Ageism: The Real Struggle for Church Staff Close to Retirement

The magical age for ministry is somewhere between 38 years-old and 56 years-old. I use the word “magical” because far too many churches look at the age of a ministry candidate as some sort of magic bullet. Any younger than the mid-thirties, and you’re too young. Any older than the mid-fifties, and you’re too old. I’ve read a lot of articles and posts defending those who are on the younger side. Some megachurch hires a 26-year-old lead pastor, and it’s championed as innovative.

However, I don’t see too many cases made for those who are older. As someone who is in the magical age range, I’ll make a case for those who are on the older side of the equation.

When considering ageism, the church may be one of the worst offenders among organizations in our culture. It’s strange given the “respect your elders” mentality in many congregations. When cutting church staff, I’ve heard of cases in which people were pushed out because of their age. Additionally, when hiring, many churches are overt in their search for ministry candidates. “We want someone young!”

Churches will survey the congregation and ask about an ideal age for a new lead pastor. The answers are always the same—somewhere between 38 years-old and 56 years-old. The national median age is 38 years-old, and the median age of a churchgoer in most denominations is someone in their mid-to-late 50s, so it’s no surprise the church would say, “I want a pastor who is like me!”

For those who are older on your church staff, what can be done? How can a church move away from the blatant ageism that seems to be so rampant in congregations?

Stop cutting older staff in the name of “stewardship.” I’ll never forget my first round of layoffs in the corporate world. We were split into two groups and each sent into separate rooms. One group survived. The other didn’t. I made the cut. I thought it was merit-based, until I looked around. The only people remaining were the twenty-somethings. They kept the cheap labor. Even the survivors felt icky. Don’t do this in your church. Even worse, don’t cut people in the name of “stewardship,” because the Bible has a much grander view of stewardship than mere cash flow.

Stop assuming older workers can’t learn. Sure, some people refuse to learn and grow. They deserve to be let go. Likely, most of your older church staff are willing to learn. Give them a chance. Don’t assume they can’t do it! You make a fool of yourself if you claim a faith that can move mountains while at the same time assuming someone in their 60s can’t pick up a new skill set. Be intentional about equipping them and giving them opportunities to learn.

Stop making personnel decisions based on a desired look. Churches after a certain look wouldn’t even hire Jesus. He did not have an attractive appearance. Such congregations have way more in common with the Pharisees than Jesus.

Be willing to move them into different positions as seasons of life change. As a person ages and enters into a new season of life, new opportunities emerge. Capture these opportunities and get creative with new staff positions. For example, you don’t meet too many pastors focused solely on Boomer ministry, but the church desperately needs them. Senior ministry was for their parents. Good luck getting your Boomers to come to your senior ministry events—not gonna happen. But a Boomer ministry? Now that sounds more appealing.

Ask your older staff for their input. Some of them may have great advice on how best to utilize their skill set as they near retirement age. They may fear taking the initiative because often it leads to questions about their viability. Rather, take the posture of wanting them to finish strong and ask them what that would look like.

A multi-generational church should hire a multi-generational staff. Most multi-ethnic churches have multi-ethnic staff. I, for one, champion this movement. What’s often missing in the multi-everything discussion is intentionality with bringing multiple generations on to the church staff. Churches should serve all people, which includes generational diversity—in the congregation and on staff.

Perhaps there are older church staff out there who haven’t spoken up because they fear it would be self-serving. As someone just older than 40, I’ll say it. Many of you have gotten a raw deal. It’s time for churches to stop with the ageism.

 

Posted on December 15, 2021


As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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16 Comments

  • I’ve heard the ‘optimum age range’ so many times I lost count. At this season of my life, which has somehow now reached 66 and a half years, I can truthfully say however that I am more deeply involved in all aspects of ministry than I have ever been.

    I have a title of Associate Pastor, which isn’t important at all, but I teach an adult Sunday school class, preach on Sunday evenings, conduct or assist with funerals, do hospital visitation, and pretty much assist with anything that needs done.

    I even taught myself how to create and maintain our church website, started a YouTube channel for our church, and create two weekly videos that are uploaded to our website and YT channel. During the beginning of Covid, our pastor was in the hospital(not Covid related) and after his release he was unable to perform his duties for some time. With his blessings, I organized parking lot services and began a weekly radio broadcast for our mostly rural congregation.

    To say the least, I am extremely busy but I wouldn’t change a thing. In fact, I’ve waited 45 years for these opportunities that have been placed before me. It’s true I don’t have the energy or stamina I once had, but I believe God strengthens and equips us if we are willing to serve. How much longer I can keep up this pace is up to the Lord, but as my wife and I love to say, we are determined to finish strong. It is our desire that our latter years are our most productive, and that prayer is being answered in ways we could not have imagined two years ago when we were nearly begging the Lord to send us someplace where we could be of service.

    Ageism is very real in the church, but we decided it would not prevent us from accomplishing and realizing our destiny.

