It has now been more than a year since the Alban Institute released The Leadership Situation Facing American Congregations, a special report that was a year in the writing. Since that time, many people across a broad denominational spectrum have either downloaded the report from our Web site or have received bound copies. From the response that Alban Institute president James P. Wind received as he traveled around the country for speaking engagements in the past year, as well as other feedback many of us at the Institute have received, it seems that this report has struck a nerve.

Because the theme of this issue of CONGREGATIONS is leadership, we decided that it is time to revisit this special report and provide you with an update concerning our thinking on the topic. What we provide on the following pages are a brief synopsis of the key findings of the report, two responses to it from people working in the field, and some thoughts from James P. Wind concerning new directions we are exploring. This is a dynamic avenue of inquiry for the Alban Institute, and we welcome communication from our readers as we move ahead.


Patti Simmons, Director of Foundation Relations, Texas Methodist Foundation

The Alban Institute’s special report has inestimable value to organizations such as ours who are engaged in helping congregations advance their ministries. Our daily interactions with clergy and congregations, as well as our understanding of the structures that support them, confirm the paradoxical nature of Alban’s overall conclusion: there are signs of both “turmoil” and “ferment” in American congregations. The more we know about the crises that obstruct the mission of the church and the creative energy that—properly used and promoted—will further it, the better able we will be to assist them in pleading the cause of Christ within a context of dramatic, far-reaching change. Alban’s perceptive analysis, energetic prose, and insightful reporting make us realize how deficient we have been in the areas of evaluation and research and how instrumental those vehicles could be in improving conditions across denominations.

Threats to Leadership
With this study, Alban has brought important realizations to the forefront of the religious community. Imaginative, visionary leadership is the key ingredient to vital, effective congregations. That leadership is being threatened by crippling pressure from the escalating needs of its constituents resulting, in part, from the loss of more stable cultural patterns. Clergy face daunting expectations. They must fill countless roles—spiritual leader, psychologist, counselor, business manager, human resource specialist, to name a few—and those roles expand so rapidly that a sense of futility sets in as the gap between what they were prepared for in seminary and what they encounter on a daily basis steadily widens. In addition to feeling unprepared, clergy feel alone. Denominational structures designed to support them often have conflicting aims: their role as supervisor and administrator of a competitive appointment system hinders a consistent expression of support.

Though Alban’s study confirms our own anecdotal evidence of growing discontent among United Methodist clergy, we are frankly dismayed by the extent of the problem, evidenced by the increasing difficulty of attracting and keeping well-educated clergy in pastoral ministry. Particularly alarming to us were indicators of profound dissatisfaction, such as the reluctance of some United Methodist ministers to encourage others to enter the ministry. Equally disturbing was a study on the retention of clergywomen in the United Methodist Church, which began with a troubling statistic in its statement that “women are leaving local church ministry at a ten percent higher rate than male clergy . . . due to lack of support from the hierarchical system, a difficulty to maintain their integrity in the current system, family responsibilities, and rejection from their congregations.”

New Initiatives
Despite a system under enormous stress, we concur with Alban’s assessment that the signs of “ferment” are strong and pervasive. There is much to affirm, even in the “turmoil,” and creativity is, after all, born out of conflict. Universities, seminaries, judicatories, laity, and organizations outside the mainstream such as ours, are recognizing an acute need for building and supporting visionary leaders, and they are addressing that need in new and creative ways. For example, Upper Room Ministries is expanding its comprehensive spiritual formation academy to include “Companions in Ministry,” a rhythm of spiritual community and pilgrimage that both supports and challenges pastors into new ways of creatively responding to the needs of the world and the Church today.

Here at the Texas Methodist Foundation, we are responding with our own Clergy Leadership Initiative. Major attention is given to supporting and nurturing clergy by providing opportunities for growth, learning, and mutually sustained relationships in an environment of safety and support. Clergy Development Groups consisting of seven to ten members meet four times a year for a minimum of two years. In addition to the affinity groups, we are continuing our educational events open to all clergy and laity to provide current research-based knowledge and skills for strengthening ministries and nurturing spirituality. In addition, we hope to produce research that will broadly benefit not only Texas United Methodist participants, but also other denominations. New models of pastoral leadership, as well as measures of the effectiveness of resources and methods, will be invaluable to all churches engaged in recruiting, training, and supporting new leaders.

Clearly, the Alban report makes a compelling case for the need for a safe collegial support system and for meaningful educational opportunities for clergy. This kind of environment offers the best chance for continued pastoral excellence because it encourages the mutually sustained relationships and support that clergy desperately need and it instills a process of learning that will resonate throughout congregational life.

