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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  • Shelvin Lamb says on

    Respectfully, I think three of the main problems are:

    (1) The profile. There are plenty of Godly and qualified candidates. However, churches eliminate them without even a consideration because of the said ‘profile’
    (2) Churches bringing on a successor before the exit. I know there are examples of success, but they are fewer than you think, and when this doesn’t work, it can set the church back for decades. Plus, shouldn’t a long time Godly minister trust that the congregation he has led will be more than able to seek God for the next leader without him (often times) solely making the selection.
    (3) Churches not using the old fashioned way of searching for a pastor. Whatever happened to a churches’ lay leaders or associate pastors earnestly praying and asking 2-3 trusted pastors who know your specific situation recommending a candidate. Then a group (so called committee) coming together, praying and visiting at length with one candidate at a time, pursuing it until God closed the door. I

    I know what I have said isn’t popular. I just really think we have greatly complicated the search.

    • Christopher says on

      I agree with much of what you said, but how is asking another pastor for a recommendation any different than the current pastor recommending someone? Or how is it any less limiting than a preconceived profile?

      • Shelvin Lamb says on

        Certainly the current pastor should recommend ……. if asked. I’m just curious how other pastors would answer or make comments on my point: if you (senior pastor) have led well, can’t you trust your congregation and key leaders to lead well during the interim, and make a Godly and wise decision. If you can’t, ……… that may say something about leadership, fellowship and most importantly followship.

  • Thom Rainer, I have 2 questions. My aposlogies if they were mentioned in the comments already.

    Why do some of these mega-churches not have a succession plan? Do they not have anyone in their thousands that are called and qualified to serve?

    I think if we investigate these questions, we may not like the answers as to why or what we may find about the character of the retiring pastors and their churches.

  • There is so much “stuff” at stake in a Pastoral transition of a large church. There have been so many failures. Prevailing wisdom dictates that you must set up filters to filter out the characteristics that might lead to anyone of the many generalized or alledged failure points. So you feel forced to look for a needle in a hay stack. There is no way around this complexity and fear of bombing a large church. “Trust God” seems like a mere platitude, chancy, and a reversal of “prevailing wisdom”. God is not responsible for this struggle.

  • Another issue why many churches will pass up great candidates with years of pastoral experience from larger attendance churches who lead staff meetings, staff teams, various ministry teams, preaching regularly, etc. because they are “Associate” pastors who do not have “Senior” pastor experience. We have a multitude of godly and great associate pastors in our churches with education and experience who would lead and feed the flock of a larger church well.

  • So am I missing something here? If they are looking for a man who is 38-49, they are looking for a Gen-Xer. Gen Y begins 1980/1982. So the above is a non-sequitur. “Churches want someone in the Gen-X age range, but most millennials don’t want to take a large church.”

    • Mark Smith says on

      Zack you nailed it. With all due respect to Thom, he often on this blog fails to make a distinction between Gen X and the Millennials, but not in a good way. I have pointed it out before. I think this highlights even more the “Jan Brady” treatment that Gen X gets!

      • James Bowers says on

        Mark –

        Haven’t heard from you a while! I see you are back to your self-appointed role of being Thom’s blogosphere critic. You might consider starting your own ministry at the college where you teach. It’s easy to criticize; it’s tough to lead.

      • Don’t you just love how church growth specialists almost invariably say, “Baby Boomers, millennials, etc.”? That’s us: “Generation Etc.”

  • I’ll also add this thought,

    Church today is seen as this place of worship and connection and all that the “temple” was.
    In fact it is and is meant to be to a degree what is missed by many is – the temple was a place of learning, study, healing and so much more.
    whether small building or big multi-site complex, the job is the same. The Mission is the same. Reach the Lost

    the primary function of the building is to be a hub for the messengers (Christians) of God to gather and refuel and connect while also being and displaying the Glory (Light) of the Gospel of Jesus – The beauty of Holiness and Value of not following the world’s way… The building is concrete tool – to display model the earthen vessel which is suppose to be drawing the lost toward the light that is within (The earthen vessel – man)

    While there’s nothing wrong with getting the lost to come to a building, The Spirit of the building is supposed to be and is traveling where you go daily.

    Jesus wasn’t just saving souls at the “church house” temple. on the way to and from church he was saving souls. on the way to grocery store. walking by the riverside…
    His light is in you. His glory is in you. to take to the world and draw them and their experience to the education center (the church building) so all can learn to go out and reach more.

    lastly, the thing about the temple that’s sometimes forgotten is, all that it functioned to serve it did so daily. people were always coming and going – giving and receiving; not just on one day a week.

