Generation Wars in Church

I am 56 years old.  My retirement date is closer than my ordination date.  I could no more serve as a youth group leader than I could wear a leather mini-skirt in public.  Even if I could pull off the mini skirt, it would look ridiculous and be wholly inappropriate, just as it would be for me to start a church in a trendy bar.

And yet, I still remember being the 30-something pregnant pastor.  I remember always being the youngest pastor – and often the only woman –  in interfaith leader gatherings.  I remember what it was like to work part-time in a church while raising three kids under the age of four.  I have tried to stay fresh, read current books, keep informed through conferences and conversations, learn from seminarians.

But I see a trend  that older pastors (meaning every pastor older than 50 and especially those over 70) and younger pastors (the 20-40 somethings) are clearly engaged in a huge mutual disconnect.  I see this especially here:

  • In yesterday’s news my denomination’s Board of Pensions proposed
    a new health care dues structure that makes health care much more expensive for pastors with children starting in 2014 while continuing to give incentives for postponing retirement.
  • In Boundary Training events when older pastors and younger pastors clearly hold different understandings of who is vulnerable in clergy-parishioner relationships and why.  Say “boundary issues” in a room full of pastors and individuals have a much different idea of what this means, depending on generation.  (Example:  For the older generations of pastors, it was perfectly normal to marry a parishioner.  For younger generations, this would be considered misconduct.)
  • In preaching that finds many older pastors still proclaiming the Word with three points and a poem while younger pastors experiment with new forms of proclaiming the Good News, often involving dialogue, art, and group spiritual direction.
  • In what it means to be a pastor in general.  Older pastors are more likely to spend their time at their desks preparing sermons and classes, doing pastoral care, and moderating meetings while younger pastors are more likely to focus on missional outreach and equipping others to do ministry.

There are older pastors – mostly men – who have given their lives and energies to serve the institutional church during the glory days of the mainline denominations.  They were respected in the community and they have been doing ministry for a long time.

There are younger pastors who are serving – or trying to serve –  a church that, for many in our postmodern culture, is obsolete,  flailing, and shifting.  Many young pastors have school loans, and there are few possibilities in terms of available calls, especially calls that are open to creative ministry for a new season of Church.

I remember in serving my last church that it was very much like serving two different congregations.  There was the church that expected ministry from me like the ministry they had experienced for the majority of their lives.  And there was the church for people who had been hurt by the church, had never been part of the church, and who would never walk through the door of a traditional church.  Today serving in a Middle Judicatory (in my case a Presbytery), I serve two sets of pastors and two sets of churches.  There are the churches who want a pastor who preaches, teaches, baptizes, buries, and visits the sick.  And there are pastors who know how to do this, both with and without enthusiasm.

And then there are the (rare) churches who want a pastor to lead them into the 21st Century, to equip them to be ministers, to teach them not so that they are smarter but so their faith is deeper, who train others to do pastoral care, and who spend more time out in the community than in their church buildings.  There are especially younger pastors who long to do this usually with great passion.

So here we are.

I believe that both kinds of pastors are faithful and good.  But our church has got to focus on the future.  What do we imagine for our churches over the next ten to twenty years?  And how might the older generations make way for the younger generations to lead?

Mosaic includes images of some of the generational rock stars of the Christian Church.  (And there are countless others.)

30 responses to “Generation Wars in Church

  1. I hear the anxiety and frustration in this post, but I find the playing off of older and younger pastors against each other disappointing. We are not each other’s enemies. And you’ve stereotyped approaches to ministry that don’t fit a good many pastors of any generation. That’s especially disappointing. Let’s be honest here. There’s been a sea change in religion and in how everyone views church and institutional life in general in society. No one’s to blame for that. Passion to lead the church into the 21st century is not defined by generational cohort. Many of us on the sunny side of 50 retain our passion for ministry. But it’s not just about serving the church. It’s about being witnesses to the in-breaking kingdom of God, of which the church is sign, foretaste and instrument. God did not send Jesus into the world to save the church, but because God loved the world enough to see it changed and us with it. Is ours a world-loving, world transforming, world challenging, world shaking faith? It used to be said “you are so heavenly minded you are no earthly good.’ I wonder. Are we so churchly minded, we are no earthly good? The days of ministry as a career and a profession are rapidly ending, and I often see myself as part of the last generation to see it so. We’ll now find out whether the “priesthood of the believer” really does distinguish our reformed faith or not.