Patti Simmons is director of foundation relations at the Texas Methodist Foundation, a nonprofit organization providing assistance to United Methodist churches, individuals, and institutions through loans, investments, grants, planned giving, stewardship services, and educational seminars. A lifelong United Methodist, she brings to her role at the Foundation 15 years of experience teaching college English and marketing educational technology.


Claire Schenot Burkat, Mission Director for New Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania Synods, ELCA

Yes! A crisis in leadership has visited the American congregation. And yes, this crisis, as serious as it is, has also opened the door to unprecedented opportunities. For every agony described by James Wind and Gilbert Rendle in the Alban Institute special report, there may not be exactly a corresponding ecstasy, but certainly a call to creating new avenues for ministry among the clergy and laity.

The one unrealized dream of the Reformation was the desire to usher in the age of the “priesthood of all believers.” Ironically, it is due to the severe shortage of those entering religious orders that today’s Roman Catholic Church has responded by boosting responsibilities for the laity. The resulting increase in lay participation far surpasses t
he good intentions for sharing the ministry put forth by the mainline Protestant denominations. Likewise, many of the independent, evangelical, and Southern Baptist congregations also have embraced a more proactive way of recruiting, training, and deploying the gifts of the laity than their mainline counterparts.

Perhaps this is because the congregations are much larger on the average than the pastoral-sized congregations of mainline churches. Or maybe the newer congregations were developed upon a strong model of small-group ministry. Or perhaps, the independent, evangelical, and Southern Baptist congregations define and design themselves as less clergy-centered than other denominations.

The report released by the Alban Institute, while alarming, should not surprise anyone who works with Protestant denominations. Many mainline executives have not seriously reflected upon the phenomenal decline in church attendance in the past 20 years, so why would they examine the corresponding question of leadership? The leadership crisis has also visited the denominational staffs, as turnover and lack of clear role and job responsibilities have taken their toll on ever-rotating executive staff appointments.

Crisis Indicators
1. Shortage of Clergy. Even a quick look around at pastors’ conferences or assemblies brings the sobering realization that clergy now serving are advancing in years and are not representative of the people who pose the greatest mission opportunities in our country today. This gap between our leaders and their flock is generational, racial, ethnic, linguistic, and gendered. Questions each synod, diocese, or conference should consider are, “What percentage of the clergy is under the age of 45? How does this correspond with the demographic reality of the synod since the 2000 census?”

One might point out that many of the seminarians today are second-career individuals who graduate at middle age. Yes, this is true; however, they too will be retiring or easing up on duties in the next 15 or 20 years along with the other clergy Boomers.

The Opportunity. In the future, bivocational or part-time ministry that serves small or struggling congregations—rather than those yoking two or three congregations in order to pinch together a single salary—will not only be acceptable, but desirable. Many African American churches have practiced this for years. I know a young pastor in the Bronx who works at her previous position as an attorney one day a week in order to supplement her income so that her poor congregation can afford to keep her. She eases the congregation’s financial burden, and they in turn assume more pastoral responsibilities. For the thousands of congregations all over the country with fewer than 100 worshipers on a weekend, this is an arrangement worth exploring.

2. Quality of Pastoral Leadership. Wind and Rendle’s examination of the report by the Reconstructionist Commission on the Role of the Rabbi certainly speaks to us all. The malaise, depression, and general angst among many clergy can be, in part, attributed to a serious lack of personal and professional boundaries in the ministry, and standards of evaluation that are ineffective, one-sided, and vulnerable to misuse—for instance, to punish the rabbi or pastor instead of encouraging him or her.

Adding to the overall unmanageability of the job are the demands of today’s two-career marriages, or the stress of negotiating a divorce or a shared-custody situation. The distance from family and friends, the demands of elder-parent care and children, and the rarity of days off further aggravate an already stressed system.

Furthermore, crushing financial burdens face many second-career seminarians upon graduation. Sent to a struggling first-call parish, one can easily see how the debt load of the pastor combined with the desperate financial situation of the congregation is a script for either fiscal hysteria or anxious denial.

In addition to the catechism of complaints raised by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) regarding the quality of recent seminary graduates, I would add a few more concerns. The ability to think theologically and to cast a vision of a hopeful future, along with the desire to help unify the body of believers rather than escalate anxieties, are personal traits in short supply. How shocking to note the Missouri Synod study conducted by Alan and Cheryl Klaas reporting that as many as 20% of the clergy are in advanced stages of burnout and perhaps another 20% are well on their way.

