Mega Pastoral Vacancies in Megachurches

You could see it unfolding. Boomer megachurch pastors are retiring. The number grows every month. And, as we thought might take place, the churches are having difficulty finding their successors. In fact, we are seeing search committees or their equivalents taking longer and longer to find a pastor. This trend will soon become a crisis.

So, how did we get here? How did we get to the point where some of the largest churches in North America are having trouble finding pastors? Here are a few observations:

  • These churches have similar profiles of the type of pastor they want. And there aren’t many that meet that profile. I see it repeatedly. The requisite age is 38 to 49. The candidate must have proven leadership experience. The prospective pastor must currently be serving in a church with an attendance of 500 or more. Dynamic preaching is a given. Doctoral degrees are preferred but not mandated by all churches. Oh, and the candidate must be happily married with 2.6 children.
  • The number of Millennials who are in vocational ministry and meet the profile is small. I am amazed at the same prospective candidates I hear every time one of these growing vacancies unfolds.
  • Fewer Millennials are excited about leading a megachurch. They don’t view bigger as better. They want to plant themselves and their families in a community. They are not the prototypical ladder climbers.
  • Millennials are concerned about the large worship centers many megachurches have. They would rather have more services and more campuses than one large worship center. They see a number of megachurches that can’t come close to filling their current space even now.
  • Many search committees (or their equivalent) try to look for a pastor in the old traditional path. You know that path. Vote on a search committee. Have meetings every third week except on holiday weeks. Receive resumes without a filter. And if the church belongs to a denomination, ask the denomination to send the same recycled names. One recent exception, Mariners Church in Irvine, California, retained Vanderbloemen Search Group to take the non-traditional path and found a pastor in relatively short order. Too many of the megachurch search processes simply are old and stale.
  • Many megachurches did not have a succession plan. For the life of me, I don’t understand why. This process, if done well, could save a lot of time and heartache.

Because of the reasons noted above, we have a supply and demand crisis. The demand is growing, and the supply is small.

By the way, a megachurch by definition has a weekend average worship attendance of 2,000 and more. We are now seeing more churches with an attendance of 1,000 to 2,000 having the same challenges.

It is a problem. It is likely a crisis. Unless something changes, it can only get worse.

Photo Credit: Rockfordmark [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Posted on January 28, 2019

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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  • 2.6 children? How is a pastor supposed to manage that? (My first thought was, “Poor Horatio!” Fans of “The Andy Griffith Show” will understand. 😀 )

  • The problem in a lot of megachurches is that they are personality led. So when the pastor is no longer leading, no matter how good the succession plan or the search committee, the church dries up. Especially if the pastor has to leave due to either personal or financial misdeeds.

    Here in DFW, many years back three megachurch pastors were exposed on national TV. One of the pastors went to jail for tax evasion, the building now houses TD Jakes’ megachurch. A second bailed out of the area, that church declined (but at the same time, a nearby SBC church was rapidly growing, so they swapped buildings). The third divorced his spouse and also bailed out, that building is now a hockey rink.

    It’s not necessarily fatal, though. Being in a denomination can provide stability. A fourth DFW megachurch pastor quit after admitting to an affair (he actually had multiple ones, then tried to split the church by wooing many of the wealthier members to his new congregation). But instead, the committee found a solid candidate, and (even changing preaching styles from “positive thinking” to “traditional SBC”) the church is now one of the largest in America. You would instantly recognize the pastor and the church if I were to name them (and you probably have figured out who). And that pastor has a younger man who preaches on Saturday nights full-time (and frequently on Sunday mornings); it appears (to me) that he’s being groomed to take over once the pastor steps down. (They have a second campus, with another younger man who preaches there full-time.)

  • I am a 35-year-old who pastors a church between 1,000 and 2,000. My predecessor is a baby boomer who faithfully served here for 25 years, and left the church in a very healthy state.

    My predecessor made decisions in the years leading up to his retirement that set me up for success. He led the church to remodel nearly every part of our campus but the worship center, and specifically wanted his successor to get to put his own shape on the most important room on the campus. He didn’t leave too soon or too late, a timing which can only be clarified by the Lord. The debt on the church was very low, which was a big deal to him.

