The Missing Generation Why America's Young Pastors Are a Dying Breed

As a 2017 article and report released by the Barna Group recently pointed out, young pastors in American churches are a dying breed. 

According to The State of Pastors, a major study conducted by Barna in conjunction with Pepperdine University, the number of pastors under the age of 40 shrank from 33 percent in 1992 to just 15 percent in 2017. Meanwhile, the number of current pastors over the age of 65 has tripled.

As David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group, points out, “The aging of pastors represents a substantial crisis for Protestant churches. 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 article doesn’t have a concrete explanation for this decades-long trend, though it does hint at certain problems, including the decline of church membership among younger generations and the difficulty many older pastors experience in finding and training a replacement. Of those pastors polled, 69 percent said their church put a high priority on developing the next generation of leaders, while the same percentage said finding future leaders has become much harder. 

THE HARD TRUTH 

What strikes me about the Barna research and article, “The Aging of America’s Pastors,” is that it seems to have been written by and in collaboration with older men wringing their hands about this exodus of young men. Many of these older men claim they’re doing everything they can to alleviate the problem. What the article lacks is the perspective and input of the young men who’ve pursued ministry, experienced the difficulties of serving in the local church, and who can shed light on the reasons why there are so few of the next generation entering and staying in pastoral ministry. 

As a young(er) pastor (under age 40), former seminarian, and someone who has been involved in various levels of church ministry for the past 13 years, I’ve had a front-row seat to the whole mess that is vocational ministry. And that’s exactly what it is—a hot mess.

I’ve done my time in seminary, somehow escaped the rapids of a student life that has the capacity to destroy families and faith, and gambled my financial future for the prospect of shepherding for bread crumbs on the dollar.

I’ve watched as my friends, most of them faithful Christian men, have submitted resumes to search committees, taken pastorates, relocated their families, and then relocated again when churches implode because many refuse to deal biblically with obvious sin. Many of those men, with undergrad and Master’s degrees under their arms, end up working entry-level jobs for menial pay.  

The issue crosses denominational lines, which I’ve experienced firsthand as a Southern Baptist and Presbyterian (PCA, CREC). It exists in small town and sprawling urban churches alike. No amount of denominational pride or lofty ordination strictness seems to prevent the disease from spreading or the youth movement from fleeing the pastorate. 

So, what’s the problem? 

First, the vast majority of churches a young man will pastor are quite literally dens of vipers, at worst, or immature and worldly, at best. They generally lack biblical leadership, are plagued by ten years or more worth of sins not dealt with, and have chewed through pastors like cheese through the grater. These churches are inhospitable terrain, a minefield of conflict-related explosives, full of hard-hearted Pharisees and sharp-tongued gossips. Of course, little of that will be readily visible in an interview process, which is just enough time for anyone to keep their stage clothes on.  

This leads directly into the second problem, which is the emotional toll all of this takes on the pastor and his family, which typically includes a youngish wife and small children. To put it bluntly, the church is often no place for young men and their young families. When you confront the longstanding sins of career elders and their wives, trust me, they don’t spare your wife or your kids. This in turn jades yet another future generation against church involvement, not to mention interest in ministry. 

Even if nothing colossal happens, the emotional toll of counseling, confronting, and shepherding puts tremendous strain on the best of marriages. All too often, what your children see is an irritated, angry father who’s pushed to the brink by the constant complaining of a hostile congregation, loneliness, and lack of local support. I’ve had friends who’ve been hospitalized because of psychotic breaks, anxiety attacks, and depression. One pastor I served with committed suicide. 

Third, most churches have ridiculously high expectations for the pastor and heinously low expectations for themselves. Many churches require a high-dollar, multi-year Master of Divinity degree on top of the already-backbreaking B.A., yet pay atrociously low wages. This limits ministry to those willing to take on foolish student loans or those who have access to a trust fund. Given the cost of higher education, student loans, and salaries that don’t make it out of the low-income tax bracket, this means a young pastor is almost always strapped (emotionally and financially) while trying to provide for his family, model hospitality, and give freely to others.

