A Post for Congregations Seeking New Pastors (And a Trend I’ve Noticed)

Age is just a number, and yet many pastors slow down after serving in professional ministry for 30+ years.  We are tired . . . unless we find these 21st Century ministry shifts to be exciting and gratifying, and we are committed to un-learning much of what we learned in seminary back in the 1970s -1990s.

Even a 30 year old pastor can offer tired leadership and a 60+ year old pastor can offer energized leadership.  It just depends. I’m talking about generalities here.

I wrote this post five years ago and unfortunately it hurt the feelings of some of my 60-something colleagues.  Some called it an example of age-ism.

As you read today’s post you might accuse me of being unfair to pastors under 40.  But here goes . . .

As I talk with leaders all over the country – mostly in my own denomination – I’m seeing an interesting trend: some congregations who have called “young pastors” have regretted it.

[Please note:  This doesn’t mean that all young pastors are ineffective.  It doesn’t mean that all churches you’ve called young pastor are dissatisfied. It means that congregations and the youngest generation of pastors often have different expectations for ministerial leadership.]

Over the past 10 years or so, most of the congregations I’ve worked with have sought out pastors in their 30s or early forties to be their solo pastor/senior pastor in hopes that a young leader will attract other young people with young kids.  Here is what they have found (and again, these are generalizations):

  • Parenting has changed just as much as congregations have changed.  Younger generations of parents are less willing to sacrifice their families for their careers.  They are seeking a little more balance, and this often conflicts with congregations who expect their pastors to be available every weekend and most nights.
  • Younger pastors want to Get Things Done in a way that makes some congregations feel uncomfortable.  Most denominational congregations have entrenched cultures that makes change difficult.  It takes a long time – sometimes a decade –  to build trust and relationships before the culture can be identified and shifted even an inch.

Although members of Gen X and Gen Y have been patiently waiting for Baby Boomers to retire, I’m seeing Pastor Nominating Committees look for seasoned pastors who know how to shift the culture of traditional churches.  Those pastors look like the older generation of members, and yet they have 21st Century Ministry chops.

I believe that the most effective professional ministers of any age have these things:

  1. The tools to shift a congregation from a mid-20th Century culture to a 21st Century culture for the sake of the Gospel.  They ask the “why?” questions.  They model relationships over regulations.  They remind everybody that the church is not a club; it’s a community that exists to be Christ in the world.
  2. Good boundaries.  No pastor should be working every day and every night.  A healthy pastor has friends outside the congregation. A healthy pastor equips others to do ministry rather than doing it all themselves.
  3. Emotional intelligence.  Being able to interact with a wide variety of human beings is essential.  Healthy pastors are not moody, egotistical, bullying or controlling. On most days.

Especially for those churches whose pastors are now retiring at the age of 70-something after serving for multiple decades, it might seem tempting to call a 32 year old pastor next.  Chances are, though, that the resulting jolt might too dramatic for that pastor to be successful – no matter how gifted they are.

I suggest that after a long term pastorate with a retiring pastor, some congregations seek out seasoned pastors with energy who know how to lead the church into 21st Century ministry.  Maybe those leaders are 40-something and maybe they are 60-something.  It totally depends on who that pastor is.

Interesting enough, I’ve heard of several congregations over the past year who have called and installed 65 year old pastors, ostensibly five years from retirement.  Hmm.  That could work for several reasons . . . and it could be a longish buffer between the old way of being the church and a new way of being the church which will prime the congregation for calling a 30 or 40-something pastor in five years.

Would love your comments, even if this post makes you angry.

Image source here.

15 responses to “A Post for Congregations Seeking New Pastors (And a Trend I’ve Noticed)

  1. You speak truth. I think it’s important to read the previous order you quote also, for context.

    One observation, not a value judgment: it seems to me that ministry professionals now have an appreciation of the pastor’s work as a job, when previous generations perhaps thought of it as a call. A job is something one does, if one is fortunate, 40 hours a week. A call is 24×7. Maybe call is not the word I’m looking for here (given its technical use by the Presbytery), but many people have the experience of being “on call” (carrying a pager – oy, I’m old).

    Thank you for your blog, and please keep writing.

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    • I hope comparing “work” and “call” aren’t actually the comparison you want to make. I’m 35, have been serving my congregation (1st call) for almost 7 yrs., and all of my contemporaries and I absolutely view our ministry as a call. We’re all working more hours than what’s listed in our Terms of Call. Ministry is 24/7. Period. I have small children and have taken them along on visits or emergency calls on my days off because that’s the CALL. And I am far from alone. Every young clergyperson I know – especially the young clergy women – do this.

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  2. I’m in the vortex of exceptions: I’m an older Boomer whose first call began when I was almost 69, enthusiastic about and trained for the 21st-century church. Congregation has no interest in being a 21st-century church (they criticize me for my training and enthusiasm), and if they could have what they want, would return to mid-20th-century.

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  3. You are right on. I have been ordained since 1985 – the things I learned in seminary only apply in a foundational way. I have worked to have young colleague relationships, to be versed in new ways of being churched and to be inspired by out of the box thinking. When I say to older parishioners that the ways “of being church” that I learned decades ago are no longer relevant, I have more credibility since I have same longevity as them. When I lovingly provide empathy regarding their confusion but also speak to new ways they understand that I have walked the walk

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  4. I call it Blockbuster vs. Netflix. I went to seminary in a Blockbuster world and now minister in a Netflix world. When I share that with someone and they assume that means I want screens in the sanctuary, I think, “Ah, what Blockbuster seminary did you attend?”

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  5. To be honest, Jan, this is really frustrating to read, especially being a young woman pastoring in the PC(USA). Yes, there are plenty of churches out there who, while they may proclaim they’re seeking a pastor who can help them change, don’t actually have any desire to change. But in presenting/addressing it in this way, it feels like you’re making that out to be the fault of us “youngsters” as opposed to a sign of an unhealthy congregation. Likewise, it feels like those of us who are trying to establish healthy boundaries for the sake of our families and our own personal sanity/well-being are being faulted — like we’re not dedicated enough or engaged enough because we’re young when in actuality, we’ve just seen how unhealthy and detrimental clergy overwork and burnout can be to individuals and families and congregations. Millennials are supposedly lazy and lacking work ethic. It’s millennials’ fault that Applebee’s is “dying.” And apparently we’re not appropriate for the majority of church ministry simply because of our age. Hmm.

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  6. Much of what you say resonates.
    And… most of these pastoral relationships fail, not primarily because of the “young” pastor, but because we simply cannot continue doing church in the same way, and churches simply put to many expectations on their new pastor, and not enough on themselves. “We want change. We want to be more relevant. We want to focus on Social Justice. We want young families, and children.” So long as not to much is expected of us. It doesn’t cost more money, and we don’t have to change. Keep liturgy the same, music the same, dress code the same. Sure you can call an older pastor, ready for retirement to keep the status quo. But when your last 80 something member dies, or moves to a nursing home, let the pastor know you expect him to turn off the lights and lock the door…

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  7. Pingback: Yes, It’s a Call – And . . . | A Church for Starving Artists

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  9. Thanks for this blogpost. I have served in pastoral ministry for more than 29 years as a Head of Staff or as a solo pastor. During that time I’ve picked up experience and education, and a tremendous amount of preaching. Yet I am now sometimes dismissed for my age. Sometimes churches are calling young pastors for HOS positions, because they are young and have served as associate pastors in large congregations. Sometimes that works out well. Other times these young pastors are not prepared for the shock of preaching weekly and supervising staff. Sometimes an “old” pastor might be a better choice.

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