Can Pastors Build Congregational Strength?

A change in pastors can result in positive outcomes. We identified ten aspects of vitality in our research on congregations. These ten strengths were measured in our national study of congregations, including those churches and parishes that participated in 2001 and again in 2008. Did these congregations become stronger or more vital over time?

About half of congregations showed greater strength in church participation.The Participating in the Congregation strength indicator reflects the percentage of worshipers who: attend worship weekly or more often; are involved in one or more small groups (such as Sunday school, prayer or Bible study); hold one or more leadership roles in the congregation; participate in congregational decision making; and give 5% or more of their income to the church.

Those congregations that had a change in the key pastoral leader between 2001 and 2008 were actually more likely to grow stronger in this area than other churches. Two out of three churches (66%) with a different pastor in 2008 had higher scores on church participation when they were re-surveyed in 2008. Unfortunately, less than half (40%) of the congregations with the same key leader in 2008 had higher scores the second time around.

Strength score 100
More than half of the congregations (56%) showed greater strength in focusing on the community. Another area of strength measured in 2001 and 2008 involved congregations’ external focus on their communities. This indicator reflects the percentage of worshipers who: are involved in social service or advocacy groups through the congregation; are involved in social service or advocacy groups outside the congregation; contributed money to a charitable group other than the church; and report that the congregation’s wider community care/advocacy is one of the three most valued aspects of their church.  

The chart above shows that congregations that welcomed an incoming pastor between 2001 and 2008 boosted their strength in focusing on the community even more. Two-thirds (69%) of these congregations had higher scores on this measure in 2008 than in 2001. Again, the story tended to be different for congregations that retained the same pastor between 2001 and 2008. Only 41% of these saw their scores change in the positive direction.

What about the other dimensions of congregational vitality? Many congregations improved or declined between 2001 and 2008 on the ten strengths we measured in our research. But the patterns across congregations for the other eight strengths were inconsistent. Only church participation and focusing on the community were clearly related to clergy turnover.

Does the pastor get all the credit? No. Many factors support congregational vitality. However, this research shows that a different pastor can potentially reenergize worshipers to become more involved in their congregation and in their community.