The aging of America is having an impact on the church. A majority of American pastors, whose average age is 52, say it is becoming increasingly difficult to find mature young Christians willing to do their jobs as they prepare to retire, a new Barna study shows.
It’s a growing concern now spreading across America’s religious landscape brought on, in part, by dwindling numbers of seminary students. This shift has significant implications for the future of religious leadership and the practice of faith in the United States.
Three-fourths of pastors in the study at least somewhat agree with the statement that “It is becoming harder to find mature young Christians who want to be pastors.” About a third of respondents strongly agree that it’s becoming harder to find young Christians to be pastors, up from 24 percent in 2015. In the most recent survey, 71 percent at least somewhat agree with the statement, “I am concerned about the quality of future Christian leaders.”
One of the primary factors contributing to this phenomenon is the aging demographic of many clergy members. A significant portion of American pastors is now approaching retirement age. This generational shift raises questions about who will lead congregations in the coming years and whether they will be equipped to address the evolving needs and challenges of their communities.
The study comes as data from an October 2021 Barna survey suggested that nearly four out of 10 pastors said they are seriously considering” leaving full-time ministry, which was a significant increase from the 29 percent of pastors who reported feeling this way several months earlier in January 2021. As the world was still reeling from the pandemic in 2022, some denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, reported that they already were in the throes of a succession crisis with a national shortage of at least 600 pastors.
Several factors may be contributing to the decline in seminary student numbers. First, changing societal attitudes toward religion and spirituality have made ministry a less attractive career path for young people. Additionally, the rising cost of education can deter potential seminarians. Furthermore, the demands and responsibilities of modern pastoral work have led to increases of depression and even suicide among the clergy. Even as late as 2006, polls found that fewer seminary graduates wanted to pursue a career behind the pulpit.
To address this issue, some denominations are exploring innovative strategies to recruit and support future pastors. For many congregations, this involves offering financial incentives, mentorship programs, or flexible training options to make seminary education more accessible and appealing. Moreover, congregations can play a vital role by actively encouraging and nurturing young individuals with a calling to ministry.
Last May, when since-retired Nancy Rupe, an office administrator at Atonement Lutheran Church in Billing Heights, Mont. was interviewed, the church had been waiting eight months to be assigned a new pastor. The church would go on to wait almost two years before Ryan Chaddick, 39, moved his family from Los Angeles to answer the call to become the church’s new pastor in July.
Even though a majority of pastors are concerned about finding successors for their ministries, Barna noted that 79 percent of respondents also agree that “churches aren’t rising to their responsibilities to train up the next generation of Christian leaders.” It’s not, however, out of a lack of desire to do so but competition from what they consider more pressing ministry priorities.
–Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice