Are Pastors Retiring at an Older Age Now? (And Other Age-Related Issues)

The two leading presidential candidates in the polls today are 81 years old and 77 years old.

Bob Iger returned to Disney as CEO. He will be 73 years old in February.

Football coaches are getting older. Nick Saban and Mack Brown are both 72 years old.

What about pastors? Are they retiring later in ministry? Are they following the trends of others in the workforce? You might be surprised at the answers.

Retiring Later?

On the surface, it does look like pastors are retiring at an older age. According to the research by the Faith Communities Study, the average age of a pastor is 57 years old compared to 50 years old in 2000. Compare that number to the median U. S. age of 38, and it does seem likely that pastors are waiting later to retire (and, yes, I wish I wasn’t comparing an average age to a median age).

We have worked with hundreds of older pastors. Some simply don’t feel a call to leave their churches. Some admit that they are not financially prepared to retire. And others actually stay in ministry longer knowing that their church will have increasing difficulty finding the next pastor. The shortage of pastors is real and acute.

But the issue of older pastors and fewer retiring pastors does not tell the whole story. There is more we must consider.

The Matter of Fewer Persons Entering Vocational Ministry

The Faith Communities Study also noted the declining enrollment of most seminaries, particularly the number of those who are preparing to be a pastor. Simply stated, there are fewer younger persons preparing for ministry and, again, even fewer preparing for pastoral ministry.

The older pastors are hanging around. But there are fewer younger pastors available to replace them. There are approximately 400,000 Protestant churches in America. Many of them can’t find a pastor. Others will soon be in the same predicament. If our churches are not at a point of crisis now, they will soon be.

The Exacerbating Issue of Pastoral Dropout

I have yet to see a conclusive study about the rate of pastor’s quitting or getting fired. Sure, you can find one study that looked longitudinally at the rate of pastor dropout and concluded that it was lower than previous estimates. Or you can look at another study that looks at the percentage of pastors that are considering quitting, and the result is very high. My guess is that if the study was done on Mondays only, it would be even higher!

While we may not know the precise number of pastors quitting, getting fired, or quietly moving to another vocation, we know that the number is not small. Anecdotally, our team found that the largest group of those quitting ranged in age from 35 to 45.

Do you see the cumulative picture? Older pastors are hanging on longer in vocational ministry. Fewer younger pastors in their 20s or early 30s are entering ministry. And the likely largest group of pastors quitting or getting fired is relatively young.

Pastors are fewer in numbers, and those who remain are significantly older. Where do we go from here?

To the Future of Churches and Their Leaders

I have advocated for a greater emphasis on bivocational pastors and co-vocational pastors for years. Similarly, I hope we will have more non-traditional ministry training and education to accompany the traditional path of colleges and seminaries.

But I believe there is much more to be done. In many ways, the solutions I advocate are still part of the old wineskin. I wish I was smart enough to predict what the new wineskin will look like.

In the meantime, we wait on God because the future is His future. We can all sense that major change is coming even though we may not have a clear picture of what it will look like.

You see, aging pastors are just a symptom of the changing times. The fact that enrollments of seminaries are down is but another sign that God is changing the landscape of the local church yet again.

I would love to hear from you. What do you think the new wineskin for local church ministry will look like in ten years? What are you seeing God do that is anew and fresh?

Let us know. We wait to see what God will do next.

Posted on December 4, 2023


With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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31 Comments

  • One possibility, is that under increasing persecution, the responsibility for church growth shifts some from the pastor to church leaders as the importance of teaching biblical doctrine and practice needs to be spread out among the church members. That calls for a more simple, yet effective means of transferring biblical truth and the ability to teach as is found in 2nd Timothy 2:2. One such biblical tool that my son uses in Thailand, and my son-in-law utilizes in India, is Shepherds Global Classroom that was generated by the Bible Methodist Connection. The purpose is to train both pastors and other church leaders to effectively teach and train others. The materials cover most of the major and needful doctrinal areas of Classical Christianity, and they are written in such a manner to assist, what we would call less intellectual, believers biblical truth and the skills to teach and train others.

    Ultimately this movement calls for a more dedicated biblically informed body of believers, for under persecution, as has been demonstrated both in scriptures and throughout history, the enemy endeavors to remove leadership from their positions of influence. That places is a greater responsibility upon the laity to know, understand, assimilate, and disperse biblical truth.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Good points, Donald. Your description is one of the reasons we created Church Answers University (www.churchanswers.university).