    Every church is unique, but I think it was healthy for our church to have a nine month interim between my predecessor and me. It gave the church time to mourn his transition into retirement. If we would’ve had a pass the baton service or an overlap period, I don’t think it would’ve gone nearly as well.

    Every pastor reading this who is on the verge of retirement, I hope you will come close to being as gracious, humble, and kind as my predecessor. He has supported me every step of the way. We didn’t know each other until weeks before the church voted on me, but its been a great experience.

    The two key words for a pastoral transition are HONOR from the new pastor and HUMILITY from the retiring pastor (I think I learned that from Vanderbloemen’s “NEXT” book).

  • And we have 1300 IMB missionaries that have left the field in the past few years, some with PhD’s and have led many, many to Christ, discipled, mentored and counseled in some of the most difficult areas of the world. Oh, that’s right, they don’t have “Stateside church experience!”

  • The SBC model of leading a church is broken and beyond repair in most cases because churches are too invested in large paid staff, 10 of thousands of building square footage to maintain, and an biblical model of church government.

    Couple that with the fact that the younger generations are not attracted to mega churches with huge buildings to maintain and large paid staff to fund.

    It makes no sense to spend so much of God’s resources on personnel budgets and building focused projects and maintenance.

    The up an coming generations want to invest time in small group life sharing relationships and they want to give their money and their time to making the global community a better place for everyone to live. That’s only going to get more widespread.

    Most of the men and women who are serving on committees are great people, they just have no clue what is coming in our culture and how to face that coming tsunami.

    They would rather hold on to the hope that things can “get back to the way they used to be,” if they would just hire the right young pastor. Or they are searching for a clone of the pastor who is retiring. Either way the change in culture is going to get them before they figure out that neither one of these are a solution for long term ministry viability.

    • *Un-biblical model of church governance

      • Jeremy Myers says on


      • I pastor a smaller church of about 120 in attendance each week. Many younger couples with kids are flocking to a mega church in our area because of the facilities and amenities that it has.

      • So true. I wrote about the phenomenon in my book, Scrappy Church.

      • That trend is beginning to change. Even all the amenities and the huge budget is increasingly not enough to keep people engaged. I believe God is going to allow us to slowly be stripped of everything but the gospel. If that happens we’ll be right where we need to be to see real kingdom impact.

      • I’m in an even smaller church. But it is ok if they’ll flock to church at all. Don’t let mega church influence bother you. You Be very happy for the kingdom of God expanding and appreciate the privilege and the grace that God has given to each to play a role. We are all one kingdom, one family, whether mega or mini.

    • YES Josh! That is exactly what I am seeing. Not very many of my newly adult kids friends or peers are slightly interested in the way we have bought or built major sized campuses and certainly do not want to financially pay for those, that is not at all the way they believe the NT church is supposed to function going forward. THAT is a problem and will become an increasingly difficult problem to solve in the very near future. Thanks for your insight!

    • The Church Growth movement continues to infect the SBC and the evangelical church at large. We no longer “count” church members, but rather worship attendance. Why? Because church size continues to be seen as a holy grail to be chased. Why? That’s how SBC defines significance. All that has come at a high price. People who identify as “Evangelical Christians” have drifted significantly from historical orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Regenerate church membership continues to erode (if not totally set aside) and biblical discipleship (formative and corrective discipline) has all but been redefined. The solutions from leadership haven’t changed in 3 generations… evangelize and baptize. “A million more in ’54” was unwise in 1954. It’s unwise today.

      In response to the SBC campaign to add 1 million to the Sunday School rolls back in 1954 (A Million More in ’54), Vance Havner said, “If we get a million more like we got in ’54, we’re sunk.” I’m not sure much has changed in 65 years. If anything, it may be more of a challenging

      The issue is not numerical, it’s theological. Biblically, the job of the church is to make and multiply reproducing disciples to the ends of the earth. If that’s true, our current “models” and ministries are failing tremendously. I’ve never been an advocate for throwing baby out with bath water, but I’m not sure I see how simple “tweaks” and “adjustments” will bring the reformation needed.