  • Dreaded Millennial here,

    For a little perspective:

    Johnny Hunt was 34 when FBC Woodstock called him.
    Ronnie Floyd was 31 when FBC Springdale called him.

    I’m 35 with a mortgage, married for 13 years with 3 kids. 17 years of ministry, 12 of them full time. I don’t think all of you realize that we’re not even considered young professionals anymore. We’re the age that churches have been looking for, for a long time. That’s not to say a gen x would be a bad choice, but it’s super common to hire a pastor in his 30’s and has been for decades…maybe longer.

    There is obviously a great need in the church for us to do a better job training our people for succession. It would be easier to place blame on search committees, but they’re poor at the search process because they haven’t been led. Most of those folks are godly men and women just trying to do the best they can to call a great pastor to their church. I’ve got to say, i’m very encouraged by how intentional Johnny Hunt has been with his succession. He has really helping set up their new pastor for success. I have great expectation that the Lord will bless that decision. If all goes well, I hope many more churches will consider that route.

  • Jevon Caldwell-Gross says on

    My wife and I are interested in co-pastoring together. We currently serve on a staff at a church that sees about 2500 per Sunday. What other resources are available out there where we can look for churches in this process of looking for a pastor (s)

  • Why wouldn’t a pastor be grooming his successor well in advance of retirement? Great businesses do this all the time. No reason why a successful church shouldn’t be doing the same.

    • It is not always the pastor’s job to pick his/ her successor.

      • Agreed, but if the next leader is developed years in advance and the church and leaders see him grow into the role as a capable individual, the process can eliminate a lot of problems later on. This won’t work every time for sure, but its a lot better than a pastor retiring and the unprepared church scrambling for a replacement last minute.

      • The problem is the same in the private sector. Internal candidate vs external. Internal knows the system but has the baggage of politics. External doesn’t have the baggage but doesn’t know the internal parts. I have seen good people come from both places and bad ones as well.

  • John Crisp says on

    I am on the upper end of the Millennial group, and I have found that for me it is more fulfilling to revitalize than go to a mega church. We enjoy realness not a facade that comes with the stigma of mega churches. I have degrees, we have seen numerous successes during our tenures. To me what is so great about trying to Pastor thousands. To preach to yes that is not difficult, but to Pastor that is different. There is my two cents anyways.

  • I’ve often wondered what the apostle Paul would have thought about search committees–and now hiring outside companies to find a new pastor. I wonder what would happen if all 1000-2000 members got together and prayed for God to send them the man of His choosing? Today, we just hire and fire pastors instead of having them called by God.

    • Tom, I don’t wonder at all at what Paul would have thought. He said “imitate me”. He was the pattern and example to follow. He “equipped” men from the church to lead the church in a shared relationship. He left and entrusted it to them. These were businessmen who did not need a salary because they shared the work.(Ephesian elders Acts 20:17- ) “Preach the word”, did not mean lecture the word by only one man back then because every believer is a messenger sent from the one higher authority to deliver a message (kerusso). All believers are called to the ministry which includes teaching. “Appoint elders in every church” in multiple instructions and examples is meaningless today. Why? Church leadership is set up for a one man focal point that is the solo focus of ministry. Shepherding is now a perpetual dependency routine, rather than a shared and multiplying practice. The clergy routine has been considered godly for 1500 years. We can fix it if we step out of the bubble and test what we has been handed down to us.

  • Give me a man who loves the Lord and is led by the Spirit of God. I have seen churches that are looking for a pastor with an MDiv, PhD and all of the other titles. I have had professors in Seminary who taught against the virgin birth of Jesus. I have known men who were seminary trained and taught things that were far from biblical. And yet, churches are sometimes more interested in titles and degrees than they are in the actual man of God. They are more interested in whether the man can play an instrument and handle all of the social media and take out the trash. They must have 3 kids and be between 25-39 and married. Can you imagine a man of Paul’s standing being rejected by today’s churches? there are many good men who can preach with conviction, passion and with proper motives (not money-led), that never get hired because of the closed eyes of some of the churches. I believe EVERY church that is looking for a pastor should take into consideration all biblical standards and allow God to lead them in the search. Man has a way of getting in the way!

    • Ken Brown says on

      While in Bible school, we had a group take Paul and create a resume for him. He was rejected by everyone the resume went to. Too much jail time.