Switchers in the Pulpit and Pew

One United Methodist pastor tells a church member who was formerly a Baptist, “It’s okay! I was raised a Baptist too!” How common is it for pastors to grow up in a different denomination or faith tradition than the church where they preach each Sunday? More common than you might think.

Protestant pastors are switchers. Almost all Catholic priests (96%) were raised as Catholics. However, the picture is quite different among Protestants:

  • Conservative Protestant pastors: Less than half of conservative Protestant pastors (41%) were raised in the same denomination as their current one. One in four (26%) were raised in a conservative Protestant church other than the type where they currently serve. Finally, one in three conservative Protestant pastors (33%) actually switched their affiliation from another faith group (such as a mainline Protestant or Catholic).
  • Mainline Protestant pastors: Slightly less than half (44%) of these pastors are currently serving in the same denomination as the one they were raised in. This means that 56% serve in a denomination that is different than their childhood background. One in four mainline Protestant pastors changed to their current denomination from a different faith group since their youth.

Denom 110
Some Presbyterian pastors have switched, too. The majority of Presbyterian pastors (57%) grew up Presbyterian, yet four in ten (43%) are switchers. Associate pastors were slightly more likely to grow up Presbyterian (63%). Fewer Presbyterian pastors than pastors in other mainline denominations have switched.

More second-career than first-career Presbyterian pastors have switched:

  • First-career pastoral leaders: These pastors, who typically feel called to ministry in early adulthood, more often remain within the faith tradition in which they were raised. A majority of Presbyterian key leaders (either solo pastor or head of staff) (62%) had a childhood background in a Presbyterian church; first-career Presbyterian associate pastors (71%) were even more likely to have a same-denomination upbringing.
  • Second-career pastoral leaders: More second-career than first-career pastoral leaders have switched. Half of the Presbyterian senior/solo pastors came to ministry from a different denomination. A roughly equal percentage (47%) of associate PC(USA) pastors entered ministry with a non-Presbyterian religious background.

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Worshipers are switching too! We cannot directly compare worshipers’ switching patterns over their lifetime. However, we can look at new people who began attending a congregation in the previous five-year period. These statistics reflect recent switching behavior. Overall, about one in four new worshipers (22%) say they now attend a different “brand” of congregation than the one where they attended previously.[1]

  • Again, Protestants are the big switchers—38% of these new worshipers say they switched from attending church in one denomination to attending services in a different denomination.
  • Only a small percentage of Catholic worshipers (5%) are denominational switchers.

Making a switching stew. Imagine a typical congregation where 22 percent of worshipers grew up in or transferred their membership from a church in another denomination. Now imagine that the pastor of this congregation also has a church background that differs from the congregation’s affiliation. This diversity makes quite a stew, flavored with spicy opinions! Switchers—both pastors and worshipers—bring numerous expectations to their new congregation. They might differ in their definitions of good leadership and effective ministry. Having arrived from different paths, they may want to go in several directions simultaneously. This significant trend makes church leadership more difficult than ever.


[1] New people are those attending the congregation for five years or less.