Barna Research released a new report titled The Aging of America’s Pastors and within it lies a milestone discovery: there are currently more pastors in America over the age of 65 than under the age of 40. Think about that for a minute. Over 65 is technically past retirement age. Under 40 is perhaps the prime employment age. We’ve got more pastors sticking around past retirement than upcoming pastors ready to replace them. That’s a problem. The article goes on to list a few possible reasons, including the fact that pastors are living longer, living healthier, and have less money to retire, all creating a situation where they’re sticking around longer.
But that doesn’t get to the root of the issue why so few new pastors are coming up through the ranks in ministry. Here are a few of my thoughts of why even in the midst of a population explosion fewer and fewer people are choosing to enter the ministry:
1. Culture doesn’t respect pastors as much any more. Thirty years ago there was a cultural respect for pastors that would be on par with how members of the military are treated with respect in society today. That time has come and gone, and the cultural respect for pastors just isn’t there anymore.
2. Today’s under 40 generation grew up with evangelical Christianity identified with a political movement. A potential pastor born in 1980 would be 27 today. That potential pastor, from his birth, would only know evangelical Christianity as associated with the Moral Majority and Religious Right. I believe the marked coupling of religion and politics in evangelical American has soured the prospects for many potential pastors who want to make a spiritual difference without feeling like they have to be a political mouthpiece.
4. Up and coming ministry professionals see the greatest ministry opportunities outside the local church. I would argue that there are probably just as many full-time ministry professionals as you would typically see in the under-40 generation, but many are finding fulfillment outside the local church setting (through non-profits and missions organizations). Because of the inability of so many churches over the past several decades to effectively reach the next generation, the next generation of pastors have been raised with this instinctive understanding that the local church as currently expressed is becoming obsolete. So it shouldn’t surprise us when they enter the ministry but choose to do it outside the local church setting.
5. We don’t have an effective farm system. I literally talked about this yesterday with a recent seminary grad, who reaffirmed my own experience with seminary: you learn practically everything you need to know about the Bible but practically nothing you need to know when it comes to actually running a church effectively. Our current seminary system is churning out pastors who are filled with Bible trivia knowledge but woefully unprepared to actually survive and thrive in the church world. Add to that the fact that the majority of churches today are plateaued or declining, meaning there are major non-theological issues needing to be addressed, and your attrition rate for pastors becomes atrociously high. We don’t have an effective way to recruit, train and equip new pastors and set them up for success.