The Donald Trumpification of Authorized Ministry: Some Lenten Thoughts about Dying Churches, Congregational Resurrections, and Pastoral Leadership

This blog post was published in a slightly different form on February 4, 2016 on the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research and Data website.  See

In case you haven’t noticed, tremendous changes are taking place in the American church. A number of pastors, scholars, and leaders, both within and outside our denomination, have issued dire warnings about the future of the Mainline church and of the United Church of Christ. For instance,

  • Pastor Anthony Robinson writes that American churchgoing culture has shifted. Where once, churchgoers were motivated to attend weekly services by a culture of obligation (and the lack of alternatives to Sunday morning churchgoing), Americans now live in a culture of options and choices. Today, many people have stopped attending church, or go only once a month.
  • Columnist and blogger Rachel Held Evans tells us that increasingly, Millennials see the church as judgmental, hypocritical, detached from reality, and irrelevant to their lives. As a result, they are dropping out. In droves.
  • Pastor Molly Phinney Baskette predicts in Real Good Church that “something like 80% of mainline Christian churches will be dead” in 20 years.
  • In his book, Beyond Resistance, UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer reveal that many UCC and Mainline churches are so financially strapped that “full-time, seminary-trained, ordained clergy are [now] an impediment” to their mission and outreach. In effect, the mission in these churches has become holding rummage sales and fundraising dinners “in order to keep paying a full-time pastor’s salary.”       Meanwhile, aging buildings—undoubtedly beautiful but expensive to maintain—hang like albatrosses around congregants’ necks. Increasingly, churches are faced with the Faustian dilemma of having to either get rid of their pastors so they can keep their aging buildings, or ditch their buildings so they can afford their pastors.
  • UCC Pastor and church historian Steve Johnson reminds older churchgoers that the halcyon days of the 1950s—when stores were closed on Sunday, worship services were packed, and well-scrubbed children wore nice dresses, white shirts, and ties to church—were an anomaly in American church history. The norm for religious institutions has always been a struggle for noses, nickels, and numbers. Yet many aging Baby Boomers persist in remembering the 1950s as the norm to which we must return.

How should we evaluate these claims? Are Robinson, Evans, Baskette, Dorhauer, and Johnson right? I suspect they are.

In June 2015, two important UCC Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD) studies (available on this website) confirmed these dire forecasts. The first, “Futuring the United Church of Christ: 30-Year Projections,” shows that over the next three decades, the number of UCC congregations will decline from over 5,100 churches today to approximately 3,600 churches. Over the same time period, the number of UCC members will drop precipitously, from 1.1 million to just under 200,000 adherents. Yikes!

A second CARD report on “Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence,” was based on a national survey of UCC churchgoers. It identifies “four marks of ministerial excellence” as correlating significantly to congregational vitality:

  • The ability to equip and motivate a congregation.
  • The ability to lead ministries of evangelism, service, stewardship and social transformation.
  • The ability to read the contexts of a congregation’s ministry and lead it through change or conflict.
  • The ability to frame, articulate, and test a congregation’s vision.

Unfortunately, the report added, “these four marks were the lowest-rated items” of survey-takers’ evaluations of their churches’ and pastors’ ministries. Indeed, the skills and traits that are most directly relevant to congregational vitality and church revitalization seem to be the ones that UCC pastors are the weakest in! As Dorhauer put it,

“Clergy trained [as] pastoral counselors, preachers, and spiritual guides now have new expectations placed on them: raise money, market, and attract new members. As budgets shrink and membership rolls decline, we now want our clergy to become CEOs and growth strategists.”

Yet such leadership and entrepreneurial skills are “specialized fields” that require years of training and expertise, Dorhauer insists. “Even in their best weeks,” clergy won’t make these tasks “their highest priority”—not as long as there are sermons and services to prepare, sick people to visit, youth programs to organize, and classes to teach.

In a strange way, I wonder if what we’re seeing is not the Donald Trumpification of authorized ministry in the United Church of Christ. As you doubtless know, real estate and casino mogul Donald Trump is a political novice, but he has dominated Republican Party presidential politics over the past year. As of this writing it is uncertain how much farther Trump’s career as a presidential candidate will go—he just lost the Iowa Caucuses—but in a way that’s beside the point. I mean, aren’t Trump’s entrepreneurial verve, his brashness and cocksure confidence, and his “You’re fired!” decisiveness exactly the skills and traits that we pastors need if we are going to turn failing churches around? Our congregants don’t really care if we authorized ministers have studied the Bible thoroughly, or if we can parse Walter Brueggemann’s theology, any more than the Donald’s constituents care that he has held no previous political office, or that he is xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic—do they? If Trump doesn’t make it to the White House, wouldn’t he make an ideal revitalization pastor?

Alright, in case you’re wondering, yes, I did write that last paragraph with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. I believe strongly that mastering theology and the Bible—the stuff of traditional seminary studies—is still vitally important for ministers. But it is telling that Dorhauer and other scholars and church leaders are openly wondering if, in the future, pastors who have entrepreneurial and organizational skills will really need seminary training or even ordination.

You may say that the Donald is a showman, and I will agree readily with you—I am no Donald Trump fan. But I will also tell you that good pastoral leadership—the kind that turns struggling churches around—contains more than a modicum of showmanship, and is not just a matter of administrative skills and biblical and theological knowledge.

The times, they are a-changing—and so is the church. But we pastors need to remain steady, stay confident, and know what we’re about. Here’s hoping we can improve our leadership skills, and begin to turn some of our declining congregations around. In the meantime, we can remember that not all change points to decline and loss. Some points to celebration.

  • We can celebrate the many things we do well, even as we strive to improve our marketing, fundraising, vision-framing, entrepreneurial, and leadership skills.
  • Some churches and Christian institutions will close. It is inevitable. We celebrate their legacy and faithful ministry over the decades—or centuries—of their continued operation.
  • We celebrate the new things that God is doing—even if we cannot see those new things yet, or tell exactly what it is that God is doing.

As Easter people, we celebrate resurrection. Jesus overcame the grave. New churches rise up and organize and begin to worship and thrive, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of their predecessor. The two stories are one and the same. Death is always followed by new life.

Published by

Chris Xenakis

Chris Xenakis is a pastor, an adjunct lecturer in political science, an old school black and white photographer, and a sometime amateur actor.