Better with Time?

By Kent E. Fillinger

Neuroscience and social science both suggest we are more optimistic than realistic. On average, we expect things to turn out better than they do. The belief that the future will be much better than the past is known as the optimism bias. To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities—better ones—and we need to believe we can achieve them.1

Senior ministers, especially those of large churches and megachurches, typically believe their congregation’s best days are ahead of them. But research consistently shows church growth rates diminish as the senior minister’s age and tenure increase. Many senior ministers are in denial about this, because they are fully engaged by optimism bias. This bias also helps to explain how 42 of the church leaders surveyed could describe their church’s momentum as “strong or stable” when it declined in attendance last year. The optimism bias may also explain why the phrase “preacher’s count” exists.

The age and tenure of the senior minister are bigger factors than church size when studying the correlation to growth rates. The average start date for the senior ministers in our survey of megachurches, large churches, and medium churches was 1999. The research once again confirmed that senior ministers with 8 to 10 years of tenure have the fastest-growing churches at 8.3 percent in 2011. Consistently, churches led by senior ministers with tenures of 21 to 30 years, and 31 years or more, are the slowest growing (2.4 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively, in 2011).

The study found that 73 percent reported that the church’s most dramatic growth had occurred during the tenure of the current senior minister. The senior minister’s personality was examined for the first time, and 71 percent identified the senior minister as extroverted. However, the churches with introverted senior ministers grew slightly faster last year.

The findings have generally shown that senior ministers are in the church growth sweet spot between the ages of 40 and 44. The senior ministers in the 30- to 39-year-old age bracket had the fastest-growing churches at 12.4 percent last year, followed by the 40- to 44-year-old age set at 5.2 percent. Senior ministers between the ages of 55 and 59 historically have had the lowest growth rates (2.6 percent in 2011). The overall average age was 49.6 last year.

Overall, 72 percent of the senior ministers were hired from the outside, as opposed to being promoted from within; this mirrors the national percentage for megachurches. The churches led by a senior minister hired from the outside on average grew slightly faster last year, but these churches averaged almost 600 less in attendance than churches led by ministers promoted from within.

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1Tali Sharot, “The Optimism Bias,” Time, 6 June 2011, 40, 42.

Kent E. Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and associate director of projects and partnerships with CMF International.

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