Emptying Pews Cry For Leadership

Religion is losing its hold on our lives. This realization is inescapable, given the marked decline in the number of people attending church services. In 1996 the Barna Research Group released a report which illustrated church attendance was declining steadily and that churches were losing “entire segments of the population: men, singles, empty nesters…” In 2006, Keith Barltrop wagged a cautionary finger towards a 2004 ecumenical survey which showed that 73% of those surveyed believed that the “clergy failed to prepare congregations for the challenges to their faith that the culture of our times throws up.” In that same year AgapePress covered a study which concluded that only about 20% of Americans go to a church on Sunday, which is a much lower figure than previously anticipated. More recently, Rebecca Ryan of the Carolina Reporter quoted a poll which “suggests that 30% of Americans are either changing their religion or abandoning it [sic] all together.”

Based on these striking figures, the obvious question is: why are pews emptying? Are people losing faith in their god(s)? In their priests? In their fellow humans? Or could it be that congregations’ demands are becoming more sophisticated, and that churches simply are not measuring up to these advancing standards. As I explain below, my perspective leads me to believe that there is a direct correlation between the leadership provided through the church and the level of interest congregations display in attending services.

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Leadership Over Lunch

Over the last few weeks, I have been asked to participate in interview luncheons for candidates to the Assistant Professor in Leadership position open at the McDonough Center. Each candidate has been posed the question, “What is your definition of leadership?”

This question is interesting, and problematic to me for a variety of reasons – not the least of which is the underlying assumption that such a concept needs distilled down to basic, elemental parts; an assumption which seems to be relentlessly compulsory.

Although I seem to contradict myself, one definition attracted me more than any others. Dr. Bechtold, of the University of Hawaii (I believe), suggested that “Leadership is the process in which a leader creates a message which followers can endorse.”

Food for thought.