Several research projects by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership paved the way for the current Religious Workforce Project. The longest continuous effort by the Lewis Center studies clergy age trends. In 2006, the newly-established Lewis Center issued its first report on clergy age trends among United Methodist clergy beginning from 1985. This research emerged from an uneasiness about a perceived absence of young clergy (those younger than 35) compared to previous eras.
Few reliable statistics were easily available. Working in partnership with the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits (now Wespath Benefits), the Center opened a window to an alarming trend that illustrated the very low percentage of young clergy. Among the largest category of United Methodist clergy, i.e., elders, the percentages of under-35 clergy had gone from over 15 percent in 1985 to less than 5 percent (3,219 in 1985 to 850 in 2005). The national news coverage of the initial report, well beyond denominational or even church media, showed how shocking the figures were then.
In each subsequent year, the Lewis Center updated the statistics. In 2007 and 2014, the reports included comparable figures from other denominations showing similar trends in declining percentages of under-35 clergy, especially among mainline denominations. The 2010 report showed comparable historical figures in Methodist traditions going back to 1926.
All of these reports are found at Clergy Age Trends in the United Methodist Church, 1985-2020.
Since that first report, the number of young elders grew gradually but steadily between 2006 and 2016. While the number of young male elders decreased, the number of young female elders provided all the gains. In the following two years, the number of young elders declined modestly. There was a net gain of men by 3 with major declines in women (-51). Since 2018, there was a net loss of 68 men and 29 women, roughly proportional to their respective makeups of the young elder pool (62 percent men; 30 percent women). In 2020, the number of young elders came within two of reaching the previous low of 850 in 2005. Due to the overall decline in the total number of active elders in the United Methodist Church, the percentage of young elders in the pool of all active elders remains around 7 percent, up from the record low of 5 percent in 2005.
The Religious Workforce Project will build on this previous research by seeking to situate these trends within broader patterns of clergy demographics found in the Mainline Protestant tradition and beyond.