By Kent Fillinger
A lead minister serves as a sort of head coach of the church team and has a major influence on the church’s health and growth.
There are many reasons for this influence, but surveys indicate much of it involves the minister’s communication skills and ability to explain Scripture. That said, a 2019 Lifeway survey found that more churchgoers say their minister preaches longer than they prefer (27 percent) than shorter than they prefer (13 percent).
This article examines findings from our 2019 survey of 439 churches to explore several factors related to the lead minister’s impact on a church’s growth rates and baptism ratios.
The average age of the head coaches in the four major American sports leagues—the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL—is 52 years old . . . the same as the average age for senior ministers in our 2019 survey.
Twenty percent of the head coaches of those sports teams are 60 or older, which is a little lower than the 25 percent of 60-and-older senior ministers—112 in total—from our survey.
Medium-size churches (average attendance of 250 to 499) had the youngest lead ministers—average age 49—while very small churches (average attendance of 99 or fewer) had the oldest ministers—average age 58.
Our research over the last 16 years typically has shown that churches led by younger lead ministers tend to grow faster. Last year, churches with lead minsters in the 35- to 39-year-old age bracket grew 4.2 percent, which was twice as fast as the overall average church growth rate of 2.1 percent.
Churches led by 40- to 44-year-olds grew 3.6 percent last year, making it the second-fastest-growing segment. By comparison, churches led by ministers age 55 and older grew only 1.5 percent.
The lead minister’s age seemed to have little bearing on a church’s baptism ratio (number of baptisms per 100 people in average attendance) last year. Here’s a listing of the senior ministers’ average ages (and baptism ratio): 45–49 years old (5.7); 35–39 (5.5); 50–54 (5.5); 55-plus (5.4).
The average tenure for lead ministers in our study was 11 years, which means, on average, they started in their current role in 2008. Megachurch lead ministers (average attendance of more than 2,000) had the longest tenure at 15-plus years, while the shortest average tenure for lead ministers was in very small churches, 8.5 years.
Twelve percent of the lead ministers were hired since 2018, meaning they had two years or less in their current role. Yet, this group of new lead ministers posted the best growth rates (3.7 percent) in 2019. This was an aberration because oftentimes churches with new lead ministers decline in attendance or have minimal growth. Additional findings: 8- to 10-year tenures for the lead minister (2.9 percent growth rate in 2019); 5–7 years (less than 1 percent).
With regard to baptism ratios, lead ministers who have served 21 to 30 years, or 31-plus years, saw the most baptisms: 5.9 per 100 in average church attendance. The lowest baptism ratio was for ministers who have served 5 to 7 years (4.7).
With our 2019 survey, we sought to determine whether the frequency of preaching by the lead minister has an impact on church growth and baptisms.
Megachurch lead ministers preached the fewest average number of times during the year (37), while ministers of very small churches preached the most (47). A primary reason megachurch lead ministers preached the fewest number of times was because they were the most likely to use a preaching/teaching team to share the preaching load. Overall, lead ministers preached an average of 42 times last year.
The lead ministers of emerging megachurches (average attendance of 1,000 to 1,999) preached an average of 39 messages in 2019.
In general, churches whose lead ministers preached 45-49 times grew the most in 2019. This finding was true in four of the six church size categories (very small to large churches); their overall average growth rate was 3 percent.
The outliers were megachurches and emerging megachurches. Megachurches with lead ministers who preached 35-39 times last year had the best average growth rates (4 percent). And emerging megachurches whose lead ministers preached 30-34 times grew 21 percent.
Preaching frequency also seemed to impact baptism ratios. Here are the highest baptism ratios, based on the average number of sermons preached by lead ministers, for the various church sizes: very small churches, lead minister preached 50-plus times during the year, baptism ratio of 4.7; small churches, 45-49, 5.7; medium churches, 45-49, 5.7; large churches, 45-49, 5.7; emerging megachurches, 40-44, 6.8; megachurches, 30-34, 9.2.
In 2019, 74 percent of megachurches and emerging megachurches used preaching/teaching teams. That percentage has risen from 55 percent in 2008, the first year we studied that aspect of sermon delivery.
Overall, 43 percent of the churches in our study used a preaching/teaching team in 2019, including 13 percent of very small churches, 25 percent of small churches, 29 percent of medium churches, and 46 percent of large churches.
The average number of speakers who served as part of a preaching team in 2019 was 4.1 people.
Churches with a preaching/teaching team grew almost twice as fast last year as churches without a teaching team (2.8 percent vs. 1.5 percent), and their baptism ratio also was better (5.8 vs. 5.1).
Upon closer examination, however, the presence of a preaching team had the greatest positive impact for emerging megachurches and very small churches (as the chart illustrates).
Overall, 9 percent of the churches reported they had a female on their preaching team last year, with the largest number found in megachurches (16 percent) and large churches (15 percent).
From 2008 to 2019, the percentage of megachurches and emerging megachurches with women preaching increased from 4 percent to 12 percent.
Churches with women preaching had a higher baptism ratio (5.8) than those without women preaching (5.3) in 2019, but there was very little difference in growth rates among those two categories of churches.
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and regional vice president (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan) with Christian Financial Resources.