Likewise, pastors are often expected to work obscene hours and make ministry the all-consuming focus of their lives, all with little reward, financial or otherwise. They’re expected to be available at all hours of the day, with little vacation or personal time. 

I’ve heard personally as elder boards and deacons have chastised pastors for asking for a retirement package of any sort, or a pay raise that at least met local median household income levels. I’ve seen pastors forced on government healthcare or welfare programs because the church won’t provide suitable alternatives. I’ve watched as the same churches stick the underpaid pastor with both sides of Social Security costs. I’ve seen tens of thousands of dollars given to overseas missions, yet at the same time a pastor’s meager pay increase was refused.  

All told, it’s a recipe for disaster. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when Corporate America offers friendlier living conditions, greater reward, and a healthier outlook than the local church. But that’s the reality the church has to face: either make the pastorate a more pastor-friendly experience, with greater rewards, or watch as the exodus continues.

God is a generous Father, Christ’s burdens are light, and ministry is truly God’s work. So how exactly is the church portraying God to the world when it makes pastoral service excruciatingly difficult, financially unrewarding, and emotionally asphyxiating? 

A MODEST PROPOSAL 

What good is a critique without a proposal for change? Here’s my short list of proposed changes. 

First, we need to rethink the entire model of pastoral formation. For starters, the seminary model, with its love affair for accreditation and power-tie professors that draw outrageous dollars per credit hour, has got to be seriously rethought. Try as they might to fake it, the seminary deans can’t provide the level of discipleship or formation that ministry requires, and certainly not at a reasonable price-point. The very corporate process of sending out resumes and going through a brief interview process is equally flawed. 

As at least one local church has figured out, pastoral training can and should take place in the context of a local church, with local oversight from elders who provide wisdom, guidance, and care. There is a way to raise up men for ministry that doesn’t require financial stupidity or the breaking of the family. 

Second, churches need to organize themselves as places welcoming to young ministers and their families. Pay generously. Provide support rather than constant criticism and complaining. Set guidelines for reasonable hours and create opportunities for the pastor and his family to find refreshment, retreat, and care to take place. Offer educational alternatives to young men other than seminary. View ministers and their wives as those in need of the fellowship of the body, as much as anyone else there. In other words, stop using and abusing them, but view them as souls in need of care. 

Consider Paul’s words: 

“17Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5) 

Third, churches need to deal with their longstanding sin issues, today. Too many older pastors and elders leave off dealing with the inevitable nuclear-disaster issues in the church because they don’t want to be around for the fallout. It’s pure cowardice and selfishness. Please realize, all you’re doing is dumping your mess—the one you failed to take responsibility for and the one God will hold you personally accountable for—on the next man. Generational sins accumulate, snowball, and pick up speed. 

Fourth, to the older pastor, work on a succession plan. Work on long-term transition. Seek to raise up young men, disciple them, and pass on your wisdom. You have a voice with the current church the young man won’t, so use it for good. Labor diligently to make the church an environment you’d gladly pass on to the younger version of yourself when you entered the ministry. 

Eric

8 comments

  • Thanks Eric, concerning your solutions I would add that it all starts with the elders! E.g. Your solutions expect the same caustic/cowardly elder board to be making the church a welcoming place for pastors!! Rathert ahn the senior pastor drawing up a plan for helping young men go into the ministry, that should be the elder board’s job—otherwise you are just heaping more work on the pastor. Unfortunately, the only way the elder board will change is for either the pastor to take some hits or for some of the board’s more spiritually mature members to take some hits by working from within. I’d also suggest some mandatory form of practical theology training for elders—like on the job continuous development.

    • Ian, excellent point, and I’m in agreement with you. Biblical eldership is essential, because they should have massive amounts of input on these issues. As I said in the article, many of the churches aren’t healthy and don’t have biblical eldership, which is a huge part of the problem. Thanks, Eric.

  • Very insightful. I concur with both your diagnosis and prognosis. I could share my experience but am certain there is no shortage of war stories that illustrate the gravity of this situation.

  • Solid observation and thinking, and your four-point prescription is helpful. As a second-generation pastor, I’ve seen firsthand most of the things you’re describing. It particularly galls me that churches want their clergy educated like lawyers or psychologists, and then want to pay them McDonald’s wages. Serfdom works, but only when the serfs can’t walk away, as churches are now discovering.