  • Bruce Vaughn says on

    Re: Ageism. Agree. Spent my ministry looking up to the older pastors b/c they were most often the most effective. They knew how to get the job done in leading and building churches. Now, just qualified for Medicare. Shocked that others now hold me in the same light as once I held those older pastors. I remember what they taught, so much of which blessed my ministry. My churches have benefited from their extended ministry as they taught and as I and others learned. What a loss it would have been when transitioning from inner-city to county-seat ministry had those older ministers not been available. I thank God for them and hope and pray that I will measure up to our shared calling in Christ.

  • I agree with the basic premise of your argument. However, do you find that there is also an issue in churches where employment is viewed as a lifetime appointment? I guess I mean, churches often seem to view the end of employment as only being a good end if the person chose it for themselves, regardless of job performance.

  • What a great article. Thank you. I remember a friend of mine once told me (He was the small groups leader @NPCC) That a guy in his forties had volunteered to help with the youth groups. And then he said, “What are we going to do with a forty year old!”. I got a chuckle from hearing this! He was serious., though. Merry Christmas!

  • Larry R. Sarratt says on

    Thanks for the Ageism article, it was much needed.

    Love and Peace,

    Larry R. Sarratt
    Ashland, Virginia

  • I’ve seen such things posted on “pastor “ Job boards “. Aged upto 55 and in good health. I am a late in life Pastoral candidate, 63, finally have a Bachelors degree in Biblical studies. Having served faithfully over the decades as a volunteer and unpaid staff. I realize I dont have the ideal requisite 5 or 10 years of Sr. Pastor they all ask for. But come on! I just got a turn down after only 5 days of submission. They’ve only been searching for 5 days. They’ve decided to go with someone more qualified…Masters,,,time in service,,,younger? All my mentors were silver saints, Joshua was 80 when Israel entered the land. I really don’t plan to retire, FYI, my actual retirement age is 67.5 … just the same if I were to do that, isn’t the average time at any given Church by the Pastor still around 18 months? If that’s still true, then what’s the actual problem? Ageism, I think.

  • John Poling says on

    Churches may prefer a younger pastor. Many older congregations still want the status quo, however. They–yes this is a generalization–are very resistant to change. They just want a younger face at the helm. This is just one facet of the issue, but a significant one.

  • Thank you for this. Ageism is even worse for worship pastors. I first felt and heard it in my late forties. That’s why I became a senior pastor at age 57. And then, I faced the issue in the hiring process. Ageism is illegal but it is nearly ubiquitous in the church when it comes to staff. But you have pointed it out so well and added much needed perspective and corrective possibilities. You hit all the points I can think of. Thank you, Sam!

    At 66, I have now pivoted away from local church ministry and have been hired as a hospice chaplain. Not once in the hiring process was my age ever asked or considered. The office staff seems to be quite pleased to have “a grandpa” on board.

    The phenomenon of Ageism is likely a result of our youth-oriented culture that emerged post WWII. Not only has impacted the staffing paradigms of evangelical churches, but the youth-orientation or “juvenilization” has infected virtually all aspects of contemporary evangelical culture in America. A good look at the phenomenon is Tom Bergler’s book, “The Juvenilization of American Christianity.” https://www.amazon.com/Juvenilization-American-Christianity-Thomas-Bergler/dp/0802866840/ref=sr_1_2?crid=5K2MKCU1HANU&keywords=juvenilization+of+american+christianity&qid=1639580488&sprefix=Juvenili%2Caps%2C185&sr=8-2

    Thanks again, Sam!

  • I was in the process of retiring after 28 years in the church, when they asked me to stay on during the covid problem. I have since retired and am the new Senior Adult Pastor in the same church.
    At 76 when covid forced churches to shut down, I asked our church leaders to have open air services. We used a hay trailer for the musicians: 2 guitars, electric piano, drums, and lead singer. The sound and live stream crews put up a tent to protect their equipment. Our people were thrilled. Our lowest car total was 56. Estimating 3 people per car that’s about 150 people. We were only averaging about 175 people before the covid scare.
    When churches were allowed back indoors, our attendance loss was minor. You can teach an old dog new tricks.

  • Bill Pitcher says on

    Having been called to ministry at the tender age of 61–yes, the SIXTY-ONE–and seeing God use my work to rebuild a struggling congregation (which was then mostly older still, but is now filled with kids) I must echo these thoughts. Don’t pass up the old guys. We still have a lot to give.

    • Sam Rainer says on

      Indeed!

    • Larry R. Sarratt says on

      Nicely said….

      Larry R. Sarratt,
      Ashland, Virginia

    • As a later in life ordinand (48 at my ordination), one of my classmates and fellow ordinands was 62. In our denomination the retirement age is 72 (there are ways to work around that but for all intents and purposes). His call was to a church and his promise was two-fold: 10 years or until you tell me you no longer want my services.

      Especially for those who are later in life, we are often able to serve in locations that are more challenging financially and dynamically (filled with “we’ve never done it that way before”). As Mark alluded to, there is a certain amount of benefit to life experience that helps a pastor function in a church.

  • There is no age limit for private sector management eliminating your position. If your employer wants you gone, you go. If you have good credentials, a good reputation, and a network, you will find a new opportunity. It might even be better than the one you had. Also, in ministry, your knowledge of the real world matters. What was the real world in the 80s and 90s no longer exists. Please pay attention to what is occurring today and mention that Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome were far more immoral and Christianity was illegal, yet it still thrived.