    • Hi Hart – Although I used the word “war,” this describes the conflict between cultures not between particular pastors. No one is to blame. It’s no one’s fault that the culture has changed. But we do – as a church – need to change the way we lead in ministry. My concern, honestly, is when we peg each other because of age. As I said, I am an older pastor, but I don’t write off younger pastors. In fact, I crave conversations with them. I don’t write off the oldest pastors either. My concern is that we need to understand each generation. The truth is that there are things I can no longer do because of who I am (i.e. my age) and I need to do everything in my power to encourage, equip, and make way for younger pastors to do them.

      There is indeed a war in that I see pastors who don’t want to understand each other in the effort to move forward into being a healthier church for a new culture. All generations seems to have a sense of economic anxiety which colors how we do ministry. Too many retirement-age pastors cannot afford to retire (but don’t seem interested in shifting their churches’ cultures so that the next generation will not find a tired, ineffective congregation.) And too many new/young pastors cannot afford to serve tiny churches that have not made the 21st Century shifts and therefore cannot be sustained.

      Thanks for your comments. They are important.


    • I think the author is trying to compare two concepts at the same time: how the institutional church is dealing with Emergence and how the pastorate is dealing with it. Perhaps it is too simple to weave them together, but I think there is honesty to speak of the “old guard” influencing the way the church has been for their tenure. My own experience in ordained ministry has been to see great difficulty in being an emergent in a modernist church. But just as difficult is being surrounded by pastors who are unprepared to recognize my own gifts for ministry as important.

      A couple of years ago, I was personally invited by the bishop to preach to our retired clergy during Holy Week. I worked hard to preach both an engaging and theological sermon, knowing that would be needed for this gathering. Afterward, several people commented that I’d make a great youth minister (which, let’s be honest is both a complement and a dig depending on who is saying it, and it was more like the latter). One of the Bishop’s staff piped up and said “he makes a great minister for everybody.”

      My point in this is to say that there is normal inter-generational warfare, but this isn’t that. And my biggest trouble as a GenXer pastor is dealing with expectations that I believe are outdated, and worse, don’t match my strengths or interests. And these expectations come from many directions, including the other clergy; particularly those skeptical that there is anything different in this age from any other.


  2. Thank you for the thoughtful post. May I trouble you to caption the mosaic, please? Have no idea who each of these ‘superstars’ are and would be interesting to find out.


  3. I agree with the previous poster that the brush strokes are broad. I do resonate with the idea that models of ministry vary and we are definitely seeing majors shifts. Personally, I’m a “second career pastor” barely north of fifty and find my days are filled with attempts to do things new ways. Much of the time I remain tired, discouraged and perplexed. I’d like to hear a dialogue between you and the first person who posted (H.E,)


  4. Health care dues? Really? I do not see the separation at all. What this person describes has been there all along.


  5. I am new to the pastorate but “older” in age. However, I would put myself more in the experimental, missional camp. My young adult children and their friends DO NOT WANT church as it always was. They are more likely to sit and talk with us about Jesus at a bar or in a coffee shop. They are far less likely to get up early on a Sunday morning to have Sunday School and Church. (Both with capital letters because they are, you know, Sacred.)


    So yes, I work as a chaplain with no benefits, praying that my husband keeps his job and his benefits! And I care for a flock that is hurting, wounded and many times completely disassociated with a local church, or the church of their youth.

    It’s time to think about where and how and what this new wineskin of “Church” should be.


    • New wine=skins thought. Ask yourself, “What evil troubles me most?
      What bothers me most about life in general? About my life in particular? About the world around me right now. You can find meaning, a future, and a call to mission/ministry by focusing on what troubles you about the way the world is right now. Purpose is an answer to evil or to suffering or an answer to the meaninglessness around us. And then we need to ask as well, is the church part of the answer or a part of the problem. And what is to be done about that right now. What am I willing to do? For me it has meant joining in a network of efforts and relationships here in Cincinnati to address issues of poverty, hunger, homelessness and calling the church to face its poverty of imagination. We are a dying church, but we are also a birth-giving church and faith. And it has always been this way.


