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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Coming to grips with struggling congregations

Challenges abound, but so do ministry responses

For everything — and that includes congregations — there is a season. Periods of growth are interspersed with periods of decline; periods of stability are offset by periods of struggle.

Across the ELCA right now, statistics and anecdotal evidence suggest that a significant number of congregations are struggling to stay viable.

For some, the reasons are economic. It might be that the endowment upon which the congregation has based its budget was severely impacted by the vagaries of the stock market. Perhaps unemployment rates in the area continue to increase, and churchgoers are unable or unwilling to increase their support. Older churches face daunting building maintenance costs even as mission support from members declines.

Kisten Thompson takes one of her prayer
Kisten Thompson takes one of her prayer walks in the neighborhood that surrounds North Emanuel Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minn. The pastor uses these walks to help decide how the church can reach out into the community (see page 25).

According to statistics compiled by ELCA Research and Evaluation from annual congregational reports for 2000 to 2008, the number of congregations operating with deficits increased sharply from about 3,000 to more than 4,400. This occurred as the number of congregations on the ELCA rolls decreased.

Another significant cause for struggles is declining worship attendance, which traditionally has been the yardstick by which a congregation is measured. From 2000 to 2008, 68 percent of ELCA congregations declined 5 percent or more in worship attendance.

Strictly in economic terms, the decline in worshipers in those years more than offset the slight increase in per capita giving (from $1,236 to $1,705), leading overall to a slight decline in average income for congregations, with the trend leading downward, while costs for basics like energy rose.

The decline in worship attendance has led to more than just financial challenges, however.

The average size of an ELCA congregation, based on worship attendance, dropped by four people in the last decade of the 20th century, from 148 to 144. In the first eight years of the current century, however, average membership dropped from 144 to 128. Research and Evaluation predicts that, by 2013, the average congregation will have 114 people in worship.

In the larger scheme of things, the ELCA had 10,816 congregations on its rolls in 2000. Of those, just more than 2,200 were categorized as the smallest size (between one and 50 in worship). By 2008, the number of congregations had decreased to 10,396. At the same time, the number of smallest-sized congregations had increased to 2,900.


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