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Are pastors retiring at an older age now?

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The two leading presidential candidates in the polls today are 81 years old and 77 years old.

Bob Iger returned to Disney as CEO. He will be 73 years old in February.

Football coaches are getting older. Nick Saban and Mack Brown are both 72 years old.

What about pastors? Are they retiring later in ministry? Are they following the trends of others in the workforce? You might be surprised at the answers.

Retiring Later?

On the surface, it does look like pastors are retiring at an older age. According to the research by the Faith Communities Study, the average age of a pastor is 57 years old compared to 50 years old in 2000. Compare that number to the median U. S. age of 38, and it does seem likely that pastors are waiting later to retire (and, yes, I wish I wasn’t comparing an average age to a median age).

We have worked with hundreds of older pastors. Some simply don’t feel a call to leave their churches. Some admit that they are not financially prepared to retire. And others actually stay in ministry longer knowing that their church will have increasing difficulty finding the next pastor. The shortage of pastors is real and acute.

But the issue of older pastors and fewer retiring pastors does not tell the whole story. There is more we must consider.

The Matter of Fewer Persons Entering Vocational Ministry

The Faith Communities Study also noted the declining enrollment of most seminaries, particularly the number of those who are preparing to be a pastor. Simply stated, there are fewer younger persons preparing for ministry and, again, even fewer preparing for pastoral ministry.

The older pastors are hanging around. But there are fewer younger pastors available to replace them. There are approximately 400,000 Protestant churches in America. Many of them can’t find a pastor. Others will soon be in the same predicament. If our churches are not at a point of crisis now, they will soon be.

The Exacerbating Issue of Pastoral Dropout

I have yet to see a conclusive study about the rate of pastor’s quitting or getting fired. Sure, you can find one study that looked longitudinally at the rate of pastor dropout and concluded that it was lower than previous estimates. Or you can look at another study that looks at the percentage of pastors that are considering quitting, and the result is very high. My guess is that if the study was done on Mondays only, it would be even higher!

While we may not know the precise number of pastors quitting, getting fired, or quietly moving to another vocation, we know that the number is not small. Anecdotally, our team found that the largest group of those quitting ranged in age from 35 to 45.

Do you see the cumulative picture? Older pastors are hanging on longer in vocational ministry. Fewer younger pastors in their 20s or early 30s are entering ministry. And the likely largest group of pastors quitting or getting fired is relatively young.

Pastors are fewer in numbers, and those who remain are significantly older. Where do we go from here?

To the Future of Churches and Their Leaders

I have advocated for a greater emphasis on bivocational pastors and co-vocational pastors for years. Similarly, I hope we will have more non-traditional ministry training and education to accompany the traditional path of colleges and seminaries.

But I believe there is much more to be done. In many ways, the solutions I advocate are still part of the old wineskin. I wish I was smart enough to predict what the new wineskin will look like.

In the meantime, we wait on God because the future is His future. We can all sense that major change is coming even though we may not have a clear picture of what it will look like.

You see, aging pastors are just a symptom of the changing times. The fact that enrollments of seminaries are down is but another sign that God is changing the landscape of the local church yet again.

    About the Author

  • Thom Rainer