More young people going into the ministry

USA Today reports that, after decades of decline, more and more young adults are going into the ministry:

For years, churches across the USA have prayed that more young people would explore careers in ministry as a wave of Baby Boomer pastors prepares to retire. Now it seems their prayers are being answered.

For the past 10 years, the estimated median age of candidates for master of divinity degrees has fallen steadily, from 34.14 in 1999 to 32.19 in 2009, according to an analysis by the Center for the Study of Theological Education (CSTE) at Auburn Seminary. That marks a reversal: From 1989 to 1999, the estimated median age had climbed steadily from 31.4 to 34.14.

Denominations hail this new pattern as a positive sign now, as churches increasingly depend on aging leaders and struggle to attract parishioners under age 30.

“A pastor usually attracts persons 10 years above and below their own age range,” says Gail Ford Smith, director of the Center for Clergy Excellence at the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. “If you have a 27-year-old starting a new worship service, they’re going to attract people ages (17) to 37. That really does appeal to us if we’re trying to reach mission fields of those who’ve not yet been connected to God through Jesus Christ.”

Filling seminary halls with people in their 20s is hardly new. In the 1950s and early ’60s, most students were fresh out of college. But the 1980s and ’90s increasingly brought more men and women who had spent two or three decades in business or raising families. For churches, a young-adult face in the pulpit became a rarity.

Today, theological schools are seeing younger students enroll in M.Div. programs. At Denver Seminary, the average age has dropped from 43 in 2000 to 32 in 2010. At Duke Divinity School, it’s dropped from 29 in 2007 to 28 in 2010. At Yale Divinity School, the average incoming age declined from 31 in 2006 to 29 in 2010.

Several factors help explain the new trend. One is demographic: America has more twentysomethings now than 10 and 20 years ago as children of Baby Boomers come of age, says Mark Wilhelm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

CSTE director Barbara Wheeler speculates that this may reflect “cultural forces, turning back toward altruistic professions after turning away from them for a while. Maybe after the recession, making money doesn’t look so good and other kinds of satisfaction have more appeal.”

via More young adults heeding pastoral call – USATODAY.com.

This is about ages rather than numbers, so it isn’t clear if the number of seminarians as a whole is going up.  That’s what’s needed.  I’m somewhat skeptical of the claim that pastors tend to attract new members 10-years-on-either side of their own age.  (Can any of you confirm or refute that?)  Still, this is surely good news.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    Two things:

    An inside source informs me that enrollment at the LCMS seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana is down for this year. Only one seminary among many, to be sure.

    Wasn’t Clint Eastwood’s priest in “Gran Torino” a refreshing break from the typical hollywood depiction of the clergy as basically dopey. This priest was both young and wise.

  • Pete

    Two things:

    An inside source informs me that enrollment at the LCMS seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana is down for this year. Only one seminary among many, to be sure.

    Wasn’t Clint Eastwood’s priest in “Gran Torino” a refreshing break from the typical hollywood depiction of the clergy as basically dopey. This priest was both young and wise.

  • WebMonk

    I suspect Dr. Veith has the right of it that the change in the median age is more of a result of the dropping enrollment rather than an increase in the numbers of young students.

    I don’t have any numbers to back up that suspicion, but I have seen lots and lots of changing averages and medians in other situations when there are various populations dropping out from a situation.

  • WebMonk

    I suspect Dr. Veith has the right of it that the change in the median age is more of a result of the dropping enrollment rather than an increase in the numbers of young students.

    I don’t have any numbers to back up that suspicion, but I have seen lots and lots of changing averages and medians in other situations when there are various populations dropping out from a situation.

  • Carl Vehse

    This is about ages rather than numbers, so it isn’t clear if the number of seminarians as a whole is going up.

    Well, the USATODAY article is also about sex, in that 2 of the 3 young people mentioned as working toward becoming pastors were women, one of whom was shown in the article’s photo dressed in a t-shirt and shorts. And the other people quoted in the article were from institutions that promote or fund seminary enrollment.

