Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Clergy Vacancies and Church Decline

Bob Jacksons 'The Road to Growth' (digested version here) speaks of the 'self inflicted wounds' of the Church of England - decisions the CofE has taken which have contributed to declining membership. One of these is allowing long vacancies between vicars. Most Dioceses do this to save money, though on the positive side it can give parishes time to take stock and work out what kind of leadership they need for the next chapter of their mission and ministry.

Jacksons research suggested that churches with a vacancy of longer than 6 months would see a decline in membership, and that even though membership often rose with a new leader, it didn't recover to the levels prior to the vacancy. From a sample of 155 churches, vacancies of 6-9 months saw a drop of 9% during the vacancy, those of 9-12 months a drop of 12%, and longer vacancies saw a drop of nearly 20%. Here's his chart, which you can find in this presentation.

I have to say this makes a lot of sense, and has been my own experience of churches. There is one here in Yeovil which saw a 8% drop in membership during a recent 9 month vacancy, which (thankfully) has recovered strongly since the appoinment of a new vicar.

But: at our Diocesan Synod last month, a local statistician presented a different picture. He argued that, from his evidence, a vacancy (also known as an 'interregnum') had no effect on church membership. He compared 1 group of churches, which had experienced a vacancy, with a control group of churches which, over the same period, hadn't experienced a vacancy (there were a couple of other things he did to iron out differences, which I won't bore you with). With over 100 churches in each group to iron out individual quirks, any major differences between the two could be linked to the absence of a clergy leader.

I was expecting his stats to back up Jacksons research. They didn't. He found no evidence for the effect of a vacancy on membership at all, whether 1, 2 or 3 years after the event, whether the church was large or small, urban or rural. Here are his stats

Vacancy group (118 churches)

Membership before 6586 average m'ship 55.8 index 100

Membership during 6647 average 56.3 index 100.9

Membership after 6223 average 52.7 index 94.5

No vacancy

before 6325 ave 53.6 index 100

during 6173 ave 52.3 index 97.6

after 5987 ave 50.7 index 94.7

Basically, both groups showed a decline of around 5% over the same period.

I really don't know what to make of this. Here are two decent sized samples of churches, analysed differently, which produce completely different results. At gut level I'm with Jackson, his findings just seem to make sense, but......

You can prove a lot of things with statistics, and this may just mean that the leadership of Anglican clergy is so ineffectual that it doesn't make any difference whether we're there or not (!), but I'm not aware of any other organisation that leaves long leadership vacancies because it sees them as a good thing.

I don't have the detailed workings, and the Bath & Wells chap is a professional statistician whilst I just have a couple of school passes at Maths. But now this is bugging me...

Update: Bishop Alan goes into detail about what they do in Bucks when a parish falls vacant. Good discussion there, and some interesting, and creative ideas about what to do during a vacancy. There's more to this than the length of the gap, there's what you do with it: just wait 11 months and save some cash, or use it to do some hard work on strategy and community?


  1. We had a 4-year vacancy at my last church in the late 90s. Attendance probably went up by 50%. I think the important things were (a) it was a church plant and (b) The age group and class of the congregation - a group of people in their 30s and 40s, largely teachers, managers, nurses etc. Maybe the trick is to leave vacancies in the right places?

  2. Hi David, thanks for volunteering to contribute to the LC anti-cynicism initiative. We'd like to involve you in the discussions on how we decide to go about doing this, so can you email me please: thomaskust [at] hotmail [dot] co [dot] uk

  3. Interesting. But I still suspect that Jackson is right in general. But I don't understand what you mean by "before", "during" and "after" for the churches which had not experienced a vacancy. Please can you explain.

    The digested version URL should be

  4. G - I would imagine that both really good and really bad leaders have church growth following their departure, the good ones because they have built a good team and released gifts and leadership, the bad ones because they've been a cork in the bottle.

    Peter - I didn't manage to note everything he said, I think the 'during' was a membership count taken whilst the vacancy was in process - we do them every year in B&Wells, and 'after' would be the first count done after the post has been filled. I'd quite like to see the research in full, the post above is based on notes I took at Diocesan Synod whist the guy was speaking.

  5. Thanks, Dave for raising this question, which haunts me every time a vacancy comes up round here. here in Bucks we've tried a few things to help, some of which sometimes do and some of which don't seem to work! I'll try and be a bit more systematic, but for now can only say that every vacancy, like ever pregnancy (or every deathbed?!) seems to be pareticular to the place and the time...

  6. The trouble with your explanation is that you can't have a "during the vacancy" figure for churches which have not had a vacancy! Or is the difference between the sets of figures something to do with the type or length of vacancy? I realise you can't answer this question, but perhaps the statistician can be asked to publish his figures with proper explanation, here or elsewhere.

  7. The official report on Diocesan synod ( says:
    "Statistician Colin Chalmers told Synod he had examined as many statistics and parish returns as
    he could and could find no evidence that church membership fell because of interregna."

    and that's it. Not very illuminating!

    I'll see if I can get hold of the details.