What to Expect if You’re a Church’s First Millennial Pastor

By Sam Rainer

 A big wave is coming towards the church. It’s the swell of retiring Boomer pastors. Most Boomer pastors are currently between the ages of 50 and 68. They won’t all retire at once, so this wave won’t crash into the church like a tsunami. However, I don’t believe the North American church is prepared to replace these pastors. Here are a few implications of retiring Boomer pastors:

  •       There will be more pastoral vacancies than qualified candidates.
  •       Few churches are giving any thought to pastoral succession.
  •       There will be an abundance of qualified pastors for interim and bi-vocational positions.
  •       Some Boomer pastors will stay at their current positions into their late 60s and 70s.
  •       Some Boomer pastors will lead their churches to merge with another congregation.

I want to focus on what will happen when these pastors are inevitably replaced—more importantly, who will replace them. A new generation of leaders—Millennials—will inherit these church positions. I’m the oldest of the Millennial generation. Most date the birth of Millennials between 1980 and 2000. I barely make the cut as a February 1980 baby, but I connect with Millennials more than any other generation.

As Millennials begin to become senior pastors, their churches will have many Gen Xers, Boomers, and Builders. Of course, the percentages will eventually shift to churches full of older Millennials, but such a shift will take decades.

 I’ve been the first Millennial pastor of churches in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida. After some trials (a few) and errors (many) at these churches, here’s what I’ve discovered: We Millennials think and act quite differently than previous generations. In short, it’s a bit awkward when Millennial pastors lead in churches full of Boomers and Builders, especially the first time it occurs.

While each church is unique and within a specific context, there are generalizations across generations. Generally, what should Millennial pastors expect as they begin to lead established churches?

  1. You are more comfortable with complexity and messiness than older generations. Millennials don’t like labels. Millennials push back on categories. The Boomers did this to a degree, but we’ve taken it to an extreme. For example, even if we associate more with one political party, we don’t admit it. The upside about this generational trait is Millennial pastors are better equipped sociologically to handle complex and messy churches. The downside of this trait is older generations look at us like we’re Jell-O, and we get confused when they try to nail us to the wall. But all generations have something to add. When you combine the dogged clarity of Builders with the adaptability of Millennials, you get something beautiful in the church.
  2. You are less loyal than previous generations. Your grandfathers started working at 16, and they stayed with the company until they retired. My generation is quite the opposite. Ninety-one percent of Millennials expect to stay in a job for less than three years. The upside of this trait is flexibility. Leading while not being chained to a particular place is freeing—unbiased decisions come more easily. The downside of this trait is older generations may not trust Millennials to make these types of decisions due to a perceived lack of loyalty.
  3. You care more about vision and less about tactics. Millennials are quick to talk with grandness about the potential for change. Perhaps it’s due to us being the youngest adult generation. We still have some maturing to do. Regardless, we love big vision. But what older generations want to know is how we are going to achieve it. One of the best bridges a Millennial pastor can build to Boomers and Builders is allowing them to handle the tactics of vision. They’ve been there, done that. And, for the most part, they are better at it.
  4. You communicate differently. Very differently. So differently that you might as well speak in another language. The rotary dial generation is passing the baton to the Wikipedia generation. And Millennials need to be more courteous when communicating with older generations. While we might forgive each other for talking and swiping smartphones at the same time, Boomers and Builders believe it’s rude. If you talk with a Boomer while also checking your phone, then they will just turn on anger, tune in frustration, and drop out of listening to you.

The wave of Millennials becoming leaders in established churches is just beginning. In 10 years, major shifts will occur. Soon many churches will hire a Millennial senior pastor for the first time. Millennials, it’s on you to work with older generations, not against them. Leadership is a gift, not a right. If older generations are going to give you this gift, then treat it well.  

Posted on December 4, 2019

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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  • Sam, I’m curious by what you meant when you stated, “There will be more pastoral vacancies than qualified candidates.” How exactly is a candidate “qualified” to fill one of these pastoral vacancies? Divorced? Not enough experience? I’m not trying to be snarky-I am just curious what the criteria is. Thanks!

    • Some are objective, e.g. married male with children, 20 years’ experience, DD, MDiv, etc. Others are subjective and those are harder to achieve like likeable, dynamic, etc. It is what the committee wants when they are looking.

  • I sympathize with Allan as well. I was born in 1972, and became a Christian at 19. In other words, I was not raised in youth group. I felt called to ministry, but it was impossible at the time to get traction with the leaders of my church (this was 27 years ago now), because the boomer pastors I knew were not looking for young men to train, and if they were it was youth group kids. It was rough. In fact, this reality has persisted from 1992 until today. GenX really is the forgotten generation, and it is a shame.

    We are small for two reasons. One, our generation is only allotted 16 years instead of 20. I have no idea why. Second, many of us were slaughtered in the first wave of abortion.