The Opportunity. Gather, interview, study, and enlist as mentors for the newly ordained the 20% to 40% of clergy who do seem to have healthy balance of personal and professional life. By the way, these few clergy have gone neglected by the rest, who in a climate of whining and grousing forget to appreciate those that celebrate and support.

3. Retention of Women in Ministry. In June 2003, I will celebrate 25 years of ordained ministry. As I look back, I realize how oblivious or naive I was for the first 10 years, hardly knowing how badly I was being treated at times. By the second 10, I had put in too much time to quit the ministry even on my worst days. But I am glad I stayed, because eventually I found that my life’s call and my spiritual gifts were a good match.

So, as I read the report’s findings on the particular difficulties confronted by women in the ministry, I was saddened by how many reasons women cited for leaving the ministry or for their unhappiness in serving. Not coincidentally, these are some of the same reasons cited by people of color who serve the church. In fact, we should see if the discouragement these female pastors receive precedes or instigates a similar exodus of the people of color in the next 10 years. All of this is bad news indeed for the church, which needs seasoned and mature pastors to mentor recruits.

Lack of support from the hierarchical system, lack of mobility opportunities, difficulty maintaining their place in the system, responsibilities to family, and rejection from the congregation are all reasons for which women leave the ordained ministry. Why look for help and support from a system that ignores your gifts and causes pain?

Women are specifically mentioned in the Alban study. Why are women leaving at a more rapid rate than unhappy men? One guess would be that women tend to be less willing to bottle up their misery in a professional situation, especially if it negatively impacts their families or primary care-giving roles. In this regard, clergywomen are not unlike other working women who choose to leave stressful professions, such as law, business, and medicine.

The Opportunity. The stress and unreasonable expectations felt by women pastors and pastors of color are the same growing edge for the marginalized people in this country who need to be touched and guided by the gospel message. How does it help for the spiritual leader to be as overwhelmed as everyone else? If we can attend to the justified complaints of women pastors, these insights will also help us reach the millions who need this balance in their lives as well.

If the pastor/leader is more of an equipper, preacher, sojourner, and teacher for the flock—and less of a caregiver, parent, or rescuer—we might see a more empowered clergy and laity.

Planting and Coaching
The Southern Baptist and independent associations are the church planters of the 21st century. For every 100 mainline missions, there are 2,000 evangelical, Baptist, and independent churches planted. These new paradigm churches are very attuned to the technology of the population under age 30, committed to the conversion of the adult believer, and committed to faith formation in a small group setting rather than a formal Sunday school system. The commitment to evangelism, the priority of church planting as an opportunity for welcoming the newcomer, the intenti
onal outreach to new immigrant populations (especially those who are Spanish speaking), and the sharing of pastoral ministry functions with lay leaders will transform American Protestantism in this next century.

The formula for transformation among mainline denominations is not so very complex: plant more congregations than close. Work with congregations at risk willing to be coached for growth. Support and encourage congregations to grow to the next size whenever possible. Raise clergy and lay leaders capable of guiding the faith journey of new adult believers. Choose congregations and leaders who have a passion for the gospel and a love for people to be ambassadors for receiving and guiding the next generation of saints.

For everything there is a season under heaven. For those leaders, clergy and lay, who are open to the shifting sand and transforming winds blowing through our culture and country, the next two decades will be an amazing journey!

Rev. Claire Schenot Burkat is the mission director for the New Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania Synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As mission director, and with the blessing of the Holy Spirit, Rev. Burkat has planted nine new congregations, developed congregations at risk, and helped raise more than two million dollars for mission and evangelization. She is the co-author (with Roy Oswald) of Transformational Regional Bodies: Promote Congregational Health, Vitality and Growth (Life Structure Resources, 2001).


James P. Wind, President, The Alban Institute

More than a year has passed since the Alban Institute released its special report, The Leadership Situation Facing American Congregations. In our minds this report, the first of its kind in Alban’s 28 years of existence, would serve two purposes. First, we wanted to share what we had learned about a central—perhaps the central—challenge facing congregations at the start of a new millennium. Second, we at Alban wanted to signal our intent to focus energies, resources, and attention on this issue of special concern to us. We were staking out future territory, stating that the leadership needs of American congregations were so urgent that we felt called to reshape our work in response.

When we released this report on our Web site (the first time we had tried such an experiment), we tossed a pebble into the large ocean of written and electronic publications about American religion. We had no way of knowing whether we would create a ripple or whether this stone, like many others in the American whirlpool of ideas, would slip beneath the surface unnoticed. Would anybody hear what we had to say, or care about the issues we had raised?

