By Aaron Earls
As the average pastor grows older in America, churches say they are struggling to find young Christians who want to become future pastors, according to a new study from Barna Research.
Today, half of American pastors are older than 55. In 1992, less than a quarter of pastors in the U.S. (24 percent) were that old.
Pastors 65 and older have almost tripled in the last 25 years, from 6 percent to 17 percent.
Meanwhile, pastors 40 and younger have fallen from 33 percent in 1992 to 15 percent today.
In 1992, the median age for a Protestant pastor in America was 44. In 2017, it has climbed 10 years to 54.
The graying of the American pastorate did not start in the 1990s, however. More than half of all Protestant clergy (55 percent) were younger than 45 in 1968. This year, only 22 percent of pastors are under 45.
The church has gone from a time when a majority of leaders were in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s to a time when most are in their late 50s and beyond.
“There are now more full-time senior pastors who are over the age of 65 than under the age of 40,” said David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group.
“It is urgent that denominations, networks, and independent churches determine how to best motivate, mobilize, resource, and deploy more younger pastors.”
Barna notes several factors leading to the exponential growth of older pastors. In general, people are living longer. Since 1968, life expectancy for men has grown 10 years to 76.
Specifically related to the pastorate, more individuals are becoming ministers later in life. “Second-career clergy” have been increasing, particularly in non-mainline churches and historically black congregations.
Finances may also have played a role as the recession led many older pastors to postpone retirement.
Current pastors also say they are having a hard time finding young Christians who want to become pastors, but they aren’t blaming their own churches.
Seven in 10 Protestant pastors (70 percent) say young leaders seem to think other kinds of work are more important than vocational ministry. And almost that many (69 percent) say it’s becoming harder to find mature young Christians who want to become pastors.
Yet 69 percent say their church puts a significant priority on training and developing the next generation of church leaders.
Kinnaman said it’s not necessarily a problem that older pastors are in leadership positions, as younger Christians need to learn wisdom and leadership from experienced pastors.
“The problem arises when today’s pastors do not represent a healthy mix of young, middle age, and older leaders,” he said.
“For the Christian community to be at its best, it needs intergenerational leaders to move it forward.”
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.