it his fault?
Over the past two decades, I have interviewed hundreds of Protestant pastors/priests and denominational leaders in both Canada and the U.S. Many of these leaders seem convinced that the key to flourishing churches is leadership. Strong leadership. Leadership that promotes a compelling vision that the laity can own and rally around. Leadership that mobilizes the congregants to serve in their gifting. Leadership that is innovative and understands how to lead change. Leadership that motivates church members to reach out into their communities.
Such pastoral leadership is not easy to come by. In fact, a shortage of good leadership is a major concern for all the evangelical denominational leaders we interviewed. Their pastors were aging, there were fewer young people going to seminary, and fewer seminary grads were becoming church pastors. Added to this, some young pastors would leave the ministry. Our research showed that younger pastors were less satisfied with their churches than their older counterparts, maybe because they had less desirable churches, and maybe because church leadership was not what they hoped it would be.
While denominational leaders focus on internal factors (inside the church walls), sociologists are more likely to focus on external factors, like the community or the country in which the church is located. They would argue that external factors are more powerful predictors of church growth than internal factors. Sociologists, using their fancy statistical models, find that the growth or decline of the community around the church is more important than leadership. One should also look to see if there are a lot of similar churches around that will compete for members. The religious vibrancy of the national or regional culture matters too. In Canada, where people have decreasing interest in institutional religion, it’s hard to attract people to church, regardless of how beautiful the building, how great the programs, how wonderful the music and preaching, how welcoming the people, and how good the leadership.
Its been 20 years since I spoke to that defeated pastor in Minneapolis, and I still remember him. I wonder if any leader could have re-energized that church.
Does leadership matter? Of course. It matters a lot. But external factors probably matter even more. I would hypothesize that good leadership is a necessary but not sufficient condition for flourishing churches. Churches need a sizable population nearby that can be attracted to their church, and less competition from similar churches and growing communities increase that pool of potential congregants. But without good leadership, that potential normally remains untapped. A gifted leader will rarely grow a flourishing congregation in a shrinking town that is already serviced by other churches. (Many other cultural and demographic factors matter as well). But poor leadership can keep a church in a growing suburban neighborhood from flourishing, even if there are no competing churches in the area. Flourishing congregations require both. We need to pay as much attention to the demographic and cultural context around a church, as we pay to what happens inside it.
Sam Reimer, Ph.D., is professor of sociology at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. He is author (along with Michael Wilkinson) of Evangelical Congregations in Canada (2015, McGill-Queen’s).