We have been pleasantly surprised. The report has made waves—of many sorts. Initial responses ranged widely. One reader, a middle-aged pastor, wrote to thank us for naming what he was experiencing and to ask if he could come work with or for us. A dean from a preeminent university-related divinity school called to say that the report was the single best resource available describing the current leadership realities. The president of a denominational seminary called to ask if we could send enough copies for all his board members. A judicatory leader asked that we send by overnight courier a stack of reports in time for a task force meeting the next morning on developing new programs for clergy. Letters arrived thanking us for naming a reality that many had experienced.

A Pattern of Responses
Alban did more with the report during these past months than wait for the mail. We were invited to share the report with groups of pastors, seminary faculties, foundation staffs, denominational executives in national offices, and judicatory leaders. Various Alban staff listened to people discuss our reading of the situation and assess our findings.

In almost every case, a pattern was evident in the responses. Predictably, people wanted more information on their own denomination or on a particular aspect of the report. Once in a while, we were pointed to information that had eluded us in our search. In at least one case, new research findings challenged our findings. Duke Divinity School’s Pulpit & Pew Project, for example, released findings from a major new survey of clergy, reporting higher levels of clergy satisfaction than some of the reports we cited. Seventy-four percent of the Duke survey respondents said they were “very satisfied” in their current positions. While it seemed to brighten the picture we were painting, the Duke report also spotted dark clouds on the horizon as it pointed to a warning sign about clergy health. Seventy-eight percent of men and 52 percent of women in ministry were classified as either overweight or obese.

Some respondents thought we were too gloomy, spending excessive energy on the crisis side. Others felt that we gave too much credence to evidence that we called “ferment.” But in the vast majority of cases, we found people affirming our overall reading. Our conclusions that both crisis and ferment were real and that the American clergy system was in trouble seemed to hold up.

When Alban leaders set out on this project, we did so first to develop a shared institutional reading that might help us plan for our future. We knew that we were not doing academic research in the sense that sociologists of religion do when they design, administer, code, and analyze their surveys. Alban was, characteristically, not so exhaustively scientific. Instead, we interviewed people with special vantage points on ministry; and we pulled together important pieces of research that others had conducted, but that had received too little notice. We stitched fragments of knowledge into a larger story. Our report was a snapshot of what many leaders of American religion intuitively knew. It was gratifying to hear many of them affirm that we had distilled what they knew and felt.

A Changed Landscape
The leadership situation in American religion, however, is a moving target. A few weeks after we released our report, the events of 9/11 changed our landscapes. Suddenly the media were telling stories about religious leadership after the terrorist attacks (most emblematically in the account of the martyred Father Mychal Judge, who died at Ground Zero), and throngs of people were searching out religious leaders for help.

A month later the Boston Globe broke its story on the sexual misconduct scandal that rocked—and continues to rock—American Catholicism. Some of the most moving conversations Alban staff had with clergy during this time took place when we met with Catholic priests who were reeling from the effects of their church’s troubling clergy crisis. These seismic events in American religion reinforced our sense that leadership was the key question before America’s religious communities. Our convictions had deepened over the year of testingour work.

One way to assess the usefulness of a report is to see how people use it. Repeatedly, people told us they were using our report to strengthen and sharpen diagnoses of their situations. Frequently, concerned church leaders sent us proposals for new kinds of programs—the creation of pastoral support groups, for example—that could be seen as direct responses to the phenomena we had described. Our report seemed to have played a role in legitimating discussion of a painful topic and in galvanizing energy to address it.

Expressions of Pain
I will let one such response serve as a powerful demonstration that Alban’s report struck a responsive chord in the lives of clergy and denominational leaders. On November 2, 2002—
more than a year after we released the report—18 Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) ministers addressed an “Open Letter” to the denomination’s 807,335 members, its 6,988 clergy, 3,734 congregations, 33 regions, and its officers, committees, and organizations. They wrote seeking dialogue about what they called an abusive climate in the denomination, one “increasingly poisonous or toxic” (p. 2). The authors wrote out of painful experience of “longtime systemic dysfunction” in the Southwest Region of their church body. Citing Alban’s special report frequently in the 13-page letter, the authors came to an exasperated and despairing conclusion that contradicted centuries of catholic conviction and tradition. Reversing the proverbial wisdom that outside the church there is no salvation, these writers declared that for many spiritually searching people today the proverb would read intra ecclesiam nulla salus (there is no salvation inside the church) (p. 6). Their report concludes with an appeal to members to take up the “serious work” of creating a different kind of environment among Disciples.

