We Need More Pastors

“I am old, Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts…. Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been spread over too much bread.”[1] Bilbo Baggins spoke those words on his eleventy-first birthday. He wanted to retire, to rest, to finish writing his book, and he wanted to live out the rest of his days far away from his home in the Shire.

So, Bilbo planned to disappear quietly and to leave all of his possessions — including a curious ring — to his relative Frodo Baggins. Frodo and Bilbo shared a birthday — September 22. Frodo was turning thirty-three, “coming of age” in Hobbit time. And in the year of his “coming of age,” Frodo would inherit not only a ring but also a quest, a calling — a calling that would take time to understand fully, a calling that he would need to steward well to save Middle Earth.

I am closer to my thirty-third birthday than my eleventy-first, closer to the beginning of my career than the end. And I find myself wondering who will inherit the pastoral calling when today’s pastors want to retire, rest, and write their books. Who will take up the quest of shepherding the church? Who are those who are “coming of age” in professional ministry?

Aging pastors, dwindling replacements

Recently I came across some sobering research on pastors. Pastors are getting older and the number of younger replacements getting fewer. In their 2017 The State of Pastors report, Barna discovered that “In 25 years, the median age of a senior pastor has increased from 44 to 54.”[2] Currently, only 22 percent of pastors are under the age of 45.[3] Barna cites four reasons for what it calls “the greying of the clergy”: longer life-span, increasing numbers of second-career clergy, more senior pastors who are not financially ready to retire, and fewer young, aspiring pastors.[4]

The 2015 National Congregations Study came to similar conclusions about aging pastors and offered this sobering assessment: “An increasing number of second-career clergy and a decreasing number of young people going to seminary straight from college help to produce a clergy population that is aging faster than the American public as a whole.”[5]

Data collected by The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) mirror some of these findings. In a 2015 report, ATS noted, “Since 2009, ATS member schools have enrolled record numbers of 50-plus and 30-something students.”[6] And, while 20-somethings still make up the largest age-group of seminarians, ATS reported that the number of 20-somethings enrolled in seminary had dropped nine percent since 2009.[7]

These findings make me wonder about the future of the pastorate. Will churches flourish without a steady influx of young people who will lead them? How can we invite young people to consider professional ministry as a viable career option? Based on my experience and research, I offer three suggestions.

Talk about ministry as a career option

If you see an individual with a particular aptitude for professional ministry, invite them to consider it. Explain the options that are available, including degree requirements and ordination pathways.

When I was in high school, my senior pastor, associate pastor, and youth pastor all asked me to consider going into the ministry. I recall my senior pastor describing my options — which were many since, at that time, I was part of a denomination that ordained women.

Encourage seminary

As you invite people to consider professional ministry, encourage them to attend seminary to receive formal training for the work. Tell them about your seminary experience or recommend others.

We can also encourage seminary by helping pay for it. Many churches do not have the resources to cover seminary tuition. However, many churches can offer a little financial support each semester. Some seminaries even offer matching funds grants. For example, my home church gave me $1,000 per year, which my seminary matched.

Offer ministry experiences

Hands-on work experience can play a vital role in vocational discernment. In my recent research among college students, several students shared how internships and job shadowing helped them understand more about potential careers and envision themselves in those careers.

Church size and church budget need not be limiting factors when it comes to providing these ministry experiences. Offering a one-day job shadow experience is virtually free unless you treat your young protege to coffee or lunch. Some potential pastors would take an internship with a meager stipend if it afforded them opportunities to learn from a seasoned professional. Plus, seminary students often need field education opportunities with willing mentors. And while pastoral residencies require a more substantial commitment on the part of the local church, Made to Flourish can help you think about what it might take to start a pastoral residency in your context.

Vocational discernment

Helping people integrate faith, work, and economic wisdom can certainly involve guiding them in the process of vocational discernment. As we assist others in finding their “pathways of vocational stewardship,”[8] let us not forget to invite people to consider the care for and nurture of the local church as a viable career option. That way, when we find ourselves old and stretched too thin, we can entrust the flourishing of the local church and of the pastorate to young people called and eager to take up the task.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, Part I (New York: Ballantine Books, 1986), 58.

[2] Barna Group, “The State of Pastors: How Today’s Faith Leaders Are Navigating Life and Leadership in an Age of Complexity” (Barna Group, 2017), 12.

[3] Barna Group, 14.

[4] Barna Group, 14–15.

[5] Mark Chaves and Alison Eagle, “Following Wave III: Religious Congregations in 21st Century America” (Durham, NC: Department of Sociology, Duke University, 2015), 17, http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/Docs/NCSIII_report_final.pdf.

[6] Tom Tanner and The Association of Theological Schools/The Commission on Accrediting, “Seminaries Set Six Enrollment Records,” February 20, 2015, 3, https://www.ats.edu/uploads/resources/publications-presentations/documents/seminaries-set-six-enrollment-records.pdf.

[7] Tanner and The Association of Theological Schools/The Commission on Accrediting, 3.

[8] Amy L. Sherman, Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2011), 143ff.

Topics: Discipleship, Mentoring, Pastoral Practices

About the Author

Meryl Herr lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband and two sons.