  • Bruce Miller says on

    I am 71 years old and I am not ready to retire from being a pastor. Last March I resigned from my church because there was a group in the church that was doing all they could to turn people against me. This group was a family group that had been doing this for over 75 years. I have been seeking another church, but with no favorable response.

    Another problem is in my association there are ten churches looking for pastors, but only one is full time. I am not against being bi-vocational, but I have been full time for 35 years and don’t know what I could do.

    I am hoping that before too much longer one of the churches I have contacted will respond by calling me.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Bruce –

      If you are able to do bi-vocational ministry, I encourage you to consider it prayerfully. As you demonstrated, that is where the need is in more churches.

  • This is probably an unpopular opinion but I think the sectioning off of the church into age defined categories has contributed greatly to this issue. Many people my age (39) and younger spent their formative years in youth groups and young adults ministries that kept them somewhat separate from the regular life of the church. Rather than mentoring and encouraging younger Christians to be more involved, many older members want to maintain the status quo and this leaves capable young members feeling a bit disenfranchised. This was my experience and that of a number of my peers.

  • Some denominations have a pastoral model of multiple congregations, similar to circuit riding preachers of old. Another denominations offered me a church with 300 average attendance, but I’d also have to have another with 50.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That’s true, Ed. We are coaching a pastor who has responsiblity for two churches of two different denominations.

      Thank you for your input.

  • HECTOR Rodriguez says on

    In the Hispanic/Latino church setting there are a lot of retired pastor’s doing pastoral work on a part time bases. Principally because a shortage of pastors and the small size of churches that cant afford a full time salary for them. A lot of retired pastor’s are happy and able to serve in this part time capacity. Others Hispanic/Latino retired pastor’s are doing chaplaincy ministry, theological institutions teachings, some are doing coaching and the smallest group stay in their houses. There is a raising group of bi-vocational pastors.

  • Brian Adams says on

    Good morning, Thom.
    I am one of those pastors. Sixty-four years old, forty years service, been through a minefield of health issues over the last eight years, but now I’m coming out the other side of that and I’m looking forward to the next three or four years, God willing. There are days when the desire to retire now are greater, but I think I’ discerning that God is calling me to persist.
    We tried to recruit a new student minister for our congregation for three years. We were offering compensation in the 75th percentile according to Vanderbloemen. One bite, no more nibbles. No student minister.
    Under my wife’s leadership, passion, and training with Fresh Expressions, we started a Dinner Church January 16. We serve a good, bounteous meal, but the real emphases are having people sit down with our guests at the table and hear their story. What we add to the conversation are shared experiences that match the depth of what our guest is revealing. Then, we have a Jesus story and a short personal application. That’s it. Our first night we had nineteen with ten volunteers. Mostly steady growth has occurred with occasional jumps. We have now had as many as 99 and are averaging in the 80’s over the last two months. We’re seeing people draw nearer to Jesus.
    This is happening in NW New Mexico. Here in Farmington, we are surrounded by several different indigenous reservations. About a third of our city’s population are indigenous. The truth is that we would have never been able to attract or invite with success most of these people into our large, beautiful facility. Instead, we gather with them in an adjacent building across the street that is older, and not nearly so ostentatious.

  • Thanks, Thom, as always, for this information. For me, it provokes a good deal of reflection.

    God bless those Boomer pastors who continue to serve well. I think there is a broader cultural phenomenon happening with Boomers and retirement. It’s not universal, but I think it is significant. That change from our parents’ generation (who may have had the best “deal” for retirement – perhaps they earned it being “the Greatest Generation) is that many Boomers are choosing to work longer if they are doing professional (white collar) jobs. Blue collar work often takes a toll on the body, so I’m not sure they are staying much beyond 65-67. Tim Scott mentioned that challenge briefly at the last Republican debate when the discussion point was raising SS retirement age. Healthcare and awareness is much better than in previous generations, so Boomers are staying healthier and more energetic longer into their senior years. Of course, many Boomers are working longer because they can’t afford to retire. But I think a substantial number are working longer because they want to. For example, you’ve transition, but you haven’t “hung up your spurs.” As long as aging Boomers can contribute without harming an organization, I think that is a positive cultural change for everyone.

    But the challenge remains how to address the present and growing need for new pastors. You alluded to the possibility of training laypersons for the pastorate as well as promoting bi-vocational and co-vocational models. I fully concur with your enthusiasm and believe there are distinct advantages to those possible paradigm shifts.