      • I used to question some things I didn’t like going on. One morning the Lord clearly told me “I am perfectly capable of taking care of my own business”. I realized my worry that things would derail was the problem;I was rather required to pray to God to make His will prevail, do the things I can control eg obey Him, do everything in love and humility, and trust Him to handle everything else.
        Don’t worry. He is perfectly in control. God bless.

    • Christopher says on

      The American church is nothing but a corporate institution based on marketing and personality. For this reason the focus is on making, or keeping, customers instead of discipleship. Multi campus churches are about increasing market share, not spreading the Gospel. The pastors of large churches function like a CEO because they have to. And just like any other company, replacing a powerful, visionary CEO is difficult (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Phil Night). And, just like any other company, as you increase market share you risk over extending and collapsing under your own weight. Frankly, using a search firm like Vanderbloemen is just another layer added to the corporate model.

      • Nancy Spitters says on

        I agree – discipleship is missing. Why have these pastors not groomed the next generation – Gen X by the way – to be ready when the boomer guy steps down? I think the discipleship issue is glaring, plus of course the ego of the celebrity pastor might not be able to conceive of stepping down? Just a thought.

      • Gen X was not wanted anywhere, e.g. civic organizations, religious ones, academia, politics, etc. The powerful people did not want Gen X to be trained in real-world skills because we came so soon and we might have been taking the jobs of our parents’ generation who weren’t ready to retire. We were the ones who weren’t given a separate service, younger pastor, or surveys to gauge our interests.

      • Christopher says on

        The truly disappointing thing is that a multi-campus church is the perfect way to raise up a new generation of pastors yet the mega church pastors simply see it as a way of getting their face on more and more big screens.

      • Pls don’t think so. It is less likely the pastors and committees would go through the trouble, spend more and all that so they can appear on multiple screens. Christians should be excited about reaching out to more people, even if it looks like ulterior motives, but not.

      • SO true. Corporate American church has lost its true purpose and I want nothing to do with it, but everything to do with Jesus and community where real discipleship take place. The church in America will continue to fall until it is reborn into the true church of Jesus, not the true church of republicans and megachurch consumers. Good riddance.

  • I have a solution. Look for and follow God’s direction to God’s man. The method is not important but yielding to God is.

  • Many churches expect their lead Pastor to be all, do all vs. Ep. 4:7,11… “But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;” And the bigger the church, the more all ???? of the diverse ministry giftings are demanded. And just like in secular enterprise, highly (very highly) rare is the person who posses more than one strong personal strength.

    • Alan Taylor says on

      I grew up in an early mega church. One of the challenges faced is not unusual to even the smallest church. The homogenous community that grew and became the mega church population doesn’t represent the current community. However, it does represent the current Pastor Search Team, or their equivalent.

      Churches often seek input from their congregations. I wonder what it would be like to have input from community individuals who were not part of the church. Would a group help the leadership recognize what the future is, not the past.
      Well, that’s my crazy idea for the day!

      • James Ford says on

        Why would you go to a group that is not part of the local church for input on the pastor of said local church. Those who are not part of the local church have no business leading the local church. If you want to do it properly the local church should be training up its own pastor, investing in someone who knows the culture of the church and lead it effectively to reach the community and bring them in to the church. The the members of the community are a part of the church and their advice is warranted. The church has no business disciplining those outside of it. Those outside of it have no business advising the church in what kind of pastor it should call. Sounds like that unbiblical teaching that says we want a church the lost want to attend. The church is for the saved.

      • Bennett Smith says on

        The Mission of the Church is about reaching people not keeping people. It’s not unbiblical to create a church that unchurched people LOVE to attend. The idea is that the focus of the “saved” who are already there is on “seeking and saving the lost” as opposed to a church for themselves. They are good! They are already going to Heaven.

