If current trends continue, within five years, the number of associates in the United States will be greater than the number of vowed women religious.
A 2016 study found more than 35,000 associates in the United States, a number Jeanne Connolly, board president of the North American Conference of Associates and Religious, or NACAR, said has likely grown since then.
While NACAR doesn't track numbers, Connolly said communities continue to add associate programs. At the very least, she said, the number has held steady. The number of sisters, meanwhile, continues to fall.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA, reported 44,117 sisters in 2018, down from 57,544 in 2010. A 2016 actuarial study done for the National Religious Retirement Office projects there will be fewer than 30,000 sisters in 2024.
Connolly, a covenant companion of the Wheaton Franciscans in Wheaton, Illinois, called the numbers bittersweet. She said while she mourns the dwindling number of sisters, she is grateful for a way of life for those who yearn for a deeper spiritual commitment but are unable or unwilling to take perpetual vows.
"As Christians, we've all been called to find this deeper way of sharing what God has given us," Connolly said. "But it breaks my heart when I sit in the chapel and there's fewer and fewer faces."
Associates are laypeople who have made a public commitment to a religious institute. The requirements and names vary by community: Some allow almost anyone who commits to their charism to join while others have age, gender or denominational requirements.
But while the number of associates is steady or growing, there are worries about their demographics, too: The NACAR study found that 71 percent of associates are between ages 60 and 79, and the percentage of associates in their 30s and 40s dropped from 21 percent in 2000 to 5 percent in 2015. Nearly 80 percent of sisters in the United States are age 70 or older.
The aging of and declining numbers of sisters has changed the focus of many associate programs dramatically, Connolly said: Associates are now looked at as a way to carry on the congregation's charism, even if the vowed sisters are gone.