    One thing I’d add that makes the prognosis a bit less gloomy: the Barna survey doesn’t seem to be taking account of bivocational ministry — and there’s an awful lot of it around. At my last traditional church assignment, the entire staff was bivocational. My current assignment is a church largely composed of homeless people, which is about as financially sustainable as it sounds like, and so I remain bivocational.

    I don’t think full-time pastorates are all going the way of the dodo, but I strongly suspect that the future of ministry in the US is largely bivocational. Part of the reason for that is the churlish behavior on the part of churches that you described above — don’t nobody want to put all his eggs in that basket, for sure. But part of it is that the money, such as it is, is largely tied to legacy models of ministry that don’t effectively reach beyond the people who are already churched. These are talked about as “traditional” church ministries, but anybody with a nodding acquaintance with church history (or even just the book of Acts) knows there’s more to the traditional picture than that.

    • Tim,

      Really, really insightful, thank you! I think you’re exactly right about bi-vocational ministry and the changing model of church ministry as a whole. I’d love to see these themes teased out. Anything you’ve read that has been helpful along these lines?

      I also think the mistreatment of pastors in America is along the same lines as the OT people of God and their killing of the prophets. It’s not a swift execution, per se, but it is certainly a rejection of God’s presence and word among the people, a slow death. This could be a part of the judgment coming upon this nation. As the traditional church rejects God, there’s always a turning to the Gentiles, the outcast, those with open hearts and, as Advent points out, the Light comes to shine on the ones sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.

      • Eric,
        I agree with you on the mistreatment and its consequences for the traditional churches. I’m seeing the light shine in some very interesting places here; we live in an odd time where a man called to a ministry of reconciliation might find himself with more friends among the pagans than among the church. Or maybe not so odd — John went into the desert to baptize, not to the mikvot that were all over Jerusalem. Jesus got a better reception from the hookers and drunks than the clergy. (And neither of them were mealy-mouthed about the sins of the folks they were with, either.) Nothing new under the sun….
        As far as other writers on this, I’m not sure what to recommend other than a careful reading of Acts and 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15. Most of the writing on bivocational ministry assumes that it’s a temporary, necessary evil that happily recedes in the rearview mirror as you work your way up the career ladder. It’s all very encouraging to careerist seminarians, but I don’t find it all that applicable to my life.
        Mike Breen did a good bit on the “bivocational stigma” in one of his books, and (if you’ll pardon the shameless self-promotion) you can find my take on it here: https://fullcontactchristianity.org/2013/03/24/being-bi/ Since I wrote that, God has led me into a much more integrated life. Today, the four skills/roles on which my livelihood depends (martial arts instructor, minister, massage therapist, Trauma Touch therapist) merge pretty seamlessly into a life devoted to reconciliation and spiritual healing — but in the language we’ve inherited from legacy ministry models, I’m “bivocational” because I don’t have a single income stream from a church. We need a better way of talking about this.
        By the way, I’ve another post on the subject going up this Friday, riffing on your post here. (Thank you for the inspiration!)

      • Upon reflection, my post from 2013 is pretty whiny. I think my take on the stigma was/is descriptively correct, but it seems obvious in hindsight that I still cared back then.
        There’s something really glorious about getting to the point where you no longer care that people don’t think it’s “a success” — whatever that means to them. Took me a long while.

        One of the young men I’m discipling just finished his M.Div. and has chosen to be bivocational from the very beginning. Hasn’t got a trace of shame about it, God bless him; God called him to it, he knows it, and he’s jumping in with a will. (And at great personal cost, too — he forfeited about $15K in grant money when he chose not to go into conventional full-time ministry.)
        May God give us many more like him!

  • Eric,

    Great piece. I think it is important to point out that older pastors aren’t giving up their positions, whether due to lack of retirement funds or what not.
    I also wonder if churches understand how inflated tuition costs have gotten on degrees. Whatever the church’s kids or grandkids pay for public college, they should assume the pastor paid more than that for their bible and seminary training.

Submit a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *