Younger clergy aren’t necessarily better. They’re just younger.
And that matters.
Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
In recent decades, many North American churches have suffered a serious and sustained decline in the number and percentages of clergy under the age of 35. In many denominations, the percentage of younger clergy has slipped close to 5 percent or even less. While middle-aged and older pastors bring vital gifts to the practice of ministry, it is troubling that the church allows so many younger persons to ignore God’s call.
There are a number of important reasons why the pool of clergy must include a proportionate number of younger persons. The declining number of young clergy deprives the profession at both ends of the age spectrum. The new ideas, creativity, energy, and cultural awareness often exhibited by the young are lost. And with more persons entering ministry with fewer years to serve, the wisdom and experience that can come with long tenures in ministry are also in jeopardy.
Church leaders who gathered recently to discuss clergy age trends were asked the question “Why are young clergy important?” They responded with comments such as, “Younger clergy have an ability to see the world and the church through new eyes,” “They bring enthusiasm, idealism, and fresh perspectives to the practice of ministry,” and “Young clergy are more open to innovation and more nimble in working with new ideas.”
In many instances, young clergy bring tremendous energy to the demands of ministry because of the mental and physical stamina associated with youth. The schedules and routines of the young may be more flexible, and they are available for and interested in innovative challenges holding significant risk.
Young clergy also have certain advantages in reaching out to their own generation. They are more likely to speak the language of an emerging generation whose world view and communication modes differ from those of their parents’ generation. They show high sensitivity to diversity and other cultural realities in today’s world. Just as important, the mere presence of young clergy in a church symbolizes that younger persons are valued as leaders and participants.
These factors help explain why young clergy seem particularly well-suited to the task of church planting. Research conducted in the Episcopal Church has found that pastors between the ages of 24 and 35 were the most successful in founding churches that reach 250 or more in worship attendance within seven years. An informal poll of congregational development officials in the United Methodist church also showed a preference for church planters aged 25 to 35.
Research on the differences between younger and older seminary students sheds light on some other attributes of younger clergy. While older students tend to bring important experience in congregational life, younger students tend to enter seminary with better academic records in college or previous graduate studies, and they are more likely to have educational training in disciplines such as theology, religion, philosophy, and other humanities traditionally regarded as appropriate preparation for theological study. And preliminary data from Lewis Center research on pastoral effectiveness indicate that laity tend to rate young clergy as highly effective, even though they may not be as self confident as their older peers.
But just as youthfulness has advantages in ministry, so does experience. Leadership is a form of expertise that has a long gestation period. In most fields, attaining the status of expert requires at least ten years of extensive experience and training. Without sufficient numbers of younger persons entering the profession, there will be fewer clergy in the pipeline who have achieved the longevity of service required for the most challenging pastoral assignments and denominational leadership roles. While the growing number of middle-aged and older persons who enter ministry bring many important gifts, it is also true that many will not achieve the longevity of service needed for some of the most demanding ministry roles such as serving as lead pastor of a very large congregation.
The dearth of young clergy is contributing to an impending leadership crisis in yet another way. The growing percentage of elders who are 55 and older raises the specter of a tidal wave of retirements hitting the system in the not-too-distant future. The aging of the church’s clergy pool poses other practical and institutional challenges such as pension and health care challenges.
Having a proportionate number of young persons entering ordained ministry is vital to the vibrancy of the church, as well as its ability to attract younger congregants and form new congregations. And it is essential for developing the long-term experience in ministry necessary for the most challenging assignments. Young clergy do, indeed, matter.
Lovett H. Weems, Jr., and Ann A. Michel are the authors of The Crisis of Younger Clergy, copyright 2008, Abingdon Press. This material is adapted from chapter three of that book and us ed by permission.
Summary of Findings
- There is modest good news for United Methodists. The consistent decline in under-35 elders as a percentage of all elders hit its low point in 2005 and has held relatively steady with slight increases in the last three years. In 2008 under-35 elders reached 5 percent of active elders for the first time this century.
- Young elders were 4.69 percent of all elders in 2005. In 2006 and 2007, the figures are 4.89 percent and 4.92 percent respectively. In 2008 the number of young elders increased from 876 to 910, and the percentage grew from 4.92 to 5.21 percent.
- The actual number of young elders increased from 2007 to 2008 from 876 to 910.
- Young deacons increased in percentage and numbers in 2008.
- Young local pastors showed a slight decline in percentage and numbers between 2007 and 2008.