  6. Ι disagree with the above reply. I feel like the author is trying to actually open a conversation about how we bridge our differences. I work in a church where these “stereotypes” are almost exactly true. The head pastor has three point sermons which he writes at a desk in between visitations and funerals. I on the other hand spend most of my time engaging the community in outreach, training members to become disciples, working with non-Christians in the community. The older folks in the congregation gush about how great the senior pastor is (they are right btw) and I’m the first phone call many folks under 50 make when they want to talk. We work so well together because we each do the type of ministry that interests us. We are, however, in a very unique situation where we serve a large church which can afford both of us. What about churches that cannot? Is there a way that we could take the strengths of both generations (stereotypically speaking) and create sustainable ways to minister to our congregations? What if pastors actively sought working relationships with other pastors who would compliment their style? What if they shared ministries across churches? I could see some amazing mentoring opportunities. How could Presbyteries (middle judiciaries?) foster and encourage such relationships?


  7. Reblogged this on katyandtheword and commented:
    And then there are the (rare) churches who want a pastor to lead them into the 21st Century, to equip them to be ministers, to teach them not so that they are smarter but so their faith is deeper, who train others to do pastoral care, and who spend more time out in the community than in their church buildings. There are especially younger pastors who long to do this usually with great passion.


  8. Good conversation going here. Again, I don’t see the problem as generational differences between pastors. Of course there are things an older pastor can’t do in the same way, which also applies to younger pastors. What’s surprising about that? There are a variety of gifts and experiences that the Spirit employs. On this All Saints Sunday, we should each appreciate how the saints have blessed us.
    Personally, I feel honored that a younger pastor in this presbytery invited me to be his mentor because he felt we had a lot of things in common. And he felt I wasn’t a colleague who felt he knew it all. I don’t! And yes, I do recall what it felt like to be dismissed as a young pastor by those who presumed to know it all. There’s an ongoing need for the conversion of the church without question.


  9. As a soon to be 44 year old I feel as if I’m pulled in two different directions every day.


  10. Let’s face it. We’re at a hinge time of the church’s life, what Phyllis Tickle refers to as a giant rummage sale that occurs about every 500 years, and lots of things are in flux. This is a time for un-learning how to be church and people of faith, just as much as it is a time to learn. No one has the answers. It’s the Age of the Spirit as Harvey Cox has written about, along with many others. My own feeling is that we are more concerned with institutional survival than we are in pursuing God’s mission in the world. We just aren’t going to be able to save the church institution. Ministry is the call to those who are hungry for food that satisfies and for an experience of God that nurtures body, soul and spirit. Once that becomes our focus, then we may have some thoughts about varied forms of embodiment that make that possible. And really, this is not the first time in history that passing on faith from one generation to another has been frought with dangers as well as possibilities. The church in North America hasn’t suffered very much up until now and we thought we were successful. That illusion is being stripped away~


    • “The church in North America hasn’t suffered very much up until now and we thought we were successful. That illusion is being stripped away~”

      We are not really suffering now in most ways. I see this as an exciting time to be part of the church (said the person whose salary depends upon the per capita payments of churches.) Still – both because I am kind of a Pollyanna and I am strangely faithful that God will win so we will ultimately win.

      Hart – love your comments.


  11. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Jan. How do we focus on the future faithfully? I refer to your piece on tomorrow, hoping to continue the conversation…


  12. Yes, there are differences between the generations. However, we still are an institutional church from top to bottom, and throughout, that is reflective of our generation (I’m 59 yrs. old) not their generation. Our governing councils, seminaries, and programmatic endeavors are rooted in 20th century conceptions of organizations. We must work with what we have, and create the alternatives that will be there when future changes come. i am encouraged by the new initiatives that I see, like “For a Time Such as This” and “1001 Worshiping Communities”. But they are just the start to what is needed.

    Presently, I’m having conversations with people about possible changes in the tax exempt status of churches, especially as it relates to property, and in changes in the tax code that will affect the deductibility of member donations. It isn’t a question of whether this will happen, but what form it will take. Both political parties have their eye on the vast financial resources that churches and non-profits take in. It leads me to the conclusion that much of our generation’s attitude toward the church has been influenced by the tax code. We will see if we can adapt to a very different church when financial support carries less deductibility or none at all.

    I’m just not certain that either generation fully grasps the changes that are coming. The differences between the generations are less important than what we share in common. Being clear about commonality will enable the church to adapt to a very different context for the church in the future. I remain hopeful that we can do this. I am because of what I see in the younger generation of pastoral leadership that I see coming into the church. I see them as my mentors for the future of the church. And I’m grateful for their willingness to help me learn.


