Young Clergy Effectiveness: Good News-Bad News


Data from the Lewis Pastoral Leadership Inventory™ (LPLI) suggest that younger clergy share many of the same strengths as their older colleagues and that they get high marks for their creativity and new ideas. The challenges seem to be sustaining that creative edge over time and translating new ideas into fruitful outcomes when it comes to worship attendance and discipleship growth.

Much of the attention regarding young clergy has focused on the low number and percentage of younger persons within the overall clergy pool. While these statistics are undeniably important, it’s also important to ask, “How effective are young clergy in leadership?” We need to be paying attention to the quantity and the quality of young clergy leaders.

For over a decade, the Lewis Center for Church Leadership has made available a tool to help clergy assess their effectiveness in ministry known as the Lewis Pastoral Leadership Inventory™ (LPLI). It is a 360° instrument that combines a pastor’s self-assessment with the feedback of others who are familiar with their work — often people in their congregations. Thousands of clergy of different ages and denominations have used the LPLI. And the overall pattern of results allows us to draw some conclusions about how younger clergy fare in comparison to their older colleagues.

Younger and older clergy share many areas of strength

One positive finding from the LPLI data is that under-35 clergy share many of the same strengths as older clergy. For example, clergy of all ages rank high in exhibiting faith in Christ, caring about parishioners, and treating others with dignity. It’s good news that clergy of all ages rank high in these categories.

Young clergy get high marks for creativity

One place where we see a difference between younger and older clergy is in creativity. Analysis of the responses given by pastors and by the people who provide feedback for them indicates that under-35 clergy offer more creative possibilities to their congregations than older clergy. They bring new ideas and offer innovations on traditional practices. It is clear from the LPLI that church members recognize this gift in younger clergy. And the good news is, as young clergy continue to enter ministry, creativity and innovation will continue.

Creativity diminishes with age

The bad news is, as clergy get older they are perceived as being less creative in ministry. Why is it that the perception changes as clergy age? It may be that as clergy get older they perceive themselves taking less risk. It may be that as clergy get older they become more of a product of institutional thinking or more reflective of the culture of their congregations. Whatever the case, we need to do a better job of encouraging innovation as clergy mature in ministry.

Creative to what end?

Unfortunately, the LPLI data on clergy effectiveness indicate that clergy of all ages struggle in growing worship attendance and reaching new disciples. Even for young clergy, creative offerings are not necessarily translating into more people joining worship or entering into an intentional discipleship process.

One could posit many possible explanations for this. The church members who provided LPLI feedback may not have been aware of creative offerings aimed primarily at people outside the congregations. Or young clergy may be succeeding in engaging people in community ministry who don’t come to worship. But even if these things are true, it is not translating into individuals entering into a discipleship process. We have to help young clergy make sure that their creative offerings somehow integrate the goal of discipleship.

Maintaining the creative edge

My guess is that younger clergy are full of ideas because they are fresh from seminary and they do a lot of reading in peer groups or denominational leadership programs. As clergy get older, the tendency is to read less, focus on the work at hand, and grow comfortable in the routines formed out of experience. Continuing education might be a constructive course of action to help clergy avoid falling into the rut of doing the same things and retain their innovative tendencies. More work is needed to determine if a positive correlation exists between continuing education and maintaining a creative edge.

At the end of the day, no matter where or how we encourage it, creativity should retain the goal of discipleship.

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About Author

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.

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