When does church growth justify hiring a new pastor or employee?
One commonly cited metric is the ratio of attendance to staff. Conventional wisdom says that churches can use this ratio to gauge whether they are over- or understaffed.
However, as this article will explore, this ratio is hard to define and hard to apply. Indeed, out of all the metrics discussed in our Church Growth series, we consider it the least normative for church staffing.
Calculating an attendance-to-staff ratio
Several surveys from mid-2010s found an average ratio of between 77 and 73 church attenders for every 1 full-time staff member. Averages in this range are so common that we will refer to all of them as simply 75:1. Despite their ubiquity, new data as well as historical averages gathered by ChurchSalary indicate that most churches are operating at a ratio lower than a 75:1 ratio (and have been for several years).
The biggest challenge with measuring and applying this ratio is nailing down a definition. Depending on which resource you consult, “staff” can mean:
- Full-Time Staff
- Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) Staff
- Full-Time Pastors
- Pastoral Staff
The most common definition compares the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) staff at a church with average attendance. To calculate FTE staff:
- Add up the average weekly hours of all part-time employees.
- Divide by 40.
- Add the number of salaried/full-time employees using whole numbers.
Churches can also account for seasonal and event-related staff by adding up all the hours worked by employees in an entire year and dividing by 2,080 (i.e., 40 hours x 52 weeks).
See an example.For example, a church with 4 salaried staff and 8 hourly employees who each work 20 hours has 8 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees.*[8 x 20 = 160; 160 ÷ 40 = 4; 4 + 4 = 8.]. A church with 8 FTE staff is paying for, on average, 320 hours of work per week (i.e., 8 x 40 = 320).
Because it captures both full- and part-time employees, FTE is the most consistent way to compare staff sizes between churches.
Defining normal and healthy
Indentifying a healthy attendance-to-staff ratio is challenging because organizations cite such a wide range of figures. Below is a chart summarizing the figures measured and reported by other organizations from 2015-2017, alongside data gathered by ChurchSalary from 2021-2022.
In light of our recent surveys, ChurchSalary does not believe that the average ratio is currently in the 70s. In fact, the current average appears to be just above 51:1, with a median of 46:1 (for churches over 50 people).
To compare our data with 2016 figures from Leadership Network, we also narrowed our analysis to only churches with over 500 in attendance. As you can see (below), this did not significantly increase the ratios.
While ChurchSalary’s current sample is less than 500 churches, we are 95 percent confident that the average is currently between 49 and 54:1 (for churches larger than 50 people).
Analyzing historical data
Because ChurchSalary’s measurements are so different than these other organizations, we decided to analyze historical data from old Church Law & Tax Compensation Handbooks. What we found was intriguing.
As the chart below indicates, churches with attendance over 1,000 clearly had a higher attendance-to-staff ratio between 2012 and 2016. Indeed, we can see how Unstuck Group and Leadership Network were able to measure their averages of 86:1, 77:1, and 73:1 among large churches in that time frame. However, it appears that larger churches have been hiring more employees relative to their attendance since 2016-2017.
If you dig into the underlying data, the attendance-to-staff ratio does vary a little based on church size. However, as the charts below visualize, the distribution of attendance-to-staff ratios gathered by ChurchSalary in the last year and half are fairly consistent across church sizes.
Regardless of how this ratio is calculated (and by whom), ChurchSalary is not convinced that it is useful for gauging whether your church is under- or overstaffed.
In theory, churches can divide their average attendance by one of these ratios to gauge the size of their staff. Unfortunately, even the smallest differences in the ratio you select can yield wildly differing guidance. This is a math problem. The attendance-to-staff ratio is essentially a fraction composed of a numerator on top (attendance) and a denominator on the bottom (FTE staff). The bigger the numerator (attendance) grows the more sensitive the result of the fraction becomes.
Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this sensitivity problem is with a visual aid. The chart below visualizes how the sensitivity of applying this ratio increases as attendance grows. By the time you reach an attendance of 350 people, the gap between applying an average of 51:1 versus 75:1 becomes greater than 2 FTE employees.
If your congregation is large enough, simply rounding to a whole number can justify hiring or firing a single staff member. In fact, because of its sensitivity, this ratio has limited application as a comparison point between churches.
How then can churches apply this ratio? How is it useful?
Applying this ratio
There are at least three ways to apply an attendance-to-staff ratio.
1. Tracking this ratio for your own staff can provide a dispassionate assessment of the size and scope of your payroll and employees from year to year. If you layoff one full-time employee and replace them with three part-time workers, this ratio can tell you whether the size of your staff increased or decreased.
2. Once you have established a normal range at your church, this ratio can help you decide whether to hire or fire extra staff, if your church attendance has changed. For example, if the ratio at your church has been 50:1 for several years and you recently added 200 new members, it may be wise to hire additional employees to maintain the same level of congregational care and ministry involvement.
3. If your church lowers this ratio, while keeping the rest of your expenses the same, you can afford to pay better salaries and offer better benefits (i.e., it will increase your average employment cost). Indeed, if you are struggling to pay your employees, this ratio may illuminate part of the problem.
Regardless of which method you use, connecting the dots between attendance, the size of your staff (in terms of FTE employees), and your payroll budget is critical if you want to improve (or even maintain) pay and benefits at your church.
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