    • The voice of wisdom. Thanks, Ed.


    • Ed, your post indicated to me why there is this “generational war” going on. My guess is that my generation (Millennial) could care less about the tax code changes coming. Something will either be worth giving to or it will not be. In fact, if my generation gave it much thought, we’d probably be pretty angry that the donation to the church is a tax break because that person owns a home and can deduct their mortgage (exceeding the standard deduction), while our gift to the church is not tax deductible because we rent (and therefore do not exceed the standard deduction).

      As such, whenever there are these conversations going on in our congregations and meetings, we run for the hills. They have no relevance either to our lives or to the kingdom.


      • Tim, a couple of questions.
        Why would you be angry at someone receiving a tax deduction for their contribution to the church because they own their home?

        I can understand why the tax code question is irrelevant to you personally. I believe it is to a majority of church people. Why is it also irrelevant to the Kingdom? That is not clear to me.


  13. “On Tuesday morning, I got the call that Kennedy had been born and everyone was doing well. At eleven I gathered with family and friends to celebrate Clara Mae’s life as we grieved her passing…”


    “…Nascent church plants need wise and skilled midwives. Congregations that would rather see the church (as they have known it) die than change need hospice chaplains. Most existing churches need someone who can do both: mourn dying ministries and support those who are birthing new and faithful possibilities. I think transformation requires discernment about what is dying and what is being born and transformational leaders must to attend to both.”


  14. Susan, thank you. This is a contemporary complement to Ecclesiastes 3:1-15.
    To Marcia’s list, I’d an alternative view of facilitator. There is a sort of mediator role to pastoral ministry now as people shift from consumers of church life to creators, participants and contributors to it. I see 21st century leaders being less authority figures, less delegator, less in control, and more the convener of community, the storyteller who visualizes values and mission, and the facilitator of others leadership. It is a big shift.


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  16. Again, I maintain the issue before us is not generational conflict, although I am curious about how we Presbyterians almost always want to focus our debates on the internal dynamics of church life as the source of our identified problem. And we won’t find to many people objecting to our making pastors -both young and old – the identified problem. It’s always a temptation as Ed Friedman remarked to blame the church’s struggles on “pilot error”, the pilot being the pastor. My own concern is that there is a paucity of efforts to equip both pastors and congregations in the call to transformation in our day. The issue before us is what does it mean to follow a missionary God in our day. Often for Presbyterians, this has meant a revision to our manual of operations or Book of Order. Who didn’t hear the promise that our latest Book of Order revision would unleash a mighty force of missional energy? Yes, that’s an ironic question.

    While I do believe there are many younger pastors wanting to help congregations find their way into the 21st c., what we fail to do is provide support for the dangerous territory to be negotiated. Far too many pastors crash and burn in this effort, and very few judicatories have either the know how or the commitment to supporting pastors and congregations with the inevitable conflicts that follow a change effort. In fact, over the course of my own career, I”ve seen judicatory leaders abandon pastors and congregations when the tough issues of change are faced. Maybe that accounts for the average tenure of pastors being less than 4 years across denominational lines. Do we really think younger pastors are immune to this? Rather than generational warfare, I’d much prefer imagining a common purpose for the church’s missional call in today’s world that is filled with both danger and opportunity. We might find God in the world waiting for us to join in the redemption of all creation.


  17. The PCUSA doesn’t have 20 years. Duh.


  18. Maybe not, but then your framing of concern is rather narrow. It’s God’s mission in the world that should focus our attention and not the survival of particular institutions. In light of God’s mission, what does 20 years mean anyway?


    • The distinction between God’s mission in the world and the survival of church institutions is a false conflict. The organization of any mission comes with some form of institutionalism, otherwise there is no continuity and no strength to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of any missional enterprise.
      The more important question is how can we align God’s mission and the mission of institutions. Doing this requires that the institution serves the mission, not vice-versa. Or they have been split apart and treated as separate aspects of the institution.
      If the institution is aligned with God’s mission, then the question remains what does that look like? My contention is that every institutional and denominational form are products of the 19th and 20th centuries and are ill-suited for a genuinely missional approach. That leaves us with the question of what is that institutional structure that is needed to bring fulfillment to God’s mission in the world.
      I think we are very far away from having that discussion.


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