The Pastoral Succession Crisis Is Only Getting More Complicated
Barna research suggests that many older pastors are doing a pretty good job of preparing themselves for the finish line.
Unfortunately, our research from The Resilient Pastor series also suggests that churches are struggling to set up a new generation for leadership as the older one prepares to step aside, something we’ll explore further in this article.
Most Clergy Agree It’s Getting Harder to Find Young Christians Who Want to Become Pastors
In Barna’s 2017 report on The State of Pastors, we explored the “greying of the clergy”—confirming that most U.S. pastors are in the later stages of life and career. This pattern persists: As of 2022, only 16 percent of Protestant senior pastors are 40 years old or younger, and the average age among pastors is 52. As a generation of clergy ages and prepares to step down, it is not clear that churches are prepared for the transition. If this trend goes unaddressed, the Church in the U.S. will face a real succession crisis. Further, considering that younger pastors are already struggling with burnout at higher rates than their older colleagues are, the crisis is compounded and accelerating.
This may not come as a surprise. Barna’s data indicates that most pastors are worried about the future of pastoring. Three-quarters of pastors surveyed say they at least somewhat agree with the statement “It is becoming harder to find mature young Christians who want to be pastors,” and 71 percent at least somewhat agree with the statement “I am concerned about the quality of future Christian leaders.”
These are all seemingly problems of the future—and like all such problems, it’s tempting to deal with them another day. Unfortunately, the data suggest the Church doesn’t have much time. The average pastor says they’re about 17 years from when they’d ideally like to retire, and one-quarter of pastors is hoping to retire within the next seven years.
Compared to 2015, Churches Today Are Less Likely to Prioritize Developing Future Leaders
In Barna’s Leadership Transitions report, we found that a successful transition depends on multiple factors like transparent communication, staff harmony and a sense of unity between the leadership and the congregation. “Evidence of good communication, especially between a church’s leadership and congregation, is the single biggest factor in a smooth leadership transition—and the inverse is often true as well,” says Barna Group CEO David Kinnaman. “We see over and over that the best emotions, decisions and outcomes of a leadership transition are associated with churches that communicate well throughout the process.”
Clearly defined, well-communicated transition plans and team unity take time and resources, which might explain why many churches struggle to implement them effectively. More than half of pastors (54%) disagree with the statement “my church puts a significant priority on training and developing the next generation of leaders”—a 22 percent increase since 2015. Four in five pastors (79%) agree that “churches aren’t rising to their responsibilities to train up the next generation of Christian leaders.” In short, one reason the next generation of Christians is unprepared for the challenges of leading a church may be that so few churches are preparing them.
Now, we don’t want to be too hard on the churches that have neglected to train the next generation of pastors. It’s not as if pastors don’t want to take time to train future leaders of the Church; only 7 percent of pastors surveyed say developing a leadership pipeline isn’t a high personal priority. But pastors have a lot going on, and it’s very easy to prioritize the urgent over the truly important. While 38 percent of pastors say that developing a leadership pipeline is a “top personal priority,” 40 percent say they’ve thought about the need but just “have too many other ministry concerns.” Meanwhile, 14 percent of pastors say they’ve delegated the job to others.
In short, while most pastors agree that developing a solid succession plan is important, not every pastor feels like they have the time to do anything about it.
Right now, the future of Christian leadership in the U.S. is unclear. Passing the baton will take more effort than we are currently seeing from most churches. It’s essential that their plans stem not only from a desire to honor seasoned departing leaders, but also from an informed understanding of the emerging generation and a proactive vision to produce resilient pastors.
Barna data has shown that these baton-passing moments can be a negative or mixed experience for churchgoers. But when you lead with an eventual transition in mind, you can prime your church for a healthy, impactful future. That’s why we’ve teamed up with Glenn Packiam, Rich Villodas and Tara Beth Leach to host a free webinar called “The Succession Plan: Why Every Pastor Needs One (And 3 Ways You Can Start One Today).”
This webinar takes place on September 20, at 1PM ET. Register here and join us to explore more data and hear expert insights that will help you strengthen the succession plan at your church.
About the Research
2015 data: Barna conducted 901 interviews with Protestant senior pastors in the U.S. between April and December 2015. The interviews were conducted through a mix of online and phone. Quotas were set to ensure representation by denomination, church size and region. Minimal statistical weighting was applied to maximize representation and the margin of error is +/- 3.1% at the 95% confidence level.
2022 data: Barna conducted 585 online interviews with Protestant senior pastors in the U.S. from September 6–16, 2022. Quotas were set to ensure representation by denomination, church size and region and oversampling was conducted to reach female senior pastors. Minimal statistical weighting was applied to maximize representation and the sample error is +/- 3.8% at the 95% confidence level.
© Barna Group, 2023.
Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.
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