A recent survey shows churches having trouble finding pastors: first, because there are simply fewer Christians in each successive age cohort, and second, because the young adults who still affiliate with Christianity are seldom doctrinally pure enough for their elders.
It’s no secret anymore that evangelicals—and really all Christians—are in the middle of a cultural and membership decline. That decline has now lasted at least 15 years, and it shows zero signs of stopping any time soon.
A couple of years ago, I noticed that Boomer-age pastors and evangelical leaders are thinking of maybe passing a few of their lesser, less-powerful batons to Millennial evangelicals in their churches. That is not a typo. They still want to reach Millennials, whose oldest members are now pushing 40, for those lesser batons.
However, a recent sign-of-the-times indicates that evangelical pastors are having a lot of trouble finding replacements.
Amid ongoing decline, a wild ‘pastoral succession crisis’ appears
Barna Group is a for-profit marketing business that conducts religious research, analyzes it, and then sells the results—along with various products to fix the problems they’ve identified—to worried evangelical leaders. They’re also one of the few groups that study evangelicals at all.
All that said and taken into account, one of their more recent analyses probably sounds quite sobering to their target audience.
Most Protestant pastors are aging in place, with only 16% of them under age 40. The average age of Protestant pastors is apparently about 52. Worse still (from Christians’ perspective), very few churches have a plan in place to find a replacement for their pastors once they retire. Barna reports that a solid majority of today’s pastors don’t feel optimistic about the next generation of pastors:
Three-quarters of pastors surveyed say they at least somewhat agree with the statement “It is becoming harder to find mature young Christians who want to be pastors,” and 71 percent at least somewhat agree with the statement “I am concerned about the quality of future Christian leaders.”“The Pastoral Succession Crisis Is Only Getting More Complicated,” Barna Group (archive)
So far, all of this information meshes well with what we already know about evangelical pastors. We know that pastors are getting more and more burned out every day. We know that job openings for pastors that used to be swamped and deluged with applications now see almost no applications coming in at all. And we know that since the pandemic especially, many fed-up-to-HERE pastors are walking away from their pulpits—with more still seriously considering it.
So it doesn’t surprise me at all to hear that there might be a pastoral succession crisis going on.
The 4-14 Window and Christianity’s decline
But this crisis isn’t new. Just as osteoporosis is sometimes called “a childhood disease with geriatric symptoms,” Protestants’ pastor crisis began many years ago.
The first prong of the pastoral succession crisis consists of there simply being fewer Christians in general. Every new generation sees a successive decline in Christian affiliation. Gen Z, the current crop of college-age Americans, is one of the least Christian generations in many decades. Gen Alpha, who are now children, seem to be even less Christian. With fewer and fewer Christian-affiliated young adults, that means fewer and fewer seeking ministry educations.
And that hunch bears fruit when we look at admissions to Christian universities. In the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) alone, their branded seminaries have seen a precipitous drop in full-time enrollment. Naturally, their rigidly-authoritarian traditionalist faction, which I’ve dubbed the Old Guard, blames this drop on the seminaries’ suspiciously-incorrect Jesusing.
(This accusation is meant to shame the incorrectly-Jesusing Christians to start Jesusing correctly, which will always and forever solve every single problem Real True Christians have or will ever have. Except it doesn’t, but nobody’s allowed to mention that.)
But these same enrollment declines are happening everywhere. Catholic leaders are fretting over exactly the same decline in seminary students. (In fact, they’ve had a drastic priest shortage for many years now.)
We also see the same decline in the very-right-wing Christian Bible colleges, which tend to be little more than simple indoctrination stations for the more wackadoodle flavors of evangelicalism. Whether it’s done correctly or incorrectly, Jesusing has nothing whatsoever to do with a Christian school’s enrollment, it seems.
In a very few short years, I predict that Christian schools are going to be fighting for their very existence. There simply aren’t enough college-age Christians around to keep them alive.
I bring this up because fewer enrollments at Christian schools means fewer pastoral candidates in the first place.
The second prong: Doctrinal purity
In evangelicalism at least, a schism is looming between hardline right-wing traditionalists and the evangelicals who aren’t quite that dysfunctionally authoritarian. The SBC is a great example of this looming schism; their two factions have been at each other’s throats for about five years now, with the latter group slowly overcoming the former.
Younger evangelicals tend to belong to that latter group, as do the ministers catering to them. According to various surveys, these younger evangelicals’ priorities are wildly out of step with older, more traditionalist evangelicals:
- They’re nowhere near as concerned about supporting Israel as a nation
- They don’t approve much of unwanted evangelism pitches
- They’re generally okay with same-sex marriage
- They have complicated feelings about abortion, but they aren’t all completely against it
- And they generally support anti-racism measures, along with wanting big denominations to enact reforms to prevent racism and sex abuse
Evangelical-branded schools lean heavily Calvinist, but even graduating from one doesn’t guarantee that the graduate is doctrinally-pure enough to satisfy their potential new churches.
What retiring evangelical ministers in particular seem to want is a fresher, younger, newer mini-me to take up their baton. Every year that passes, fewer such candidates come along.
This isn’t actually complicated at all; it’s just part of decline
Barna Group titled their survey “The Pastoral Succession Crisis Is Only Getting More Complicated.”
But in truth, what’s happening to Christian churches in America isn’t really complicated at all. Christian leaders are seeing their cultural clout and relevance draining away every day, while younger adults leave church culture behind in greater and greater numbers. The demographics of disaffiliation all but guarantee that it’s going to be hard to find church leaders in the future.
Of the church leaders who remain, their work is getting harder and harder every year. They must do more with fewer resources all the time. That might be why Sam Rainer, Thom Rainer’s son and incompetent nepo baby, actually suggested that pastors should take advantage of their aging Baby Boomers by hiring them to work for their churches for part-time pay:
Hire them part-time. The transfer of wealth that is occurring from those born in the 1920s and 1930s to Baby Boomers is measured in the trillions of dollars. Obviously, not every Baby Boomer is wealthy. But most retired Boomers do not need full-time pay. Churches could benefit by hiring Boomers part-time to fill what were previously full-time positions.“The Big Baby Boomer Opportunity for the Church,” Sam Rainer for Church Answers
Hopefully, he means for these senior citizens to work part-time as well, but this is an evangelical we’re talking about. Who even knows.
If churches are already having trouble finding replacements after their pastors retire or die, things will only get harder in the years to come.