At Alban we read such reports with mixed feelings. The pain expressed by dedicated leaders of U.S. congregations and denominations, though it confirms our findings, is distressing. The brave attempts by many pastors and other leaders to resist the temptation to despair and their efforts to create new leadership possibilities are signals of hope.

Futher Steps
So where are we? After more than a year of receiving feedback, we at Alban remain convinced that leadership is the pivotal issue for the well being of U.S. congregations and denominations. We have been encouraged to go further in our inquiry and to continue searching for more insight about our current circumstances. In addition, others are asking Alban to join in partnerships that create safe, nurturing, and creative environments in which leaders can thrive and learn to do effective ministry.

In addition to working with others, we will take some steps on our own. Early in 2003 we will begin new efforts to assemble groups of clergy and other congregational leaders to learn about their needs and hopes. In our publications we will report on what we are learning. We are designing new resources (books, educational experiences, electronic networks) that will strengthen leaders to think and act in new ways—to change their reality. Finally, we will continue to remind the churches, synagogues, and parishes of our land that now is the time to make major new commitments to—and investments in—the formation of a fresh generation of leaders prepared to meet the challenges of a time when old models and assumptions are passing away.


There are two prevailing views of American congregational life today: one is that American congregations are confronting tremendous crises and challenges that still are unfolding; the other is that, blinded by a crisis mentality, we have overlooked the ferment, growth, and new vitality emerging in American religious life. At the Alban Institute, we acknowledge and explore the veracity of both points of view and hold them in tension and relationship with one another.

Three Indicators of Crisis

1. Shortage of Clergy. Major Christian (with the notable exception of the Unitarian Universalist Association) and Jewish denominations are experiencing or soon will face a shortage of clergy. For example, between 1993 and 1998, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lost an average of 111 clergy per year. Similarly, as of 1995, the United Methodist Church had experienced a six-year slump in ordinations of clergy.

From a supply perspective, the prevailing trend toward a shortage of clergy carries three implications: denominations will face many retirements; clergy entering the profession at a later age will have shorter pastoral careers; and more laypeople will claim places in congregational leadership.

2. Quality of Pastoral Leadership. Concern about the decline in the quality of those coming into office is widespread across denominations and faith traditions. “Fewer and fewer undergraduate students who graduated at the top of their classes are coming to theological classes,” observes professor Shubert Ogden of the Perkins School of Theology. Those graduates who go on to become seminary and rabbinical students often report below-average academic marks. In addition, they express reluctance to enter into ordained ministry.

3. Retention of Women in Ministry. One study found that clergywomen in the United Methodist Church are leaving local church ministry at a 10 percent higher rate than men. Women still encounter “glass ceilings”: lower pay, harassment, and a general lack of support from their hierarchy. They repeatedly complain about a “sick denominational system,” dysfunctional patterns among Annual Conference leaders, flaws in the superintendency system, and an unsafe denominational space.

A Horizon of Ferment
While the dominant reading of the current situation casts a perception of crisis, there is in the current moment a sense of ferment that suggests transitions leading to hope. Despite membership decline and scandal, the Episcopal Church Foundation reports “a powerful feeling of ‘pulling together’ with a sense of common purpose and mutual support.” Further signs of ferment include the possible emergence of a new leadership strategy in the form of “lay pastors,” and other leadership innovations.

The Alban Institute’s Position
In light of the seemingly paradoxical realities facing American congregations, we consider the following changes crucial to a formation of renewed vitality:

  • Where the old denominational systems have failed to provide support for clergy, we need to develop new, healthy, and safe environments for clergy and lay leaders to learn and connect.
  • New pathways and processes of learning need to be created for all congregational leaders, such as supportive peer learning, educational programs, and interdisciplinary settings.
  • Leaders need to see leadership in new ways. They must read culture critically, their congregations carefully, and their theological sources creatively.
  • There are many leaders who feel dispirited or ill equipped for their current roles. In addition to making resources available to struggling leaders, those without the capacity to serve should have a clear exit route.
  • Leaders need to show young people compelling images of leadership and remove the systemic barriers that discourage their consideration of such roles.

Read the Full Report
The Leadership Situation Facing American Congregations is available free of charge on our Web site. Go to

What Do Alban Members Say About Leadership?
To find out the results of our 2001 leadership survey, please visit You’ll learn what our members say about challenges—and the abilities they need to face them—in their own congregations.