On the other end of the age spectrum of active clergy, the greatest growth continues to occur in the 55 to 70 age cohort.
- This group increased from 44.34 percent in 2007 to 45.67 percent in 2008. A number of conferences have over 50 percent of their active elders in this category.
- Deacons in this older age group increased very slightly from 2007 to 2008, from 42.24 percent to 43.14 percent.
- Local pastors, traditionally an older group, continue to have a larger percentage between 55 and 70, going from 48 percent in 2007 to 50 percent in 2008.
The middle-age grouping, 35 to 54, declined since 2005.
- Elders in this age group went from 50.74 percent in 2007 to 49.12 in 2008.
- Deacons of this age declined slightly from 50.67 percent in 2007 to 49.16 in 2008.
- Middle-age local pastors declined as a proportion of all local pastors from 46 percent to 44 percent between 2005 and 2008.
Median, average, and mode ages in 2008 are:
Description of the Project
Purpose of the Project & Description
- Median - (half older, half younger): elders, 54; deacons, 53; local pastors, 55.
- Average – elders, 52; deacons, 51; local pastors, 53.
- Mode - (single age most represented): elders, 56; deacons (no single age); local pastors, 59.
The purpose of this research project is to identify clergy age trends in the United Methodist Church over the last twenty-two years so that denominational leaders will have the data for planning and a baseline for monitoring future changes. This report builds on the first report on clergy age trends issued by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership in 2006. That report, Clergy Age Trends in the United Methodist Church : 1985-2005, documented the dramatic decline in United Methodist young clergy in both numbers and percentages over twenty years. This report presents a snapshot of where clergy age trends stand in 2007.
These clergy age trends are further analyzed in The Crisis of Younger Clergy (Abingdon Press, 2008) by Lovett H. Weems, Jr., and Ann A. Michel. The book considers why the number of young clergy has declined so precipitously in recent decades and what can be done to reverse this trend. Drawing on clergy age data and recent survey results, the book profiles the young clergy population in the United Methodist Church . It exposes the many challenges younger clergy face while lifting up the unique gifts they have to offer. The book is available for purchase at Amazon.com and Cokesbury.com.
Clergy ages are not easy to track because few units of the church have up-to-date age information on clergy. The one exception is the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits. The Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary has worked with the Board to determine age trends for United Methodist clergy.
The project covers elders, deacons, and local pastors in the five jurisdictional conferences of the United Methodist Church . Ordained deacons as we have now in the United Methodist Church are relatively new, making trend comparisons over many years difficult, but we do report current age data. To have comparable figures across the years for elders, the figures include not only those who have been ordained elder but also those who have been commissioned on the elder track but not yet ordained. While not all clergy are in the denominational pension system, most are and the percentage not in the system tends to stay the same across the years, thus making trend comparisons possible. Readers should keep in mind that the number of total deacons is significantly lower in this report than their presence in the denomination because more deacons than other clergy work in employment settings with pension plans other than through the General Board. For local pastors, full-time and part-time local pastors are included, but student local pastors are excluded. Since the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits does not keep records of clergy by race, we were not able to make comparisons by racial groups.
In addition to the cooperation of the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits, the Lewis Center for Church Leadership conducted this research project through funding from the Lilly Endowment, Inc. through its Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Initiative and from donors to the Lewis Center for Church Leadership.
Lovett H. Weems, Jr., distinguished professor of church leadership and founding director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, was project director. Joe Arnold, research manager of the Lewis Center , and Ann A. Michel, associate director of the Lewis Center , were associate directors of the project.
Barbara Boigegrain, general secretary of the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits of the United Methodist Church, and the staff of the Board, particularly Anne Borish, Peter Doheny, and Otisstean Arrington provided essential cooperation and data. Thanks go also to the General Council on Finance and Administration for sharing data they collect and to administrators and staff from other denominations for data on age trends in their churches. We have valued the collaboration of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry with our work, given their efforts around enlistment and overall clergy issues.
Source of United Methodist Clergy Age Data
The United Methodist clergy age statistics in this report are prepared by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary from data provided by the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits of the United Methodist Church (GBOPHB) of “active participants.” Active participants mean that the person is active in clergy service, therefore excluding statuses such as retired, sabbatical, leave of absence, maternity leave, disability, or administrative location. Those who have been commissioned on the elder and deacon tracks but not yet ordained are included. Regarding deacons, this report captures a lower percentage of active deacons because a higher percentage of them, when compared to elders, work in employment settings with pension plans other than through the General Board.
Download PDF of the 2008 report.