A recent nationwide study reveals that the average age of America’s pastors is getting older, and because of this, there are a number of serious implications for the future of the Church.
The Christian research organization, the Barna Group, conducted a major study – in partnership with Pepperdine University -- across the United States to see how today’s faith leaders are navigating life and leadership in a society that is becoming increasingly complex. The State of Pastors study found that the shifting demographic – of pastors getting older and older – has a number of negative ramifications on the faith community. It also examined the cultural forces that are responsible for the dramatic demographic changes taking place in America.
Not your church of yesteryear
Over the past quarter of a century, faith leaders standing behind the pulpits of America’s churches have grayed significantly.
“When George Barna published his 1992 findings in Today’s Pastors, the median age of Protestant clergy was 44 years old,” Barna researches recounted from the ongoing study. “One in three pastors was under the age of 40, and one in four was over 55. Just 6 percent were 65 or older. Twenty-five years later, the average age is 54. Only one in seven pastors is under 40, and half are over 55. The percentage of church leaders 65 and older has nearly tripled – meaning there are now more pastors in the oldest age bracket than there are leaders younger than 40.”
Even through there has been considerable aging over the past 20-plus years, the trend began decades earlier.
“The upward climb did not begin in the 1990s,” Barna pointed out. “In 1968, 55 percent of all Protestant clergy were under the age of 45 – that is, the majority of all church leaders were in their 20s, 30s and early 40’s in 2017… just 22 percent are under 45.”
Barna found several explanations for the well-documented trend of aging pastors, but it cannot pinpoint the biggest factors for the age shift.
“At the most basic level, people are living longer: Average life expectancy for men in 1968 was 66 years old; today it’s 76,” the data indicated. “More specific to church ministry, the percentage of ‘second-career clergy’ has been increasing over the past two decades – particularly in non-mainline churches and historically black congregations; more pastors are coming to ministry later in life, having first pursued a non-ministry career. Additionally, the economic crisis of 2008 impacted pension plans, 401(k)s and home values, and many ‘senior’ senior pastors are not yet financially prepared to forego a regular paycheck.”
What happened to young pastors?
Explaining the aging of American pastors further, it was divulged that there is most likely a dearth of young men who are trained and ready to become church leaders.
“A majority of current pastors say even finding future leaders – much less mentoring them – is a challenge,” those conducting the study revealed. “Two out of three current pastors believe identifying suitable candidates is becoming more difficult (69 percent) – even though a majority believes their church is doing what it takes (69 percent).”
The depleting number of young Christians also poses greater challenges for older pastors to pass the torch to the younger generation.
“It’s no surprise that seasoned leaders find it difficult to track down and train their successors when we consider the declining percentage of practicing Christians in each successively younger generation,” researchers pointed out. “In addition, even faithful, kingdom-minded teens and young adults are increasingly attracted to vocations other than full-time church ministry, where their desire to make a difference can have a more entrepreneurial expression without the (real or perceived) institutional baggage of church.”
Older and wiser not necessarily better …
The Ventura, California-based research group maintains that the graying of America’s clergy has less pros than cons.
“It’s surely an upside that older pastors often have wisdom that comes only with long experience; the Church is in desperate need of such wisdom in this era of unparalleled complexity,” the team of researchers insisted before presenting the downside. “Yet God’s people also need younger leaders preparing today for an uncertain future. Older pastors are uniquely situated (and called) to raise up, train and release godly, capable and resilient young pastors.”
Other disadvantages of having aging pastors behind the pulpit were also divulged.
“The bare facts of the matter are that even the wisest of older pastors is not here indefinitely, and his or her wisdom will be lost to the community of faith unless it is invested with the next generation,” the pollsters continued. “Even more urgent, however, is the prospect of a massive leadership shortage in the coming decades. In the best-case scenario, Bible-literate, Spirit-led, missional lay leaders will rise up in the place of a shrinking professional clergy, living as the ‘priesthood of all believers’ (1 Pet. 2:5) on a scale rarely seen before. This is certainly a possibility, but is it the most likely outcome?”
Analyzing the aging dilemma
Barna Group President David Kinnaman maintains that the Church must do something about the aging of pastors, as successors can be harder and harder to come by if the crisis is not addressed – and soon.
“The aging of pastors represents a substantial crisis for Protestant churches,” Kinnaman impressed. “In fact, there are now more full-time senior pastors who are over the age 65 than under the age of 40. It is urgent that denominations, networks and independent churches determine how to best motivate, mobilize, resource and deploy more younger pastors.”
The research guru says that with all the factors going into the aging of American pastors, there is not one panacea to solve the problem – as many influences and trends both inside and outside the Church are pulling youth away from the ministry.
“The kind of social research Barna conducts cannot answer why this shift has occurred,” Kinnaman explained. “Possible contributors to the trend include factors such as increased life expectancy; the rise of bi-vocational and second-career pastors; financial pressure facing pastors including the economic downturn of 2008; the allure of entrepreneurship among young adults; the lack of leadership development among Millennials and Gen-Xers and the lack of succession planning among Boomers.”
Barna’s head went on the clarify that advanced age does not preclude pastors from being effective. In fact, he notes that congregations receive many benefits from having aged pastors.
“It’s not inherently a problem that there are older pastors in positions of leadership,” Kinnaman insisted. “In fact, younger generations are often looking for wisdom and leadership from established teachers and leaders. The problem arises when today’s pastors do not represent a healthy mix of young, middle age and older leaders. For the Christian community to be at its best, it needs intergenerational leaders to move it forward.”
The Christian leader said there are a number of things that can be done to rectify the evolving problem of aging within America’s churches.
“Some of the solutions to the crisis include creating and demonstrating better cross-generational and cross-functional teams; developing and implementing better succession efforts; seeing more younger leaders signing on to be spiritual leaders; experiencing more established pastors making space for younger leaders; creating a broader vision for pastoring to include a renewed vision of the priesthood of all believers and; improving the educational and developmental process to unleash more pastors,” Kinnaman concluded.