    The article gave no information about churches that train and recognize only men as pastors, such as the Roman Church and the Lutheran churches of the Missouti Synod.

  • Carl Vehse

    This is about ages rather than numbers, so it isn’t clear if the number of seminarians as a whole is going up.

    Well, the USATODAY article is also about sex, in that 2 of the 3 young people mentioned as working toward becoming pastors were women, one of whom was shown in the article’s photo dressed in a t-shirt and shorts. And the other people quoted in the article were from institutions that promote or fund seminary enrollment.

    The article gave no information about churches that train and recognize only men as pastors, such as the Roman Church and the Lutheran churches of the Missouti Synod.

  • James T. Batchelor

    It’s nothing scientific, but I personally know many congregations of young people who dearly love their seventy year old pastors. I wonder if Gail Ford Smith has considered the relationship that grandkids have with grandparents.

  • James T. Batchelor

    It’s nothing scientific, but I personally know many congregations of young people who dearly love their seventy year old pastors. I wonder if Gail Ford Smith has considered the relationship that grandkids have with grandparents.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    I hope a few of them have the guts to stand up and preach Christ alone in an ever increasing climate of pluaralism and “tolerance” in churches.

    “More…”but more of what?

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    I hope a few of them have the guts to stand up and preach Christ alone in an ever increasing climate of pluaralism and “tolerance” in churches.

    “More…”but more of what?

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    “pluralism” (of course)

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    “pluralism” (of course)

  • Carl Vehse

    It is more likely these young pastors- and pastorettes-to-be will be trained NOT to do any missionary work especially in Islamic areas of the world.

    Thus, if they were to be killed by your run-of-the-mill Mohammadeans in, say, Afghanistan or Dearbornistan, they will at least gain the sympathy in clymer news reports expressing moral outrage over the killing of people on a strictly humanitarian cause, having nothing to do otherwise with, in the MSM view, the capital crime of “proselytizing Christianity.”

  • Carl Vehse

    It is more likely these young pastors- and pastorettes-to-be will be trained NOT to do any missionary work especially in Islamic areas of the world.

    Thus, if they were to be killed by your run-of-the-mill Mohammadeans in, say, Afghanistan or Dearbornistan, they will at least gain the sympathy in clymer news reports expressing moral outrage over the killing of people on a strictly humanitarian cause, having nothing to do otherwise with, in the MSM view, the capital crime of “proselytizing Christianity.”

  • Rev. Schroeder

    Is this reportage good news? I think it depends on the answer to the question: Is the Holy Ministry one of the “altruistic professions”? As I have seen and heard pastors from liberal Protestant seminaries, particularly the ELCA, the ministry is seen as one of “the helping professions”, almost like being a divine social worker, then, yes this reportage is encouraging. But if Ministry is understood Biblically as teaching and preaching the inerrant Word of God, administering His Sacraments to feed His lambs the Word and invite those who do not know Christ, then considering the state of many Protestant seminaries, the answer might be: I don’t think so.

  • Rev. Schroeder

    Is this reportage good news? I think it depends on the answer to the question: Is the Holy Ministry one of the “altruistic professions”? As I have seen and heard pastors from liberal Protestant seminaries, particularly the ELCA, the ministry is seen as one of “the helping professions”, almost like being a divine social worker, then, yes this reportage is encouraging. But if Ministry is understood Biblically as teaching and preaching the inerrant Word of God, administering His Sacraments to feed His lambs the Word and invite those who do not know Christ, then considering the state of many Protestant seminaries, the answer might be: I don’t think so.

  • JoeS

    My (limited) experience shows that the +/- 10 years idea is a solid trend, though not a hard and fast rule. I think that a major contributing factor is how many of the children are retained into adulthood. The issue is less the presence of youth ministry, rather it is more “how well does the youth ministry work in conjunction with the congregation at large.”

