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

  • Doug Harper says on

    Tom, what I see is churches merging together with combined staff . Also, a lot of streaming and advanced video is going to one about. Also, I think the lead pastor is going to telecast his sermon live to several satellite churches who can no longer afford to hire pastors and support staff. Change is ah coming!

  • Doug Harper says on

    Tom, what I see is churches merging together with combined staff . Also, a lot of streaming and advanced video is going to one about. Also, I think the lead pastor is going to telecast his sermon live to several satellite churches who can no longer afford to hire pastors and support staff. Change is ah coming!

  • Ruth Vaughan says on

    Interesting information. The irony is that my husband, a seminary-trained & gifted pastor, has searched for a year for a church with no success, being passed over time & again. The tragedy is that he may be one of those who leave the ministry.

  • The Rev Canon Dr Murray Still says on

    I am a 69 year old Anglican pastoring two Lutheran congregations coming together as one

    It is a half time interim ministry to prepare the two congregations so they can hire a full time pastor

    I was ordained in 1989 and my experience will be useful as the two congregations prepare for unity and growth. Young families are beginning to return after a hiatus from Covid

    From my perspective I see God preparing the body to return to unity in Christ pre Reformation. As the Church rediscovers the joy of being a disciple and follows Jesus teachings others will know through our actions of unity

    I have seen many congregations collapse as the congregation ages. An experienced pastor can help shepherd and mentor younger pastors so they don’t abandon ship

    I intend to fully retire at 70 but that only means paid ministry ends. Our life in Christ will always leads us to new life new opportunities and ways to serve

    The doctrines and religious institutions may collapse but the body of Christ will always exist. Let’s work together to make it happen

  • Samson Otieno says on

    Reading this and wondering what the situation is like in Africa, I am a pastor ministering in Kenya who entered the ministry in my twenties and is now in my late forties. While much older pastors continue to hold the forte for the younger folks, some of the young ministers are putting their hats in the ring of ministry for totally different reasons, motivated by what’s in it for them financially, and that’s a sad state of affairs: we have more of the young folks trooping into pastoral ministry for material gain and not necessarily informed by authentic calling.

  • Jim scsggs says on

    Perhaps the church is her own worst enemy,and after they experience(The younger ministers)the venom that many churches spew,against them or their family, simply because there are those in the church see changes being made for the good (not changing the message),but the way the church does her outreach or in most cases implementing an outreach program where there has been none for many years(and changing somethings you know this is how we have done things for the last 100 years so why change things) Perhaps they simply say I nor my family needs this venom and simply tells them what they can do with their church.

  • I can testify to your comment about non traditional training for ministry. The Lord put on my heart a couple of decades ago about raising up minister right from the saints in my church. I developed a brief training course I call, ” Discipling to Ministry.” I have had over 50 people go through it over the years. Most weren’t called to the five fold ministry, but still wanted to go through it. However I have ordained several men for ministry and have a few more that will be ordained in the future. I say all that to say it really does work to raise up ministers right in the local church.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I love what you are doing, Terry. That is one of the motivations that led us to create Church Answers University.

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