Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida, has gotten serious about raising up a new generation of pastors. Normally, the congregation produces one or two young people every couple of years who feel a call. Right now, however, 12 young men are preparing to enter pastoral ministry.
Ted Traylor, who has led the church for 33 years, meets with them weekly.
“You’ve got to get old and see that you’ve got to have someone else coming,” Traylor said with a laugh. “I really do laugh at that, but it was a reality in my life. I’m now 69 years old, and I take a greater responsibility for the coming generation.”
Research released this month from the Barna Group suggests more baby boomer pastors need to follow suit. America’s churches are struggling to find a new generation of pastors as the current generation prepares to step aside, according to the research.
The graying of America’s pastors isn’t a new phenomenon, but it has become more pronounced. In 2022, just 16 percent of Protestant senior pastors were 40 years old or younger. The average age of a pastor is 52. Thirty years ago, 33 percent of US pastors were under 40, and the median age was 44.
“As a generation of clergy ages and prepares to step down, it is not clear that churches are prepared for the transition,” Barna says. “If this trend goes unaddressed, the Church in the US will face a real succession crisis.”
Many pastors worry their successors won’t be ready by the time they retire. Seventy-five percent agree with the statement “It is becoming harder to find mature young Christians who want to become pastors.” That’s up from 69 percent in 2015. Just 19 percent disagree with that statement now, compared with 31 percent in 2015.
In the same vein, 71 percent of pastors agree that they are “concerned about the quality of future Christian leaders.”
There’s not much time to sort out these problems. One-quarter of pastors hope to retire in the next seven years, Barna’s research found.
Yet churches struggle to prepare those coming next. Nearly four in five pastors (79%) agree that “churches aren’t rising to their responsibilities to train up the next generation of Christian leaders.”
More than half of pastors disagree with the statement “My church puts a significant priority on training and developing the next generation of church leaders.” In 2015, just 32 percent disagreed with the statement.
Pastors see the importance of training new leaders. Just 7 percent of US pastors say developing a leadership pipeline within their congregations isn’t a high priority. Thirty-eight percent say, “I make it a top personal priority,” and 14 percent delegate leadership development to staff.
The trouble is making time to develop younger leaders amid the demands of pastoral ministry. Forty percent of pastors surveyed said they have thought about the need for developing a leadership pipeline “but have too many other ministry concerns.”
That problem is more acute at medium-size and small churches. Half of large-church pastors say developing a leadership pipeline is a personal priority, but only about a third of medium-size church pastors (36%) and small-church pastors (35%) agree.
Ethnic minority churches are doing better at leadership development than their Anglo counterparts. Sixty-two percent of pastors at ethnic minority–dominant churches say developing a leadership pipeline is a priority versus 35 percent at white churches.
Is there any reason for optimism amid the bleak picture of pastoral succession? One bright spot in the research is that most pastors still recommend their profession to others.
Half of pastors (51%) say they would “definitely” recommend the job to someone considering ministry as a profession. Thirty-six percent would “probably” recommend it, while 11 percent would not recommend it.
Even among pastors who have considered quitting, 79 percent would recommend pastoral ministry as a profession. Just 17 percent would not recommend it.
That optimism about pastoral ministry resonates with Bryan Chapell, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
“The number of post-COVID candidates for ministry actually has risen significantly in the PCA for the last two years,” Chapell said, “but it is hard to determine if that is a long-term trend without more data and time.”
In the PCA, the main pastoral succession challenge is more nuanced. Baby boomers are retiring from the pastorates of large churches, and younger boomer or older millennial ministers don’t want to leave secure positions to assume the pastorates of a large congregations that are perceived as more “corporate” than “community” in their orientation, Chapell said.
“The consequence is that as senior pastors of large churches retire, their pulpits often are being assumed by much younger men—half-skipping a generation—with much less experience,” he said. “In the PCA, we are not experiencing a pastoral shortage, but we are experiencing an experience deficit for those assuming large, established churches.”
Data from one of the main accrediting bodies for North American graduate schools of theology also helps temper pessimism about the next generation of pastors. Total enrollment at Association of Theological Schools (ATS) member schools has held relatively steady over the past decade, as has enrollment in the master of divinity (MDiv) degree, long considered the gold standard for prospective pastors.
In 2022, ATS schools reported total head count enrollment of 77,851 and an MDiv enrollment of 27,635, according to ATS data tables. Five years ago, total enrollment was 72,896 and MDiv enrollment 28,396. Ten years ago, total enrollment was about the same and MDiv enrollment slightly higher—74,223 total enrollment and 32,166 in MDiv programs.
One key to moving those seminary students into local church pastorates, Chapell said, is modelling healthy church life for them.
“United churches with strong community breed younger leaders who want to reproduce such community for their Savior, their families, and their world,” Chapell said. “Health not only breeds health; it encourages reproduction and succession.”
Back at Olive Baptist Church, Traylor says he will continue to encourage a younger generation to consider pastoral ministry. But ultimately, he isn’t worried about sustaining the supply of pastors because he says that isn’t up to him.
“I’m not concerned because I’m not in charge of that,” Traylor said, adding that God calls believers to the pastorate. “I am really encouraged by what I see the Spirit of God doing in calling out the called in our churches. I’m beginning to see that rise. I hear more and more of it.”
David Roach is a freelance reporter for CT and pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Saraland, Alabama.