On a flight not long ago, I sat next to a mom with a young son, a little seat-kicker named Bobby. It was clear that I was not going to get much work done, so I introduced myself to both of them, and she prodded the little tow-head to greet me. Which he did: "Gee, mister, you're old!"
Yes, I thought, and if you keep talking to people this way, you're not going to have that problem.
A few months after that, I was with a group of my old college buddies. We get together for a long weekend every year. Most of us are pastors so it's also a chance to talk shop and swap dreams and hurts. Each year we try to have one unusual experience, and that year we all took surfing lessons at Cowell's Beach in Santa Cruz. I still think of us as just a few years out of college, adults in the prime of manhood still mastering our crafts. But I got another glimpse of reality when one surfing instructor muttered under his breath to the other one: "I guess it's AARP day at the beach today."
Yes, I thought, but I guess it's not "Big Tip day" at the beach today.
All of that to say I suddenly find myself in a season that can be described as middle-aged only if I'm planning on living to be 110.
I find myself thinking—with a consistency and a sense of conviction—about the next generation of pastors and church leaders like I never have before.
Many people have noted that there is a "brain drain" of the brightest and best of Christian young people. A decreasing number of them are entering church ministry.
A historian friend, Jim Singleton, expressed the situation recently in stark terms. Around 1950, 10 percent of all Phi Beta Kappa college graduates became ordained clergy. Today, it's less than one tenth of one percent.
It's important to note that being a pastor is no holier than any other career (except maybe NFL replacement referee). But where spiritual communities are thriving, the opportunity to lead them tends to be highly prized. This is decreasingly the case.
There was a time when pastors were often recognized in their surrounding communities for their education and spiritual influence. Newspapers would sometimes print Sunday's sermon. That is no longer the case.
This loss of status may not be altogether bad. Being a pastor shouldn't be pursued because it's high status work. God does not require educational credentials or high IQ's to carry out the work of the kingdom. The New Testament records Jesus' followers being "ordinary, unschooled men." However, if the church becomes the kind of movement that people do not want to lead because it ceases to be a vital force of good, we have a legitimate leadership crisis. And we see signs of that on many fronts.
Writer David Briggs noted that the percentage of people in congregations led by someone age 50 or younger declined from 49 percent in 1998 to 42 percent in 2007, what researchers for the National Congregations Study called "a remarkable change in only nine years."
The clergy age gap is particularly noticeable in mainline churches. In that same span of time, the average age of clergy in white, mainline Protestant denominations increased from 48 to 57, the congregations study found.
The United Methodist Church has over 16,000 clergy, but fewer than 1,000 are under 35. They are not the only such group. At current rates mainline churches are going to quit requiring an M.Div. and start mandating botox. Seminaries overall are experiencing decreasing enrollment and increasing financial problems.