      • Brian Hughes says on

        Bennett, you are wrong on this one. The mission of the church is to disciple people up to and including the point where they are “on mission,” and fully able to equip others through discipleship. Creating a church that the lost “Love to attend” leads to inch deep, “I raised my hand” Christianity, where lifestyles don’t change much, but people subscribe to a “treat everyone nice!” theology. This is the disease that infects much of the evangelical world today. I know, I WAS one of those who attended a church everyone loved to attend, I was living a life of selfishness and sin, and never was called out or convicted for it. It was the perfect church for me at that time, because there was no call to repentance, and I didn’t want one at that time.

      • It is also about helping the followers of Jesus with issues that have arisen and how to be more like Jesus in their daily lives.

        Brain, I learned that even though there is no “altar call” in the Episcopal church, there is a call to repentance or do something in every homily.

      • I don’t know the original poster’s intent but I’ll chime in from my denominational perspective. We (Episcopal Church) often have consultants, who are Episcopal people (not always clergy) come in to help a Parish or Diocese refine its search. They observe the practices of the worshiping body and listen to the desired traits for their pastor. They offer a fresh set of eyes to lead the search for a new leader.

        Maybe that’s what Alan was alluding to. I don’t find any issues with having someone to reflect on the search who isn’t entrenched in the search. I think you confuse inside and outside when it comes to his recommendation.

      • Someone said if you don’t like another person’s preferences, they are not necessarily wrong; just different. If you don’t like the emphasis some churches place on making unbelievable welcome, check with Jesus- if He is not bothered about reaching out to unsaved, neither should you. The long saved church members are equally sinful and immature, if no one calls them out of their pride and judgemental attitudes.

    • And that does not go over well in a mega church, but rather a united collection of healthy churches that work together for a common purpose in an area. “There is no church anywhere in Scripture that is smaller than a city.”

  • I know many pastors that fit that profile. They aren’t Millenials, though. They are GenX.

    Why is this generation completely absent from so many “experts” radar?

    • It’s a fair question, David. I should have included Gen X.

    • Sometimes I think they ought to call us “Generation Etc.”. That’s how most church growth specialists refer to us: “Baby Boomers, millennials, etc.”

      • They call us the lost generation for a reason. 25% of us never made us out of our mother’s womb, there will likely be only one GenX US President before they move onto Millennials.

  • Ken Brown says on

    One other thing you forgot to mention is the ageism problem these committees ar having. I am 65 and have been in bivocational ministry. I retired from my non-church job, not my choice by the way, and after years of being promised a paid position whereI have been serving, I have been told no. So I am looking for another position. Search committees flat say they are looking for someone younger, which is a problem. Moses was called by God at 80, so was Joshua. I have all of the experience being looked for, but another 10 years or so is not what folks want, they want 30 years of experience and someone who is also about 34.

    • Ken Brown says on

      Clarification- Retiring from my non-church job was the right thing to do as the Lord’s hand was in it. It was not my choice, but His.

    • I feel your pain, Ken. I applied for numerous ministry positions only to find they selected someone in their 20’s or 30’s, that didn’t qualify on paper for what they said they were looking for. The church (and search committees) are guilty of age discrimination, and will not be held accountable by man.

      • Bob Gillchrest says on

        many search committees are only responding to the church member’s desires with regard to age.

  • Darrin Cooper says on

    We were warned,,,

  • Kind of reminds me of the joke about the perfect pastor: 35 years old and has been preaching for 40 years.

  • Mark Smith says on

    I have a potential solution. A boomer is retiring… hire a Gen X man, not a Millennial!

    • Correct!! I do not understand how they are skipping an entire generation for one that is “young” but may not “know the way.”

      • I’m the youngest child in a large family. The older I get, the more I see things from the perspective of the neglected middle child. In my opinion, Generation X is the “neglected middle child” of modern society.

      • That’s not correct. Next Gens- like myself Are just the generation that was passed over but the last of the greatest.

    • I second that motion!

      • William Secrest says on

        Amen Ken! I have been thinking about this for a long time. Every time I read something about church growth or ministry it is done from the perspective of Millennials. Why? I have been in ministry for 17 years and I have always felt like we Generation X people have been ignored and kicked to the curb. Niki hit the nail on the head. They are young and many without direction. If they are not interested in serving in churches that are established, what kind of churches do they feel led to serve in?

    • David Chapman says on

      38-49 is Gen X

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