    Our denominational region is exploring the idea of a lay pastoral training pathway with a seminary. Delivery will likely be virtual. I think online education offers tremendous opportunities for that kind of venture. But I’m a bit suspicious about a formal educational institution doing the training simply out of cost to the layperson. Will it be reasonable? How will they pay for it? Of course, having a seminary provide the training would likely strengthen the credibility of certification. I think the inclusion of a local pastoral mentor would be absolutely essential for such an educational program. I also think there are other models for pastoral training for laypersons as well that could be explored.

    These are real and significant challenges that also offer wonderful opportunities for growth in our churches, I believe. One final challenge, however, troubles me. My denomination is so burdened with administrative history and policy that I’m not confident that they can pivot quickly and creatively enough to meet the need. I suspect that my denomination is not unique in that way.

    Thanks again for your provocative post.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Bob –

      As usual, your post is filled with great insights. We need more people like you thinking through these issues. For sure, our challenges are many. But God is putting great opportunities before us. I need to listen to Him more carefully.

  • Tom gibson says on

    Retired at 65 after 43 years of parish ministry. Simply tired of committee meeting & conflict. Still preaching without the negatives.

  • Mark Miller says on

    I, along with other aging pastors, share your concern for pastors in the future. I realize God is not in panic mode over this, but I am looking for ways to train and equip younger pastors. I am 58, pastored for 27 years, and am connecting with pastors my age who share the same concern and are looking to coach, mentor and bring up future pastors. Your further thoughts on the subject are welcomed.
    Mark

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Mark –

      We at Church Answers are currently working directly with nearly 2,000 pastors in some type of mentoring relationship. But you are right; we need many more mentors. Thanks for encouraging our team to address this subject. We need to do so.

  • Retirement in America is both a blessing and a bane. A Christian’s retirement is called Heaven. As long as a pastor can still do the job he needs to stay at the helm and when he cannot he should have mentored men to take over the task while remaining a mentor.

    Old Testament priests became mentors after 50. They did not sit back on a rocking chair sipping the beverage of choice or putter around the temple.

    Until disability or death should be the motto of every Christian. Retired from the secular world? Welcome to full time ministry.

    I am 71 and a field Chaplain for the County Sheriff, a member of a city board, service PCs for single Mom’s, widows and Veterans, teach Sunday School, hold a service at a nursing home, pray for people at a rehab center, and participate in any volunteer activity available. I could still pastor a church, but I am too old by church standards these days. I have no desire to retire from ministry until I am babbling incoherently in a wheel chair.

  • William Arnold says on

    There’s a few things at play here. I am in vocational ministry and have been for almost 20 years. Part of that was spent running a search firm for pastoral candidates for my tribe of churches.

    At least in our background, the biggest issues were that decades ago Bible Colleges dedicated to raising up pastors became schools dedicated to offering an alternative educational space for any Christians, then as enrollment dropped, more students from different backgrounds (read not even Christians) were accepted in. The emphasis on producing pastors became less and less, and the quality of the output also lessened.

    Add in to that, church leadership at an all time low level of spiritual maturity and unwilling to stick with a pastor resulting in lots of church trauma, search teams that offer wages that worked 25 years ago but not today, and a church landscape where younger pastors have very few life stage friends available to them in their congregations as they age (read loneliness), and it paints a bleak picture.

    If my calling hadn’t been so crystal clear and confirmed I would have left ministry years ago myself.

    I think the future of the church in our context is training up lay church leaders in more of the missional community/house church context, with the hybrid ability to livestream worship/teaching from a central hub. I think almost all churches will either start dying or become larger and more centralized.

    I say this as a pastor of a growing church around 5-600 attendees (in other words despite our growth I don’t think we are presently doing something sustainable and the fruit isn’t as good as it looks on the surface).

    • Thom Rainer says on

      William –

      There is indeed a decidely lower emphasis on “calling the called” to pastoral ministry in both our educational institutions and in our churches. I totally agree, that if we do not raise up lay leaders, we will have an acute leadership void.

  • Terry Fleming says on

    Good morning Thom,
    Notwithstanding our denominational drama in The United Methodist Church, one of the significant issues relating to clergy recruitment, training, and retention has been the continually rising cost of traditional seminary education. After 3-4 years attending a UMC seminary at $20,000 plus per year for tuition and fees (not counting living expenses or the intangible cost of moving a family to be near the school), we put a new grad in a church making $45-55,000 and expect them to support themselves and their families and, oh, make payments on their student loans, too.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      You make some very good points, Terry. We often put pastors and other staff in difficult financial positions from onset of their ministry.

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