Pastors are getting older, and this has important implications for the future of the church. In partnership with Pepperdine University, Barna conducted a major study into how today’s faith leaders are navigating life and leadership in an age of complexity. The State of Pastors study—revealed at a Pepperdine event earlier this year—examined the shifting demographic of faith leaders, and the cultural forces responsible for the dramatic changes.
When George Barna published his 1992 findings in Today’s Pastors, the median age of Protestant clergy was 44 years old. 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.
The upward climb did not begin in the 1990s. 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.
There are numerous reasons for this well-documented trend, and it may be impossible to know which are the biggest factors. At the most basic level, people are living longer: Average life expectancy for men in 1968 was 66 years old; today it’s 76. 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.
On the other end of the age spectrum, an insufficient number of young would-be pastors is likely a factor, too. A majority of current pastors say even finding future leaders—much less mentoring them—is a challenge. Two out of three current pastors believe identifying suitable candidates is becoming more difficult (69%), even though a majority believes their church is doing what it takes (69%).
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. 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.
All these factors and more are contributing to the “graying” of America’s clergy—a phenomenon with 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. 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.
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. 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?
What the Research Means
“The aging of pastors represents a substantial crisis for Protestant churches,” says David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group. “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 kind of social research Barna conducts cannot answer why this shift has occurred,” continues Kinnaman. “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.
“It’s not inherently a problem that there are older pastors in positions of leadership,” says Kinnaman. “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 it’s best, it needs intergenerational leaders to move it forward.
“Some of the solutions to the crisis,” concludes Kinnaman, “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.”
About the Research
This study was conducted on behalf of Pepperdine University. A total of 900 Protestant senior pastors were interviewed by telephone and online from April through December 2015. Pastors were recruited from publicly available church listings covering 90 percent of U.S. churches that have a physical address and a listed phone number or email address. Churches selected for inclusion were called up to five times at different times of the day to increase the probability of successful contact. The sample error for this study is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.
Interviews with U.S. adults included 1,025 web-based surveys conducted among a representative sample of adults over the age of 18 in each of the 50 United States. The survey was conducted in April and May of 2015. The sampling error for this study is plus or minus 3 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.
Barna research is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2017