Mark Chaves: What's the "right" sized staff?

Can you hire fewer people per worshiper the bigger your congregation is?

What is the “right” ministerial staff size for a congregation of a particular size? This is a difficult question in part because the answer depends on what a congregation expects of its clergy. Some clergy tasks, like preparing a sermon, do not necessarily require more time in a 500-person congregation than they require in a 100-person congregation. But other clergy tasks, like visiting people in the hospital or hearing confessions, take up more time as the number of people increases. If people expect a visit from a clergyperson every time a member is in the hospital, or if they expect a host of professionally organized youth activities, or, more broadly, if people expect that every member will be personally known in a meaningful sense by their minister, priest, or rabbi, then congregations will have to add ministerial staff about as fast as they add people. If it takes one full-time clergyperson to do this work properly in a 100-person congregation, it will take 5 to do it properly in a 500-person congregation.

The National Congregations Study can’t tell us what the right number of ministerial staff might be, but it can tell us the average number of full-time ministerial staff in congregations of various sizes. This is what the above graph portrays for three broad families of congregations. Note that “full-time ministerial staff” here does not necessarily mean seminary-trained or ordained staff. It means full-time staff who, to give the wording of the survey question on which this graph is based, “would be considered ministerial or other religious staff, such as youth ministers, other pastors, pastoral counselors, directors of religious education, music ministers, and so on.” Respondents were told not to count secretaries, janitors, school teachers, or other full-time employees not primarily engaged in religious work. The analysis behind this graph also is limited to congregations having at least 1 full-time ministerial staff person; congregations with no full-time staff are excluded.

The most obvious feature of this graph is that white Protestant churches are, at every size, more heavily staffed than Catholic churches or Black Protestant churches. The median white Protestant church with as few as 200 regularly participating adults (which in general means significantly more than 200 members) has 2 full-time ministerial staff people. Catholic and Black Protestant churches don’t reach an average of 2 full-time ministerial staff until they are twice that size.

These differences do not by themselves imply that white Protestant churches are overstaffed, or that Catholic and Black Protestant churches are understaffed. The differences surely indicate a combination of traditional differences in clergy roles across these groups, differences among these groups in the expectations people have of their clergy, and differences in the resources available for paying staff. Whatever is behind these differences, though, the results clearly indicate that white Protestant congregations have more full-time ministerial staff per capita than either Catholic or Black Protestant congregations.

The other interesting, though less obvious, feature of this graph is that these lines, which represent the best fit to the data, bend downward, meaning that larger congregations, per capita, have somewhat fewer full-time ministerial staff than smaller congregations. For white Protestant churches, I mentioned above that a 200-person church has, on average, 2 full-time ministerial staff. The average number of full-time ministerial staff does not double to 4 until we reach congregations with 500 regularly participating adults, and it doesn’t double again to 8 until we reach 1,150 people. A congregation with 1,000 regularly participating adults is 5 times larger than a 200-adult congregation, but, roughly speaking, it has not quite 4 times as many full-time ministerial staff. The numbers are smaller, but the pattern is similar, for Catholics and for Black Protestants. Larger congregations have fewer per capita full-time ministerial staff than smaller congregations.

Does this mean that, whatever the differences across religious traditions in what people expect of clergy, larger congregations within at least these three broad religious groups are in general more efficient than smaller congregations? It is difficult to say. The number of full-time staff is not the only factor that would be relevant in an overall assessment of congregational efficiency. And if having fewer per capita ministerial staff means that people are served less well in larger than in smaller congregations, then a lower staff-to-member ratio represents no gain in efficiency. To be more efficient means that we do more with less; doing less with less is not increasing efficiency. Knowing whether or not larger congregations are more efficient than smaller congregations requires knowing, among other things, whether people in them are served at least as well as people in smaller congregations even though the ministerial staff is proportionally smaller.