As the second wave of Covid-19 was rising in late 2020, we were hearing persistent rumors that more U.S. clergy were dying from Covid-19 than the general population. We at FaithX wanted to know if these rumors were true and if so, why? Online searches revealed no research on the subject. Nor could we find any readily available data on clergy Covid deaths from denominational offices.
So we partnered with researchers at the Global Center from Religious Research (GCRR) to do some research of our own: a slice-in-time survey of Covid-related clergy deaths in the U.S. from January 1 through June 30, 2021. Obviously, this would not be an exhaustive study, but we did hope it would kickstart discussion and “prime the pump” for future research on the subject. We surveyed 16 major Christian denominations in the United States and published the results in the peer-review academic journal, Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry (SHERM Journal).
Our research revealed some interesting findings, including a strong reluctance by many denominational leaders to even participate in the study at all. Indeed, there were strong political polarizations that surfaced and resulted in some religious leaders (abusively) shaming and condemning us for even asking the question. The research also revealed that the Northeast had the highest recorded death rate compared to other geographical regions in the US, which is not surprising since that’s where the pandemic first started. If you would like to learn more, simply click the button below for the full SHERM article or continue reading this blog post for a short synopsis of the major findings.
FaithX surveyed 16 Christian denominations in the United States.
These 16 groups were chosen because they are some of the largest denominations in the United States. Collectively, they represent about one-half of the total Christian population in the United States: over 106 million members. Out of the total 458,000 clergy working in the United States, there are around 290,000 clergy spread out across the 16 denominations.
The timeframe for this research was January 2021‒June 2021, and the research was conducted by contacting the offices of church judicatories in these denominations.
Findings Per Denomination
A total of 169 judicatories responded to the survey. The average response rate across all denominations contacted was 23%. In total, 118 deaths were recorded via these surveys. The denomination with the largest number of deaths was the Catholic Church, which reported 43 deceased clergy members due to Covid-19. The United Methodist Church had the second highest number, reporting sixteen deaths total. The Southern Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God had the third highest death rate where both reported twelve deaths each.
The survey results for each denomination were also analyzed as a percentage of the total deaths. The Catholic Church represented 36.44% of all reported deceased clergy. However, the Catholic Church represented only 11.54% of the total clergy surveyed. Thus, the percentage of deaths represented by the Catholic Church was 24.9% higher than the percentage of clergy they represented.
A death rate was also calculated for all the denominations surveyed. The highest death rate was the Catholic Church, which was 0.73%. The second and third highest were the American Baptist Churches U.S.A. and the Episcopal Church, which had death rates of 0.45% and 0.43% respectively. The overall death rate for the sixteen denominations surveyed was 0.23%.
Utilizing the data accumulated from the research, it is possible to make estimations about the total number of clergy that died from Covid-19 in each denomination. The denomination with the most estimated deaths is, once again, the Catholic Church, with an estimated 258 clergy deaths. The next two highest are the United Methodist Church with ninety-six estimated clergy deaths and the Southern Baptist Convention with eighty-two estimated deaths. For the entire population of 458,000 clergy in the United States, it is estimated that somewhere between 1,008 and 1,099 clergy died from Covid-19 with a margin of error of 5.64%.
So, should clergy have been scared of dying from Covid-19 during the pandemic?
As it turns out: not really.
Once a death rate was finally calculated, the Catholic Church reported over three times higher than the average Covid-19 death rate in the United States, the average death rate being 0.24% and the Catholic Church being 0.73%. There are a couple of factors that could help examine why the Catholic Church had the highest number of deaths and the highest death rate. For starters, the Catholic Church has the highest membership of any American church, coming in at over sixty-seven million members. This is over four times more than the second largest denomination surveyed, the Southern Baptist Convention. Additionally, the Catholic Church has more members in the United States than all other fifteen denominations that were surveyed combined. Because of this, the clergy from the Catholic Church could simply be exposed to a much greater number of people than the clergy from other denominations, thereby increasing their chances of infection.
The results of the FaithX survey revealed an average overall death rate for these denominations of 0.23%. It can be estimated that somewhere between 1,008 and 1,099 total clergy in the United States died during the height of Covid-19. Now that the pandemic is teetering on ending soon, clergy are probably even less likely to be at risk of dying moving forward.
Of course, that doesn’t mean clergy ought to just throw caution to the wind. The most updated CDC guidelines and safety measures should still be in place in houses of worship everywhere.