The Disappearance of the 30-Something and 40-Something Pastor (Here’s Why)

We’re all getting older. Almost every demographic in the United States is having fewer children. Population growth is slowing, and immigration rates are not fast enough to keep up with the aging nation.

In 1970, the median age was 28. Half the population was older than 28, and half the population was younger than 28. This midpoint is now approaching 40. So we’ve shifted from a younger nation to a middle-aged nation.

The economic implications of this shift are enormous but beyond the scope of this brief article. However, what is of note to the church is the aging of pastors, which has occurred at an even faster rate.

We are witnessing the disappearance of the 30-something and 40-something pastor.

The age of a pastor has increased significantly. Now, there is nothing wrong with an older pastor. Pastors with decades of experience typically have the wisdom and perspective needed within an established church. The issue is not one of age. It’s the lack of younger pastors available to replace them that is the problem.

A typical pastor today is approaching retirement age. Frankly, there are not enough younger pastors to replace a large group of retiring Baby Boomer pastors.

The perspective of some churches with older, retiring pastors is exacerbating the problem. Once they begin to search for a pastor, they will look for an idealized version of a 30-something Baby Boomer pastor from a bygone era. Obviously, this pastor does not exist. The few candidates available will look and lead very differently. As a result, churches will struggle to fill positions as willing candidates get frustrated with search teams.

Bi-vocational models and co-vocational models are becoming more popular.

Not only is the median age of a pastor increasing, but the median size of a church is also decreasing. The response to this phenomenon is an increase in the number of pastors and staff who will not receive full-time compensation. A bi-vocational pastor serves at a church that cannot afford a full-time position. Co-vocational pastors serve churches in a mutually agreeable arrangement in which their positions are not full-time, even though funds are available.

What are the opportunities for bi-vocational and co-vocational positions?

    1. A marketplace job puts you in the middle of culture on a regular basis.
    2. Bi-vocational and co-vocational church staff are less likely to get missionally stale in a holy huddle.
    3. The budgets of smaller churches are healthier with these positions.
    4. Work-from-home opportunities are making bi-vocational and co-vocational positions more attainable. Many pastors can now move to the communities where their churches are located.
    5. Both bi-vocational and co-vocational positions allow churches to expand staff when they don’t have the resources to pay full-time.
    6. Bi-vocational and co-vocational pastors have the potential to lead differently because their livelihoods are not completely dependent on their church pay.
    7. Both bi-vocational and co-vocational pastors have more transferable skills in the marketplace.

Pastors are getting older, and this trend will likely continue in the near term. However, there are opportunities for churches. The future can be bright with bi-vocational and co-vocational pastors.

 

For more information about the most recent research and current church trends, check out our resource Big Storms and Blue Oceans, which includes both an e-book and video content. 

Posted on June 7, 2023


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’m curious if you’ve done research on age discrimination in ministry regarding mega churches not wanting to hire older pastors, that they look for younger (hip) pastors in order to reach the younger generations. I’ve seen older (45 and older) who had Bachelors and Masters in ministry overlooked for pastoral positions and where younger with only high school diplomas to be trained to be pastors

  • Mark Snead says on

    I have been full time as a lead and staff pastor. I have also been bi-vocational. Early in my career I thought I had to have full-time pastoral employment to be effective. You may think your ministry needs fifty to sixty hours a week of your time, but in a small church, probably not. You also may be missing opportunities in the marketplace.

    The article makes a good point. Bi- and Co- vocational pastoring is a viable and in some cases desirable choice. If the Church size makes it unable to pay full time salaries, the position probably has time available to work or volunteer somewhere else. Ten to fifteen hours a week outside of your Church and office would probably afford you many more opportunities to reach the unchurched.

  • Mark Snead says on

    I agree with the perspective, churches are looking to rekindle a by gone era. I was talking to a minister,who attends a church with only a handful of members less than fifty years of age. The church works hard to reach into the community. However, it seems they just want to find new members to continue their traditional ways of doing things. I suggested they take a look at Church Answers for a start. Hopefully they will.

  • Being 34 myself and going through Bible college and seminary having worked as a youth pastor, overseas missionary, small church pastor, and pastor on a staff of a church of 700-1000, my experience has been that many of our more senior congregations are intolerant of change.

    The expectation is growth, younger family engagement, and community outreach, but there is a discomfort when new people do visit, a resistance to meet the desires of younger families in their method of worship, and all outreach and discipleship is expected from the pastor only.

    In my mid to late 20s I prayed and sought out guidance from seminary staff, and in the end decided to respectfully step down as a pastor after 2 1/2 years. My wife and I felt that we had more opportunities for ministry outside the church, and it wasn’t worth the constant criticism that would eventually lead to burn out our constant frustration that may lead to a church divide.