    If youth group is the only place kids feel they are at home and plugged in, they will not come back once they are too old for youth group. If the youth group is a tool of the congregation for instilling the gospel in students and plugging them in to areas they can serve (a supplement to the work of parents and pastor), they are more likely to feel that they are a part of the church as a whole and not just the youth group. I think this largely determines if the congregation is +/- 10 years of the pastor.

    Sorry if I wandered off topic.

  • JoeS

    My (limited) experience shows that the +/- 10 years idea is a solid trend, though not a hard and fast rule. I think that a major contributing factor is how many of the children are retained into adulthood. The issue is less the presence of youth ministry, rather it is more “how well does the youth ministry work in conjunction with the congregation at large.”

    If youth group is the only place kids feel they are at home and plugged in, they will not come back once they are too old for youth group. If the youth group is a tool of the congregation for instilling the gospel in students and plugging them in to areas they can serve (a supplement to the work of parents and pastor), they are more likely to feel that they are a part of the church as a whole and not just the youth group. I think this largely determines if the congregation is +/- 10 years of the pastor.

    Sorry if I wandered off topic.

  • DonS

    JoeS @ 9: That rings true to me, from my own experience.

  • DonS

    JoeS @ 9: That rings true to me, from my own experience.

  • sg

    Like most reports, it contains so little real data that it is completely useless for understanding. You would need tables with both absolute numbers and percentages listing men only to see the trends many of us would be interested in discussing.

  • sg

    Like most reports, it contains so little real data that it is completely useless for understanding. You would need tables with both absolute numbers and percentages listing men only to see the trends many of us would be interested in discussing.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Regarding the “ten years” rule of thumb, I would dare suggest that it’s a byproduct of our increasingly segregated (by age, not race) churches. I don’t know how it works among you Luterns, but in the evangelical/fundamental churches I know, the youth pastor is generally the guy just out of seminary getting some experience towards becoming a head pastor.

    Hence the “10 years rule” is simply, at least in my circles, just an expression of how we run our churches. The 30ish youth pastor reaches the youth, the 35ish family pastor reaches families of that age, and the 50ish senior pastor reaches the older folk. Self-fulfilling prophecy, really.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Regarding the “ten years” rule of thumb, I would dare suggest that it’s a byproduct of our increasingly segregated (by age, not race) churches. I don’t know how it works among you Luterns, but in the evangelical/fundamental churches I know, the youth pastor is generally the guy just out of seminary getting some experience towards becoming a head pastor.

    Hence the “10 years rule” is simply, at least in my circles, just an expression of how we run our churches. The 30ish youth pastor reaches the youth, the 35ish family pastor reaches families of that age, and the 50ish senior pastor reaches the older folk. Self-fulfilling prophecy, really.

  • Brian

    I attend two evangelical churches and the “ten years rule” does seem to have some merit. the 50-ish year old pastor has attracted a lot of people his age, including my parents. There is also a large group of teenagers who tag along with their middle-aged parents. The other church with its “lively” music and under 30 pastor gets an almost exclusively under 30 crowd of college students and young adults. I don’t think this is a healthy thing to be so age segregated, but each generation in the broader US has been developing their own tastes–sometimes in rebellion of the generation before. Therefore, they naturally gravitate towards the church which has the external trappings of the baby-boomers, Gen-Xers, and so on.

  • Brian

    I attend two evangelical churches and the “ten years rule” does seem to have some merit. the 50-ish year old pastor has attracted a lot of people his age, including my parents. There is also a large group of teenagers who tag along with their middle-aged parents. The other church with its “lively” music and under 30 pastor gets an almost exclusively under 30 crowd of college students and young adults. I don’t think this is a healthy thing to be so age segregated, but each generation in the broader US has been developing their own tastes–sometimes in rebellion of the generation before. Therefore, they naturally gravitate towards the church which has the external trappings of the baby-boomers, Gen-Xers, and so on.


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