U.S. Religious Congregations Might 'Limp' But Don't Often Die
A team of UA graduate students worked with a former UA faculty member in sociology to determine the annual mortality rate for religious congregations in the United States.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications
June 6, 2008

About 10 out of every 1,000 religious congregations in the United States disband each year.

That figure represents the annual mortality rate for religious congregations – a percentage that had not been calculated before a University of Arizona team of sociologists set out to evaluate data from the 1998 National Congregations Study.

Four doctoral degree candidates in the UA’s sociology department worked with former department head Mark Chaves – now a Duke University professor – to come up with the estimate as well as other interesting details about religious organizations.

The researchers suggested that one reason why congregations may live on is that they are minimalists, requiring little funding to launch and survive.

The team’s findings were published in this month’s issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in an article titled, “Dearly Departed: How Often Do Congregations Close?” The team anticipates that another more comprehensive article will be published in December.

Knowing the mortality rate of religious congregations is critical to understanding their social influence and relevance, said Shawna L. Anderson, a UA graduate student and the article’s lead author.

Studies on volunteer-based social service groups, the California wine industry, peace movement organizations and Mothers Against Drunk Drivers chapters have shown that many organization types have mortality rates estimated at 5 percent and above. The only other rate that came close to 1 percent was among child care centers in Toronto; a UA research team found in a 1994 study that they had a 1.2 percent rate of closure.

Given the low rate of demise revealed by the research, it's clear the organizations are some of the strongest in the nation.

“Congregations are one of the most important types of voluntary organizations in our society and because we know so much about other kind of organizations we wanted to take a look at congregations,” said Anderson, who managed the UA research team and is project manager for the first phase of the National Congregations Study.

“This is a good start in terms of understanding the evolution of these organizations,” she said.

Social scientists have a history of studying organizations, but little information has been available about the life and death of religious organizations.

“Not only do people go to Sunday morning service, but they go to their congregations throughout the week and network though these organizations,” Anderson said. “So, understanding the demography of the organizations is important to understanding other things related to congregations, such as how social networks are built and how they launch social movements.”

Chaves, a professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke, said the information is valuable for people other than researchers.

The estimate “raises questions that are of a broader significance for American religion and for American religious leaders,” said Chaves, the principal investigator on the first and second phases of the National Congregations Study. During both projects, Chaves involved UA students in the research.

“We don’t necessarily have all the answers, but at least this helps to broaden the questions,” he said, adding that to understand any organization “requires knowledge of the vital statistics of organizations – the birth rates and the death rates.”

Sifting Through Information to Find Answers

The 1998 study was the first in-depth evaluation of religious organizations and revealed information about their clergy, membership, services and activities. The 2005 is meant to expand what is known about religious congregations.

Chaves received a series of grants in 2005 to begin the second wave of research into the national study. He worked with Anderson, Jessica Hamar Martinez, Gary Adler Jr. and Catherine Hoegeman, currently all UA graduate students.

The group wanted to know how many from the original survey in 1998 were still active in 2005, as defined by holding regular services, maintaining bulletins and calendars, and holding passion plays and rallies, among other events.

The team evaluated information from more than 1,230 churches, synagogues, and mosques of varying denominations, including Jehovah's Witness, Lutheran, Protestant, Episcopal, nondenominational Christian, Roman Catholic and others. The smallest of the congregations had seven regularly participating members and the largest had 20,000, said Anderson, also a research associate at Duke.

They sought out congregation directories, yearbooks and other publications. They also mailed postcards to congregations, called and visited some of them.

Much of their work was done using the Internet, a process that "was incredibly involved," said Adler, a member of the research team. Using several search engines, researchers sought out the congregations. When they came upon a Web site, the researchers had to determine the accuracy and reliability of each site before checking off on their list whether the church was active or had disbanded.

“I don’t know if we would have been able to tackle this portion of the project if not for the Internet," he said. "It defiantly would have been a lot more difficult and would have required more field visits – into the hundreds across the country.”

The team determined:

  • That 27 congregations had disbanded since the first wave of research.
  • About two-thirds of churchgoers in the United States attend congregations that have a Web site and 44 percent of congregations have sites.
  • Jehovah’s Witness congregations were difficult to find via the Web, while Lutheran and Catholic congregations tended to have a stronger presence on the Internet. Roman Catholic congregations saw a 253 percent increase in the number of Web sites but nondenominational Christian congregations only saw a 53 percent increase. Overall, the team noted a 123 percent hike in the number of congregations with Web sites.
  • Congregations that owned a building were more likely to remain open and active.
  • Smaller congregations, or those with only a few dozen members, tended to close more often than congregations with hundreds of members.

But longevity does not necessarily signal that an organization is strong or healthy, the team said.

The authors wrote: “Congregations' especially low mortality rate could mean that there are fewer weak congregations than there are weak units in other organizational populations, or it could mean that weak congregations limp along rather than die, whereas in other organizational populations weak units die rather than live on in a weakened state.”

Research to Continue

Members of the group, who are still analyzing data, said they do not yet have all the answers.

Anderson said more research will be required to determine exactly why congregations close, if certain denominations are more likely than others to disband and whether age or region plays a significant role.

“The really crucial step is trying to figure out why congregations are able to sort of limp along and survive whereas other organizations would die,” Anderson said. “We’re working on that.”

The team did make some suggestions in their article about why congregations may enjoy a low mortality rate – one of which is that religious congregations tend to be minimalist.

They cost very little to start and to maintain, and keep endowments and savings that could be used later. Maintenance costs grow with the congregation, but members typically help out when times get tough, the researchers pointed out. That goes for volunteering their accounting services, helping to fix up the infrastructure or any number of other things “to keep the congregation alive," the article noted.

“Congregations also are normatively flexible and adaptive in the sense that, during times of decline, it is relatively easy to reduce congregational activities and goals to a bare minimum – mounting a weekly worship service – and still be considered a legitimate congregation,” the team wrote.

“Congregations can continue in this way for a long time, perhaps until a precipitating event like a major conflict pushes them over the edge.”

Anderson said it may come down to the members themselves.

“If you’ve got a group of even only 10 people who are deeply committed to the organization whether it’s because they’ve gone all their lives or got married there or had their kids baptized there," she said, "it’s amazing what a congregation can pull from its membership."

Extra info


Several others on the UA campus have studied or are currently studying religious organizations and congregations. They include:

  • The UA Libraries and Center for Creative Photography maintain or have access to subject guides and databases with extensive amounts of information about religious studies and early church fathers, to name a few topics.
  • The UA Libraries also has information about Spanish mission churches.
  • In the Steps of Esteban: Tucson's African American Heritage keeps information collected from a special project about Black churches in Tucson on its Web site. The site, a project run out of the UA, is a collaboration with the greater community.
  • Julian Kunnie, the UA's Africana studies director, has studied indigenous churches in South Africa. "Umoya: The Spirit in Africa" is a DVD of his work, which explains why such churches are among the fastest growing religious communities in the world.
  • UA Honors College student and recent UA graduate Stephanie Cordova earned an Undergraduate Research Grant last year for a project titled "Satisfying and Keeping Members: A Look at Competing Mega Churches.” Cordova examined two mega-churhces in Glendale, Ariz., located four miles apart. 


Resources for the media

Shawna L. Anderson

UA Department of Sociology