    Ignoring GenX is a tragedy of the modern American church. To this day I see few people my age in the church.

  • Gen X was never wanted in any organization, secular or religious. The millennials are now wanted (or at least catered to) because someone is needed to replace those dying off. There were plenty of people for organizations when Gen X was younger and so we weren’t needed or wanted. We did not think like our parents but had to learn quickly to not ask questions and keep our mouth shut. Well, some of us did not do this well enough or got upset when we had to and were promptly thrown out. This is why there aren’t many of us in churches, civic organizations, etc.

    • lovelypeace says on

      And those of us Gen X’ers who are involved in churches and civic organizations are often get the same speech from our elders – “we’re so glad to see you here, but why are your peers so stupid and don’t get it?” Then, our elders wonder why we just stop showing up for things or want to be involved. But they never actually ask why or what’s wrong – they just see our absence as some sort of failure on our parts to see how wise these things are. The routine gets old very quickly.

      The crazy thing is that we’d tell you if we knew that people actually cared enough to ask and came off as valuing our opinions on the situation. Gen X’ers love to fix problems and want to find workable solutions – not get lectured at. We are very independent (because we’ve had to be), but are more than willing to work on a team for a common goal for a great cause.

      I split my time between two churches these days and the contrast between the two is very shocking. One of the churches knows how to utilize tech and the other doesn’t. One church has friendly church staff that are easy to deal with, the other church has rude, unhelpful people on staff. One church asks for on-going feedback to programs and is willing to hear new ideas – the other……not so much. Feedback is rarely asked for and nothing actually come from it if they ask you for feedback – so why waste your time? It’s easy to guess which one has more families/Gen X’ers and millennials in it.

      I’m glad that people are thinking about these issues and I hope someday that my home church will finally welcome in the 21st century. A younger pastor would be an added bonus.

  • Stuart Allsop says on

    I couldn’t help noticing what is, perhaps, the key issue in this article: “Ninety-one percent of Millennials expect to stay in a job for less than three years. The upside of this trait is flexibility. Leading while not being chained to a particular place is freeing—unbiased decisions come more easily.” Other generations, including the oft-forgotten Gen-Xers, would probably call that “Lack of commitment”.

    If a new pastor arrives at a church with a dazzling new vision, but deep down has the attitude “I’ll be outta here in a couple of years so I can be free again.”…, that doesn’t bode well at all. If he also exhibits the other traits mentioned (paying more attention to his cell phone than to real-life conversations with his congregants; not being concerned about the mess and complexity he might leave behind when he cuts and runs to pursue more interesting horizons), …. hmmmm… I’d say that this church is in for one rough ride!

    Personally, I wouldn’t call that “leadership” at all.

    Leadership isn’t just about planting a vision: it is also about sticking around in the long term to see it through, and communicating effectively with those following the leader. Jesus himself made it clear that ministry leadership isn’t about “What’s in it for me?”: it’s about “What can I do to help others?”. Is the future of most churches really going to be a never-ending series of dynamic new pastors with minimal communication skills, dropping in to plant yet-another long term vision, only to see him jump ship shortly, and be replaced by one more cookie-cutter copy of the same? I certainly hope that’s not the plan.

    Please excuse my cynicism, but I have seen several such organizations over the years (not just churches), and they tend to not fare well in the long term. The book of Acts seems to present a better plan, that has worked rather well over the last couple of millennia. The new “millennia” should probably pay more attention to that, and less attention to themselves.

    • Well said! Many pastors wonder why older church members are uncooperative with them. That’s because many church members are thinking, “We were here long before you came, and we’ll be here long after you’ve gone.” Unfortunately, flighty pastors tend to feed that attitude.

      In fairness, that kind of flightiness is not unique to millennial pastors Not by a long shot. American Christians of all generations (clergy and laity) need to rediscover the meaning of commitment.

      • Stephanie says on

        But is it fair or helpful for the congregations to take that “we’ll be here after you’re gone” attitude with their pastors? Doesn’t such an attitude beget this chicken-or-the-egg question: Do pastors stay around shorter than they should because the congregations treat them like they will and don’t accept their leadership or vice versa? I understand where it comes from, but I’d argue that its’ being understandable doesn’t make it right.

      • “But is it fair or helpful for the congregations to take that “we’ll be here after you’re gone” attitude with their pastors?”

        I’m not saying it’s fair, but it is what it is. That’s not my point. My point is, pastors who only stay a short time do nothing to encourage them to change that attitude. Mind you, I know as well as anyone that a short stay is not always the pastor’s fault, and I’m not talking about pastors who had to leave due to circumstances beyond their control. I’m talking about pastors who purposely use smaller churches as stepping stones to bigger churches.

  • Craig Giddens says on

    Whether they are a “Boomer”, “Xer”, or “Millennial” the question is are they going to build and encourage their congregation’s confidence in the Bible as the word of God? Is their preaching ministry going to be centered around the systematic preaching and teaching from the Bible? Not only will they preach and teach from the Bible, but are they going to teach the congregation how to study the Bible for themselves and encourage them to question the assumptions?

    • And are they going to pastor or just preach?

      • Craig Giddens says on

        They’re going to pastor by primarily preaching and teaching the Bible. Yes, there is much involved in being a pastor, but the word of God should be his central focus. If not, then you don’t have a pastor, but a CEO.

      • Pastoral ministry is VERY IMPORTANT. Being a pastor…a shepherd…to the people is something very different from being a CEO.

      • Craig Giddens says on

        Pastoral ministry is indeed “very important”, but I’m afraid sound Bible preaching and teaching is becoming just another function of the pastor instead of the central focus. One of the reasons there is confusion in the church today is lack of sound doctrine and understanding scriptural truth. Read 1 and 2 Timothy and note Paul’s emphasis on the importance of scripture referring to the church as “the pillar and ground of the truth”. The pastor shouldn’t just stand behind the pulpit but should be getting closely involved with the congregation whether in small groups or one-on-one personally teaching the Bible and teaching individuals how to study for themselves so they can stand firm on their own.

  • Kevin Shearer says on

    I’m a Boomer, born in 1954. I have more road behind me (a LOT more) than I do ahead of me. The journey has been great! I was beginning my ministry when Gen-Xers were still learning to ride bikes. Some were in training pants. I think you guys appear largely ignored because you still carried a lot of Boomer traits, values, and beliefs. You could operate a rotary-dial phone. You lived pre-computer and pre-smart phones. You could operate a can opener. You remember cassette tapes, VCRs, and the dawn of the CD. But when the Millennials arrived on the scene of adulthood, they came within the cultural shift that has swept the world. So they are more easily identified. No offense to any X-ers out there. But Sam is correct about how the aging Boomers will view the Millennials. And I appreciate the observations.

    • Maybe Generation X should be renamed “Generation Chopped Liver”. Every time I read one of these articles, I find myself asking, “What are we, chopped liver?” Evidently some people think so.

      • Kevin Shearer says on


        I, for one, do not believe Gen-Xers are chopped liver. I was on the mission field in Peru with many Gen-Xers. I loved their passion. I loved their work ethic. They were cutting-edge and front-line men and women. They took what others laid as a foundation and built on it. They rolled up their sleeves and worked where many would not. One of our ministries was called The Extreme Team. Gen-Xers were the Extremers. They endured what others of us would not, possibly could not. That’s not chopped liver….

        As for the USA during those 20 years of international ministry, I dare not opine beyond what I have said.

  • I think you hit a nerve, Sam!!

  • As usual, no mention of Generation X. Personally, I think they ought to start calling us “Generation Etc.” That’s how we’re usually mentioned in church growth publications: “Baby Boomers, millennials, etc.”

    • Ken – I understand the frustration. Part of the issue is many demographers use only ten or fifteen years to define Gen X, as opposed to twenty which usually defines other generations. Because the generation is smaller, it does not get as much attention as others. It’s unfair, certainly.

      • For years, my generation was told that we were too young to understand what the world was all about. Then, around the time we turned forty, people suddenly decided we were too old. “Frustrating”, you say? That’s the understatement of the century!

  • If you are the oldest millennial, then I guess I am the youngest gen x, born 11 days before 1980.

    I’m kind of with Allen, that now being in my second Boomer church, I can’t possibly imagine a Boomer dominant church being the least bit prepared for a true millennial (maybe 25-35 today?) to lead them. I believe the only way I have survived (and maybe you too) is that I do understand boomers better than someone who is currently 30 years old.

    That said, I do think location matters. Metro areas will tolerate a millennial pastor better than small town areas.

  • “While we might forgive each other for talking and swiping smartphones at the same time, Boomers and Builders believe it’s rude. If you talk with a Boomer while also checking your phone, then they will just turn on anger, tune in frustration, and drop out of listening to you.”

    If I had a dollar for every time my former pastor did this I would be able to buy a really fancy meal. I’m not even a boomer and that annoyed the living daylights of me. What was even worse was when I realized that they didn’t even listened to what I had said. I shut down and walked away feeling I didn’t have a pastor who cared. Pastors shut the phone off or mute it. It is so important to listen!

  • Quite beautiful and well thought out. There is an admissible apprehension in most established churches when the inevitable leadership transfer or change comes. For us in Africa, retirement comes with some major financial obligation for the church, they are easily open to calling a younger pastor who would stay a long while before retiring. However, the boomers are afraid to “lose our beloved church to this young uncontrollable and disloyal set of people. Nevertheless, the Multi-pastoral staff with actively inbuilt succession plan will help solve this challenge to some extent. But it must be noted that this change is upon us and nothing there is we can do to avert it. The millenials are in pole position to lead the church, prepared or otherwise.

  • I understand and recognize the need for such an article (and discussion). However, I am concerned about the Gen-Xers, or as I like to refer to them, the forgotten generation. Sam, I would argue that you are at least as much Gen-X as a millennial. Most millennials I know wouldn’t necessarily be writing the article you just wrote. That’s perfectly alright, but it points out that Gen-X is an important bridge between boomers and millennials. For the record, my birth year is 1979. And I too have been the first non-Boomer pastor in my last three pastorates. And I fully recognize that none of these congregations would have been ready for a truly millennial pastor. Perhaps the role of Gen-X is to be a transition piece between these larger, more influential generations. But I am surprised about the overall lack of acknowledgment of Gen-X in these sorts of discussions. In my anecdotal experience, Boomers have held on for so long, that many gifted Gen-X leaders have not had the opportunities to serve in similar capacities. Now, millennials are looking to make their mark, but they are not always wanting to wait in line patiently. It feels as if Gen-X is getting pinched out.

    • I would argue that you are already being proven wrong. Millennials aren’t willing to “wait their turn,” but because of their size, they don’t have to. Just like the giant Boomer generation, instead of waiting, millennial pastors are starting their own thing, and they are successful.

      It’s unfair to be a forgotten generation, but there is a reason we are. I, too, was born in 1979. We don’t get the luxury of starting from scratch, but we do get the privilege of leading boomers towards change and preparing for future ministry by revitalizing their churches.

      • I don’t disagree with your assessment. I agree that millennials are already doing church their way. I’m not sure how that makes me “wrong.” My primary contention is that Gen X is the needed buffer between two extremely distinct generations within more traditional churches. I don’t think you can adequately discuss those generations without dealing with Gen-X. For that reason, I felt compelled to respond.

    • I agree with this 100%. I also was born in 1979, and feel sandwiched in between Millennial and Gen-X. I definitely have some Millennial type tendencies, but with all of my staff being “true millennials” I find myself feeling more and more with Gen-X thoughts and feelings. I have also watched and experienced myself the Boomer pastors holding on for so long and not giving younger pastors a chance to lead. I am now about 5 years into a revitalization at my current church, and when I came it was all Boomers and older. It has definitely been a challenge leading people that are all similar age to my parents and older. The road has been rough at times, but God has been incredibly faithful. Not sure what the best answer is, but I do believe that Gen-X leaders have a very important role to play in the coming years.

    • William Alan Secrest says on

      Amen Allan. I could not agree more. I was born in 1974. Those of us who are Generation X constantly get ignored or passed over. I keep asking myself, “why are we so willing to cater to this Millennial generation.” I have been in ministry for 18 years and have served two churches in that time. I was the first pastor in both of those congregations who was from the X generation. It has not been easy but I learned that you have to be ready to listen more than you speak.

    • Thanks Allan… I share many of the same sentiments as you (I can’t quite get to the idea of feeling “pinched out” as we serve a sovereign God who chooses his leaders). Having been born in 1972, I consider myself a child of the 80s, and (at least from my perspective), have had a front row seat to the attitudes and strategies that were born in the post WW2 years through the 1960s not only show their age, but in many cases their profound ineffectiveness. The Church Growth movement would be a key example, but certainly not the only one. Of course Gen-X should be something of a “Bridger” generation, not only serving as a transitional generation between Boomers and Millennials (true for every generation to some extent), but also facilitating sound doctrine, discipleship, and unity in that role for those in front and behind us. In spite of the struggles that being faced now and the ones that are coming, I am hopeful for the days and years to come.

    • I’m a Boomer, and I appreciate both the article and the comments.

      Sam, thank you for the wise advice to millennials — and the not as overt, but still good, advice to boomers.

      Allan, I grieve with you for our gifted Gen-Xers who seem to be truly invisible or forgotten. I love the idea of looking at your generation as a bridge — and hope that churches will see that as an option. Generational diversity in the church and its leadership is so important!

      My church is in the pastor search process after our pastor of 22 years retired. We boomers know that we will soon have a pastor who is younger than we are — many of us, for the first time in our lives. Whether it is a millennial or an X-er, it’s my prayer that God will quickly validate the successor’s leadership — just as he validated Joshua following Moses and Elisha following Elijah. I pray that we will value the fresh perspectives that these generations will bring to our church.

    • Excellent thoughts, Allan! I’m definitely right at the cutoff. However, I relate more to Millennials because I’m the oldest sibling in my family. If right at a cutoff, the oldest in a family will relate with the younger generation because of siblings. If I was the youngest child, then I might relate more with Gen X.

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