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.”
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.