    The church still remains unchanged from its club like meetings, and unfortunately still haven’t found a pastor in the 5 years since. Most of not all of the younger families, found another church.

    That being said, working as a pastor of discipleship and coordinating 10 Sunday school classes with people of the same age, directly following the small church ministry, was night and day. We had great fellowship, they welcomed new people into their classes, and all of my teachers supported me and defended me when people voiced their views about curriculum etc.

    I could have happily continued on at that church for decades, but my goal in seminary was to become a Navy Chaplain, and after 2 1/2 years of serving I have had amazing opportunities for ministry to atheists, witches, people of every denomination, people of other faiths, and those who lost all hope on the edge of suicide.

    Even despite the differences I may have with the Marines or Sailors I serve, I still feel better respected and appreciated than by those in my first pastoral ministry.

    While our seminaries and colleges are probably doing great training our students in scripture there needs to be training on church leadership, conflict resolution, and how to navigate the application process of a prospective church.

  • I chose to become bi-vocational in 1979. With the power struggles within congregations today, the fact that some “fully supported ministers” are not “adequately supported by their churches”, and the ultimate freedom bi-vocationalism gave me to serve real churches filled with people who “also had jobs just like the pastor”, and not be dependent upon the church for income, was a blessing. Paul is one example of bi-vocational ministry. I retired 5 yrs ago after 40 years with the State as a Counselor, and am in my 36th year serving my bi-vocational rural church. During my tenure with the state, many opportunities to witness and be a Christian listening ear occurred. I worked side by side with those who would never have darkened in the door with “Church” written on it. Ministry happens regardless of where we are if we are following His call.

    • Tommy Gaskin says on

      Im retired now but i went that same route and i understand everything you said to be true. Ive experienced it. Most churches, not all dont understand the sacrifices a pastor has to make just to be their pastor and preacher. Id do it all over again if i had to for the LORD . But your words hit a chord with me.. Thank you!!!!

  • I have pastored for about 15 years. For the first 10 years, I was bi-vocational. For the last five years I have been full-time. As someone who has done both, I can say that I am not excited about the vocational/co-vocational trend. It’s almost impossible to find any balance while working a job, taking care of a family and pastoring a church. Looking back now. I don’t know how I did it for all of those years. The potential for neglecting one’s family, lacking sufficient sermon prep, and full-blown burn out are always there. There is a reason that the apostles told the church to appoint deacons so that they could devote themselves fully to the word of God and prayer. New church trends in recent days seem to always be going to the left of where they should be and I think this is just another to add to that list. If churches would commit themselves to taking good care of
    serious, doctrinally sound pastors I believe they will find that in the coming years they will be light years ahead of the churches that aren’t willing to do this.

  • Bob Myers says on

    Sam,
    The bi-vo/co-vo models are exciting, I think. I have, however, served in that capacity and it is quite challenging as I never quite felt like I was able to give my best in all my varied endeavors. But that feeling was also likely driven by my desire to be full-time. If the pastor can feel content and sees the value of a bi-vo arrangement, then I think it can be a win-win. Churches, of course, will need to adjust expectations and ministry models. But that could be more healthy for them.

    I’m also wondering if a contributing factor to the challenge of replacing so many Boomer pastors (my generation) is that generation was the last in America to experience a powerful revival in the Jesus People Movement. It produced a lot of people called into ministry. There hasn’t been anything like it since then. Perhaps that is another factor in so many pastoral openings with such a small pool to draw from.

    Just a thought…

    • Sam Rainer says on

      Bob – You bring up really good insight about the Jesus People Movement, something I had not considered. But I believe you’re right! It deserves more research. You’re on to something…

      • Andrew C Williams says on

        Unfortunately too many young pastors give up before they begin. Churches would rather hire pastors out of retirement than take a chance on a young pastor

  • Thanks for the article Sam.
    I’m one of those 30-something to 40-something year old pastors who served in worship and discipleship/administration. However, I was forced out of my last church, entered the marketplace, and am now attempting to re-enter ministry after a 4 year break. Churches don’t seem to want me since I’m “too old” to be cool and hip and am “too young” to be seen as experienced (even though I served for 12 years at larger churches with over 500 people attending).

    The only churches that ever contact me are smaller and seem unwilling to let me be a pastor/leader. They want someone to do a specific task a certain way and leave everything else up to THE pastor and/or elders. Do you have any data that shows WHY churches don’t want the 30-something to 40-something ages involved in leadership?

    • Sam Rainer says on

      Steve – It’s a great question, and I’m sorry you’ve experienced a tough season in ministry. As to why, books could be written on the subject. But I would condense the problem down to unrealistic expectations, power dynamics, personal preferences, and spiritual warfare.

    • I’m in the same boat as you, Steve!

  • Word got out that churches and temples were not good places to do ministry and chewed up and spit out clergy and so seminary students opted to not enter full time congregational ministry.