How Does Clergy Age Impact Churches?

A new post from Rev. David Schoen. Rev. Schoen’s new guide Facing Your Church’s Uncertain Future: Helpful Practices for Courageous Conversations & Faithful Decisions is now available on UCC Resources.  To contact Rev. Schoen, email him at dschoen@ucc.org.

How does the age of clergy impact their congregations and the church?

In 2017, Barna Research released a study on the Aging of America’s Pastors. This study of church pastors found that the average age of clergy rose from 44 in 1992 to 54 in 2017.  In 1992 “One in three pastors was under the age of 40, and one in four was over 55. Just 6 percent were 65 or older. Twenty-five years later,… Only one in seven pastors is under 40, and half are over 55. The percentage of church leaders 65 and older has nearly tripled, meaning there are now more pastors in the oldest age bracket than there are leaders younger than 40.”

The 2018 UCC Statistical Profile compiled by the UCC Center for Analytics, Research, and Data finds the same aging of clergy in our denomination. “When all active (non-retired) Authorized Ministers were considered, over one half were age 60 and above (54.1%) and over one-fourth were 50-59 (25.5%), making 79.6% of all active ministers age 50 and over.”  The percentage of pastors under 50 decreased since 2004 from 25% to 20%.  Although the percentage of younger clergy under 40 years old increased slightly, it was still only 7.8%.

The Barna report suggests these reasons for this graying of clergy:

  • People living longer
  • ‘Second career clergy’ increased over the past two decades
  • Economic crisis of 2008 negatively impacted clergy pension plans, home values, 401(k)s
  • Many older pastors are not financially ready to forego a steady paycheck
  • Declining number of Christians in younger generations
  • Potential young leaders attracted to entrepreneurial vocations other than church ministry
  • Potential young leaders turned off by ‘institutional baggage of church’

What is the impact of this aging of clergy on congregations? The Aging Pastor and Healthy Growing Church study researched the correlation of clergy age to the health of their congregation, as well as how the age of a pastor correlates to the age of their congregation members. The research was based on responses to the 2015 Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey as well as Natural Church Development data from 2008-2017.

The Aging Pastor and Healthy Growing Church research showed that clergy age impacts congregations in these ways:

  • Younger clergy (under 50 years) are driving the largest share of church growth in the US
  • Younger pastors lead churches rated as healthier compared to older pastors
  • Younger clergy lead congregations with more adults younger than 50, Young Adults, Youth and Children than older clergy
  • Aging pastors lead congregations with a greater percentage of older members
  • Younger clergy are oriented more to goals than older pastors who tend to be service and people oriented

    Source: 2018 Fall UCC Statistical Profile

In her report on Congregations and Change: Findings from the FACT 2015 Survey, Rev. Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, Ph.D. found that ‘high change’ congregations, congregations that engage and embrace adaptive change had primary leaders/pastors who were younger than ‘no/slow change’ congregations. “High Change was significantly correlated with other characteristics such as being spiritually vital and alive, willing to change to meet new challenges, and intentional about maximizing the number and variety of small groups offered. High change congregations also had primary leaders/pastors who were younger, less likely to have conflict, and more optimistic about the future of their congregations than no/slow change congregations. Strikingly, these factors were also present in vital congregations..”

In his book, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old, Parker Palmer writes  “Unlike many folks my age, the young people I work with waste no time grieving the collapse of the “old order.” Of the religious educational, vocational, and political structures that helped form their elders’ lives. ….Instead of bemoaning what’s on its way out or already gone, many of the young adults I know are inventing forms of work and life that hold great promise  — from political movements to religious life, to staying connected in communities of meaning.”

Each generation has gifts and wisdom to share.  As I was growing in my ministry as a young clergy, I appreciated the support, insight, and encouragement of many pastors older and wiser than myself.  As I grew older, I appreciate the new thinking and ideas of younger clergy that challenged, stretched and refreshed my ministry. With the decline in numbers of younger pastors, I grieve the significant loss of potential leaders that will invent, shape and teach the church to be what these times require.  For the church to be all that we can be, we need a healthy mix of all generations; young, middle age and older pastors.

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12 thoughts on “How Does Clergy Age Impact Churches?

  1. I made a mistake and my comments as an older clergy (70) and still serving full time got put under this week’s blog not as a part of this discussion. So if you want to see the perspective of an older clergy still at it.
    Sorry ’bout that!!

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    • Hello John, I saw your posting on the other blog, thanks for your response. Thanks also for your ministry. I mentioned your ministry recently in a webinar I was leading and talked about the collaboration of the distant rural churches that you serve. Obviously, pastors of all ages are gifted for dynamic and meaningful ministries!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: What Does Age Have to Do with It? - Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging

  3. I am skeptical about the conclusion the clergy age correlates to church health. It seems too easy a conclusion and subject to our biases toward youth. There are so many complexities to why congregations grow or attain whatever definition of vitality you may have. I have seen small churches in decline served by older pastors giving good leadership. I have seen large congregations splinter apart and chew up younger pastors in the process. There is much more to this story than the age of the pastor.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ken, I couldn’t agree with you more. In fact, I don’t believe clergy age has anything to do with congregational vitality. Stats can be skewed and tinkered with in many ways to attain a desired outcome.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Ken, Thanks for responding and raising concerns around the complexity of congregation health as well as clergy age and bias. There are many characteristics of vital and healthy congregations mentioned beyond the clergy age, including ‘spiritually vital’, ‘willing to change’, ‘small groups offered’, ‘less conflict’. The data itself does not suggest that older clergy aren’t transformative leaders in congregations. We all know many who are. My primary concern in the blog was to address the loss/decline of younger pastors.

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  4. It would be great to hear another side of the story: older pastors who invite change – and the older members they serve who resist life-giving/breathing changes. Many clergy serve older congregants because that’s what they assume when they take a call. No matter how enthused and willing a pastor is to accept new challenges and ways of “being the church,” they are often left with an uphill battle on their hands due to the culture of the community. Culture can be an enormous stumbling block. It takes everyone working together to affect change. But there is hope…I’ve also observed that many older congregants are willing to try new things when it is discussed openly and honestly. Sometimes, it’s the younger members who are more resistant to giving up their pet projects and accepting that God is saying, “No…not yet.” Also, I think age is not as important as the enthusiasm and passion of the pastor. I’ve seen older pastors who run circles around some of the younger clergy, who find it difficult to remain resilient in the midst of adversity.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Susan for your response and comments. Enthusiasm and passion are important, as well as staying fresh in ministry. Every age has gifts to lead dynamic ministries and congregations.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is great info, thanks for sharing it. The one causality that I wish you could explore is the relationship between high change congregational search committees and their inherent bias toward younger clergy, assuming such clergy would be high change themselves, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jim, Thanks for your response and comments expanding on the data and issues concerning clergy age. The dynamics between congregation expectations and pastoral calls are significant.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Best advice you gave me once: in the Minneapolis airport no less. HIRE YOUNGER PASTORS! Paid off. Thanks Dave! Peter Luckey
    PS some of the not so young worked out great as well

    Liked by 3 people

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